Category Archives: Home Tools and Accessories

Spring Color Palettes

The Art in Artichoke

There’s just something about April: Chaucer talked about the showers, T. S. Eliot said it was the cruelest month, and travel agents call it a “shoulder season.” Though to me April means doing a lot of weeding, I think it’s also a great time to develop a nature-oriented paint scheme for freshening up your interior.  My friend the architectural colorist Tina Beebe once told me to look no further than the artichoke for one of nature’s most elegant color palettes so, since artichokes are now in season, let’s start here. Cut one open, as this photo (courtesy The Delicious Life) shows and you’ll find a surprising range of spring hues to choose from. Now thanks to color matching websites you can develop a palette from

almost any image. Here’s the palette that deGraeve’s Color Palette Generator produced from the photo I uploaded. It’s appealing, with bright and dull versions, though it didn’t get the subtle violet at the center. Or how about this

image of a granite dock on the Maine coast. I like the greens and grays. Here’s how deGraves’s other color match website called Color Hunter isolated the hues.

You don’t get to see the original image alongside the isolated hues as you do with deGraeve, but Color Hunter’s black background makes the tones stand out. Though you should always allow for color variation on the computer as well as in print, this is a great way to develop a set of colors you like before confronting the dauntingly vast array of color chips at the hardware or paint store. Another way is just to print out an image of a space that appeals, like the living room of

Plan 496-1 by Australian architect Leon Meyer, then identify the color palette yourself. Here the white walls, black hearth, moss green fireplace front, and natural wood furniture work well together: it’s essentially a white background with major and minor accents. The living room in a Sea Ranch, California house designed by Tina Beebe and her husband architect Buzz Yudell offers

similar lessons. Here again, background colors, this time in wall plaster and concrete floor, are neutrals; accents are mostly primary with greens toned to echo the meadow grasses outside; the wood is unpainted. In short, paint palettes don’t need a lot of colors; simpler is usually better; materials like wood and concrete are part of a palette just like paint and fabric; and nature is often a very good place to start.

For a fine introduction to the subject see Design With Color, by Karen

Templer, who is the newest member of the Houseplans family. It includes a wide range of color schemes to help you articulate your own taste. And for an intriguing view of color history I recommend browsing Pantone: The 20th Century in Color, by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker, which

cleverly shows color palettes derived from popular culture, decade-by-decade. The authors isolate key colors from each period — for example, the Arts & Crafts Movement is represented by various artifacts, like a chandelier designed by

Greene & Greene and is paired with eight Pantone swatches. It’s fun to see how the authors derive the dominant colors for each era. It all shows how color taste changes and makes me wonder what a representative palette for the 21st century — so far — would be.

Historic Modern Houses to Tour, Garage Storage

The Architect’s Imagination

I recently attended a private benefit for U. C. Berkeley’s  Environmental Design Archives at an extraordinary Mid-Century Modern house. Designed by architect Ernest Born for himself and his wife Esther in 1951, the simple board and batten exterior (shown at left, photo by Morley Baer, courtesy EDA) literally draws a redwood curtain across the front of the house. See how the top rail reaches across the driveway to complete the geometric composition — like a curtain rack itself. The house is in a windy location near the ocean so the wall functions as a wind break as well as privacy fence. But what a surprise inside! You pass a galley kitchen under a balcony (that’s part upstairs hall, part study) and enter a sensational loft-like two story living room overlooking an expansive rear garden — this view is from the balcony. The monumental two-story square window wall functions as a gigantic lens for looking out and looking in and effectively doubles the size of the indoor world. The fireplace is treated as a geometric sculpture —  — the brick firebox resting on a cantilevered hearth and fronted with vertical wood strips below the cylindrical chimney. It’s clear that Born was influenced by Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City of 1948 with its iconic square window, mentioned in earlier posts, but there’s also a strong resemblance to the loft-like living room of the Charles and Ray Eames house near Santa Monica of 1949, shown at left  — though in the Eames house the window wall is treated as a more complex grid, steel ceiling ribs extend outside to form a canopy, and a wall of books extends along one side (image courtesy Gabriel Ross Blog, which covers modern furniture, lighting, and home accessories). Experiencing the Born house — which also has a beautiful and deftly composed contemporary addition by Aidlin Darling Design — see the three-story addition on the left in the photo above (by Dwight Eshliman, courtesy the architects) — made me look for significant modern houses that you can tour by appointment. Spring is the best time to explore — here are my current top five (not including the Eames house and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, discussed in previous posts).

Los Angeles, California. The Schindler House (part of the MAK Center) by Rudolph Schindler of 1921 is really two living units and was built for Schindler and his wife, and his engineer colleague Clyde Chase and his wife. The tilt-slab  concrete-and-glass construction was both forward-thinking and historically minded, with outdoor fireplaces and roof decks. The entry fee includes a visit to the Fitzpatrick-Leland house of 1936 also designed by Schindler (however, only on the first Friday of every month — photo courtesy MAK Center).

Dearborn, Michigan. Futurist-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller’s famous round steel Dymaxion House of 1947 (though initially conceived in the late 1920s) is one of the exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum. The name was invented by a publicist who followed Bucky Fuller around and eventually combined parts of words that he seemed to use a lot as he was speaking about his inventions: “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” The shiny metal structure — a sort of cross between a spaceship and a souffle — was meant to be a prototype for efficient modern living, though only one was built. Two prefab bathroom units and a kitchen pod are at the center, ringed by living areas and the two bedrooms.

Norman, Oklahoma. An organic original. The Bavinger House of 1950 by the brilliant and eccentric Bruce Goff, who studied for a short time with Frank Lloyd Wright and developed new versions of the quonset hut during World War II, is one of the most unusual modern houses in the U. S. In concept it’s a spiraling stairway under what feels like a tall tent. A series of living and sleeping platforms are suspended on cables along the stair like giant candy dishes. The modernity is in the openness of the interior, the free-form structural conception, and the novel use of materials.

Plano, Illinois. The levitating, mirage-like, glass and white steel Farnsworth House, by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, takes modernity to an extreme. As Marc Myers wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal piece: it’s “part fishbowl, part tree house, and part transparent time capsule.” It was built for doctor Edith Farnsworth as a country retreat; only the bathrooms are enclosed. 

New Canaan, Connecticut. Architect Philip Johnson’s justly famous Glass House  of 1949 was heavily influenced by the Farnsworth house, but here, instead of floating over the landscape the structure is firmly grounded in it — in fact becoming an artful rearrangement of it. Again, only the bathroom (the cylinder) is enclosed. Johnson told the story of a visit by Frank Lloyd Wright: Philip met Frank at the front door. “Well, Philip” said Frank. “Am I inside or am I outside? Do I keep my hat on or do I take if off?” Johnson kept the building/landscape dichotomy front and center by prominently displaying an important 17th century landscape painting by Nicolas Poussin in the living room. Now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house is open for tours by appointment from May through November. The house is one small part of Johnson’s large estate, with many other buildings by him, including an underground art gallery and a lake pavilion, which can also be toured. (Photo courtesy The Glass House.)

Spring Cleaning

It’s interesting to note that few of these landmark modern houses have garages — apparently architects didn’t like dealing with the automobile (some still don’t). But spring is a good time to think about reorganizing. I saw these garage storage systems by Gladiator Garageworks in KBHome’s Greenhouse at the Home Builder Show and was envious. The units free up the floor space so there’s room for all kinds of tools and sports gear as well as cars. Brackets supporting the shelving click into horizontally grooved wall panels. Cabinets on casters add flexibility. Gladiator also has a new 66.5 inch bamboo-topped modular workbench with leveler legs for uneven floors.

So maybe this is how a modern architect would at least organize a garage, if not design one from scratch!

Appliance and Fixture News from IBS

Fire and Ice, Tub Gates, & More

At the recent Home Builder Show in Orlando many new product introductions seemed to contradict the current state of the economy. In fact, the power of invention seemed to be energized, as if companies have decided that now is the time to rethink for allure, efficiency, and flexibility. Here’s a quick round-up of appliances and fixtures that caught my attention.

The Solaris 36 MR from Heat & Glo is a see-through direct-vent gas  fireplace. I saw it installed in Professional Builder magazine’s  “Sea Breeze” Idea House, which was erected in the parking lot beside the convention center.

The two-sided fireplace is circular — it was set at eye level in a partition between the upstairs family room and sitting room.

It can have different surrounds and mounts to a typical 2 by 6 interior stud wall. The “razor burner” creates a single flame in a line across the face for a very sculptural effect. Fireplace as moongate? Washer-Dryer as art piece? The hottest new digital camera??!! It definitely “ignites conversation,” as the press material says. Perhaps something to consider for your media or play room — Fire it up when you want to watch a dvd of The Lord of the Rings to set an appropriate “Eye of Mordor” mood.

Or, for something colder, how about the new GE Monogram 30-Inch Fully Integrated Refrigerator.

Fully integrated here means that the refrigerator doors are equipped with an articulating hinge, “enabling them to be completely out of sight behind surrounding cabinetry.” There are three compartments: upper for fresh food; shallow middle drawer for frozen foods and ice; and a lower tall drawer with a uniquely flexible function: its temperature can be set from 5 degrees below zero to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, if you don’t need a lot of freezer space you can use the lower drawer as your mini-wine cellar. Ingenious — and a good solution for smaller kitchens.  Glass doors are also available for top and bottom compartments.

GE was also demonstrating their “Home Energy Display” (part of their “Nucleus energy manager with Brillion technology”), which will be available later this year.

When connected to a smart meter it can show consumers how much energy they are using in real time. A very good idea.

For aging gracefully in place, Kohler is now offering its “Elevance Rising Wall Bath.” (The names of these new products are becoming more and more linguistically and subliminally inventive — “elevance” cleverly makes you think of elegance and lifting at the same time and yet is totally made-up and GE’s “Brillion technology” makes you think of “brilliant” without actually spelling it…).

The ADA-approved bath has a chair-height seat and a foot well. You sit on the seat and then swing your legs into the bath.

Then lift the lightweight wall until it latches — that’s when the seal inflates to make the wall watertight. It also comes with a hand-held shower arm and optional bubble massage.

Squeaky floors are a common problem in new construction and so I was interested in attending the debut press conference on Paslode’s new TetraGrip fastening system.

It’s basically an 8-penny nail with a “barbed helix design.” It is driven with a spiral movement like a screw — with a special pneumatic nailer, also invented by Paslode.

According to Paslode the system has been tested on 200 new houses so far and there have been no call-backs to fix squeaky floors. Someday these hybrid nails might be just the thing to silence our own ancient and reverberating stair. Next week: more product and idea house reviews.

House Models and Three Dimensions

Speaking Volumes

In London last week I toured the “Introduction to Architecture” exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum and was instantly drawn to the architectural models on display.

Architectural models are both more realistic than two-dimensional drawings — as a way to represent three dimensional space — and more imaginary because they inevitably have a dollhouse quality. They provide serious information and a latent sense of play at the same time. Take this model of a Tudor style house,

neatly packed in its own traveling case. It’s compelling because it presents a bird’s eye view that immediately communicates the character of the design and seems to pop out of the box in a magical way:  it’s the tool as toy. Scale models also

make it possible to analyze closely details like columns, window and door proportions, and materials. The beautiful wood model of the iconic modern Villa Stein of 1927 at Garches, by Le Corbusier,

quickly illustrates the design’s innovative interplay between flatness and depth.

See how the planar front and rear facades with their flat ribbon windows contrast with the cut-away corners and larger, deeper openings on three sides. Contemporary photographs tended to show the house straight on

from the front

or rear, accentuating the planar quality (Both photos courtesy Oklahoma State). These images communicate the design’s graphic light-catching qualities — just as  two-dimensional floor plans usually do — but tend to obscure the way volumes interconnect. Unless you are already an architect or can read plans quickly, models just make a design easier to understand.

Long ago when I was in architecture school we spent a lot of time making cardboard models and sketching axonometrics or “axons” (perspective drawings) to explain our designs. Well that’s so, like — 19th century. Now, thanks to the exponential development of 3-D modeling software like Google’s Sketchup and Autodesk’s BIM (Building Information Modeling), 3-D drawings that can spin, turn, and tilt or that you can fly around are ubiquitous. Google’s 3-D Warehouse online is itself a fascinating resource where you can play with Frank Lloyd Wright’s early machine-age modern Robie House in Chicago

or his marvelous stone yacht of a house

on the beach at Carmel, California for Mrs. Clinton Walker (misidentified, incidentally, in the Sketchup model as the Martin house).  Or, if castles are more your taste, take a look at the Chateau Azay le Rideau,

with it’s many turrets, or Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria’s Schloss Neuschwanstein,

said to be one of the inspirations for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. You can see that this website quickly becomes addictive. All of the computer models are created by different individuals (many are designers and architects) to demonstrate what the open source software can do.

At Houseplans, 3-D images of houses are available for many designs, like Dan Tyree’s modern so-called “15 Degrees” Plan 64-166 for a sloping site,

which is drawn in a perspective view to highlight the way the design takes advantage of the hillside. Bud Dietrich’s drawings for his  Prairie Style Meadow North Plan 481-3

resemble models with the roof off so you can easily see how one room relates to another.

Our ultimate goal is to have as many plans as possible in 3-D presentations. Watch us evolve and revolve!

Outdoor Living Ideas

Contemporary Barbecues and More

May in the US means it’s time to start moving outdoors. Here’s a range of warm weather-oriented design ideas that caught my eye recently because they combine functions and forms in artful new ways. To use an old term often used in shelter magazines, they “do double duty” — with a certain panache.

Warming trends get a boost with two products from Fire Sense. One is a handsome round powder-coated steel fire pit

that comes with a hardwood top  so it can double as a cocktail table. It’s the HotSpot Solid Base Revolver Fire Pit Table, also available from Gaslog Guys. The Hot Spot Notebook Charcoal Grill

resembles a magazine rack (holding only the hottest publications, er coals, naturally). It folds flat for storage (also available from One Click MX), which would be a great help in places like my cluttered tool shed.

On the cooler side, try this reinvention of the  hospital curtain track as a privacy and shade screen across a lap pool.

It’s a clever idea even without the water and could be used under a projecting eave to protect any patio from harsh summer sun. This house for jewelry designer Georg Spreng and his family is by the Stuttgart firm  C18 Architekten (photo courtesy Daily Icon).

I like the way sculpture and furniture somersault together in this “Loopita” chaise by Mexican designer Victor M. Aleman.

which appears to be quite literally a twist on the conventional love seat — or  is that a loop de scoop or a mobius “dip”!

A bench by San Francisco’s Aidlin Darling Design comes alive as serpentine segments of redwood.

You perceive the parts  and the whole together and separately in an ingenious interplay between sitting and stretching — the practical waxes poetic.

A somewhat simpler seat, designed by Los Angeles architect Barton Phelps for his own garden, is all about rustic warmth.

A flagstone couch (covered with canvas cushions) is set into a retaining wall made of recycled concrete rubble. It absorbs the hot late afternoon sun and then radiates the heat at night to make a delightfully toasty spot for relaxing under the evening stars.

Fresh Air Home Design

Here’s a home plan that also takes advantage of the open air. It’s architect Gregory la Vardera’s Plat House 3 (Plan 431-13)  an expansion of his earlier design, and recently added to our Signature Plans Collection.

The shaded breezeway along one side

can  be modified to incorporate

a screen porch at one end, as shown here. It’s time to be outside or at least bring the outside inside.

EYE ON DESIGN: Carbon Dating

Firepits and Barbecues: The Remix

Dusk is my favorite time of day, especially now that spring is turning to summer, because I enjoy dinner outside — with a dry rose or some prosecco, naturally. That usually means sitting around an outdoor firepit or barbecue (when “spare-the-air” regulations permit). And though we need to be careful about particulates in smoke, according to The New York Times Magazine’s recent “Green Issue” barbecuing with charcoal is practically a net zero regarding carbon emissions. Whew! Summer still has some sizzle. But as I start to clean the big rusty black cauldron-on-a-tripod that is our grill, I wonder about alternatives that might bring our backyard into the 21st century. Here’s what I’ve found with a cool stainless steel look.


The sturdy propeller-like design of The Conmoto Outdoor Fire Pit reinvents the campfire for suburban life.


I’d call this one “Beyond The Pail!” or “Got Hot Milk?!” It’s the Eva Solo Tabletop Grill (porcelain and stainless steel with a teak stand) and takes the hibachi idea in an entirely new direction. I love it. Of course the charcoal should be equally well-designed…

I hope all this grilling has spurred your plan search. For a quick round-up of barbecue-friendly floor plans like the one shown below, Plan 544-1 by Steven Murphy, explore our Outdoor Rooms Collection.



NEWS AND IDEAS ABOUT HOME from Dan Gregory, Editor of,

NAHB aerial view


With more than 100,000 attendees and hundreds of exhibitors, last month’s International Home Builders Show in Orlando was a good place to see new building innovations (many before they hit the consumer market), identify home trends, and meet designers. Here are some new products that rose above the fray for me at least, and other highlights:

Viking ranges

Color in the Kitchen

Viking Ranges now come in much more than silvery stainless steel and black. These substantial units cook with color: rich red, cobalt blue, and vibrant orange.

MTI  Whirpools, Boutique Collection Sink

Basin and Range (Apologies to author John McPhee)

The rectangular ramp sink is appearing in more and more product lines. Usually the drain is at one end of the sink and the basin is a sloping rectangle, turning it into functional abstract sculpture. One particularly handsome version is the Boutique Collection of solid surface sinks by MTI Whirlpools.

GE SmartDispense Washer

Soap Opera Success Story

GE Profile introduced its remarkable new front load washer with “SmartDispense” technology coming to market in May 2008. A drawer at the base of the washer holds a 6-month supply of detergent and softener that’s automatically dispensed according to the size of the load. No need to lug those big jugs of laundry liquid home more than twice a year. I know a family with 8 children who are eager to have this mighty multi-tasking washer.

Green Day

Eco-friendly and energy-efficient products and ideas are burgeoning. We saw a number of gas and even electric tankless water heaters, which are more energy efficient than conventional gas water heaters because they only heat water when it’s needed. For example, Noritz offers a wide range of capacities.Viridian is a new company developing an electric tankless water heater that’s designed to run nearly 100 degrees cooler than other brands (while still providing the same hot water temperature­) so that the elements extract less mineral content from the water (which causes mineral build-up in the system). The product line is scheduled to debut in the fall.

Green guru architect Bill McDonough was at the show signing copies of his important book Cradle to Cradle written with chemist Michael Braungart, which goes beyond the mantra “Reduce, reuse, recycle” to propose taking nature itself as the model for making things. It’s really a new way of thinking about production. Provocative and fascinating.

laundry sink extension

laundry sink detail

Ideas to steal

The NextGen demonstration house introduced Lifeware a software that integrates a home’s lighting, security, thermostat, appliances, family photos, TV, and music onto one simple interface controlled by touch screens. It’s a version of the digital future. (But can you touch a screen and have the house clean itself and take out the recycling and garbage?? That’s what I want to know…) Balancing the futuristic elements were several good old fashioned space-saving ideas, including a laundry sink counter that folds out of the way when not in use, and a simple shelving system built over the toilet.

What Home Buyers Want

Better Homes & Gardens’ Consumer Preference Survey identified five key elements that people are looking for in a new home. Here they are. Do you agree?

1. An all-new kitchen that looks great, is fun to work in, and that’s more than a kitchen

2. The right amount and type of storage

3. A master suite that feels like a luxurious hotel room

4. Well-designed spaces that consumers can personalize

5. A separate, convenient, and sizeable laundry room

They’re useful criteria to consider as you explore the more than 27,000 plans at . Stay tuned!