Category Archives: Houses in Movies

Idea Collecting at Heath Ceramic’s New Tile Showroom

Beyond the Backsplash

I just toured the newly opened San Francisco showroom for Heath Ceramics — the famous mid-century modernist tile factory based in Sausalito — and found it full of suggestive ideas for storage and display, not to mention the vast array of products, from field tiles to tea pots, in colors and finishes that look positively edible. Husband-wife owners Robin Petravic and Cathy Bailey have turned a former linen shop and laundry located in the city’s Mission

District into an airy design lab and gallery. The building layout and renovation was designed by San Francisco architect Charles Hemminger; the showroom interior was done by the Los Angeles firm Commune. The palette of unpainted wood, concrete, glass, and tile evokes a spare Japanesque/Scandinavian esthetic, which seems very appropriate for the strong simple shapes and nature-based hues of the company’s products. The retail showroom wraps around a

clerestoried atrium that will soon house tile-making operations and a Blue Bottle Coffee cafe (dishware manufacture will remain in Sausalito). So you

will be able to sip from a classic Heath “Coupe” line cup while watching the tile for your backsplash emerge from the primordial clay. But here

it’s not only the tile that’s alluring — as shown by sample panels that swivel so you can see the colorful glazes in different lights — but also the ideas for

flexible and built-in cabinetry. The kitchen island is especially suggestive, with butcher block counters flanking the range  for easy food prep before cooking,

and open shelving for convenient pot and pan storage. The floating wall shelving (bolted to the studs) against the vivid blue tile backsplash creates a spacious uncluttered look. The unpainted wood makes a perfect foil for the

tile, ensuring its starring role. Setting the tile perpendicular to the counter edge so that it connects with the tile running up the wall creates visual continuity for a very clean and unified design. The display tables are on rollers

so they can be used to reconfigure the space or combine with other tables for larger arrays. Heath has also begun a program of rotating exhibitions here and is currently showing work by Japanese Master Akio Nukaga. In sum,

the space deftly combines art and commerce. In effect, everything in the space

is carefully curated to feed the imagination…Say, wouldn’t these tiles look great in an outdoor shower on a house like this one by architects Braxton

Werner and Paul Field, Plan 491-2. I can see placing it around the corner to the left, not far from the pool. On that panel by the last window — a tall accent wall of blue-green classic field tile, don’t you think?

Houses and the Academy Awards

Oscar as Client

In films, houses are often metaphors for a state of mind or an idea.  Residential settings in two recent Academy Award contenders are especially evocative — and show how design creates a mood. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, and Kim Cattrall but the isolated and foreboding modern house by the sea — where much of the action takes place — has an important supporting role. The house where the ex British Prime Minister (Brosnan) works on his memoirs with his ghost writer (McGregor) after the previous writer’s mysterious disappearance

is all geometric glass and concrete. The contemporary furnishings (by Walter Knoll Designs) in sombre grays and black, with a splash of blood red in the modern painting, exude corporate cool and the threat of danger. In the distance is the glass railing around the stair. Everything appears rational and visible and yet invisible at the same time — like the transparent railing itself. The orderly home office

where the writer is supposed to work telescopes the film’s core conceit.  Precisely positioned items  — juice bottles, manuscript pages, file box  — allude to a straightforward narrative, at least on the desktop. The modern window wall looking out on a severe landscape of sea grass, dune, and gray sky frames a view of apparent clarity, yet there’s hardly anything there. Or rather, what’s there is hidden below the surface, and every surface in the house is sleek or sharp or reflective. It’s not giving away the plot to say that nothing is as it seems; or everything is. The house is itself not a real house but completely invented; an impressive example of set designer Albrecht Konrad’s  artistry. Photos courtesy House of Anais blog.

In The King’s Speech (directed by Tom Hooper) Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue, meet in Logue’s office. This space is shabby but architecturally distinctive, even elegant, with mottled walls that look as though layers of wallpaper have been stripped away, leaded arched windows and a curved clerestory. It has what might be called “good bones.” (Set decorator Judy Farr and production designer Eve Stewart reworked existing  rooms in London’s stately Portland Place, built in 1775).

The rooms are seen in contrast to the stultifying formal palace interiors where the royals live. The clever juxtaposition is between preserving appearances and understanding reality, between the psychological causes of the stammer and the therapeutic cure — literally the stripping away of layers of restraint. Wallpaper-as-psyche! I love it.

Not that we all need gloomy modernity or the equivalent of the analyst’s couch to shape our days and nights. But it’s worth remembering that architectural space can produce strong emotional effects through structure, furnishings, and light. In other words every space is a potential stage set.  A while  ago, when I entered the stairway of an aggressively sculptural public library in Buenos Aires I felt physically compressed, as if the walls were closing in on me. A space that to my mind ought to have been all about movement, instead shouted constriction. Maybe it should have been used in a movie!

Shameless Self-Promotion Department

In other news, a very thoughtful article about appeared in The Washington Post last week. Real estate columnist Katherine Salant talks about some of the plans in our Exclusive Studio, including work by Sarah Susanka, and the Sea Ranch Cottages by William Turnbull, and explains the role of the architectural editor. So this is what I do!

John Lautner and How To Design the Client

Reach for the Sky!

Some artists create a new physical language. That’s what Los Angeles architect John Lautner did every time he designed a new house. Each project was a unique  exploration of structure, form, and material. The marvelous 2009 documentary Infinite Space by director Murray Grigor and editor/producer Sara Sackner deftly captures this remarkable restless spirit of invention. One of the film’s most powerful sequences  is the presentation of Lautner’s Mar Brisas house in Acapulco,

with its extraordinary sweeping swirl of suspended moat-as-railing beside a vast shoreline view (here are stills). This is where the film gets its title.

The heavy concrete structure appears weightless here, framing the wide vista, floating between earth and sky.The camera allows the viewer to float through the space as well.

Yes it’s an unusual design. When I interviewed the maverick Mr. Lautner many years ago he said something I have always remembered: “You not only need to design the house; you also have to design the site — and you have to design the client!” Many of Lautner’s clients were innovators themselves, enthusiastically embarking on journeys of discovery with their architect. Though such an approach might seem rarified, it really isn’t. In other words, the client and architect — or plan —  need to complement each other (and the site needs to be part of the house plan) in order for the project to be successful. That means doing your homework before you settle on a plan — knowing what exactly you are looking for and using the search process to establish your true  needs, wants, and taste — all  filtered through what you can afford. The plan purchaser (or client) needs to use the drawings (including layouts, sections, 3-D elevations, and photographs) to envision the completed house.

It’s both simple and complicated because you need to walk through each plan in your mind. In a sense you become the director of your own architectural documentary.

Here’s an image of the director Murray Grigor, far left; director of photography Hamid Shams, (middle); and Jack Hodges, operating the crane. According to editor/producer Sara Sackner: “That is how we made the movie — it’s called a Jimmy Jib and it’s a portable crane that is moved by the crane operator and has preset computerized moves for the camera, as well. It’s how we floated through the homes giving the viewer that feeling of moving through the space.”

I think we all need a Jimmy Jib — but until that happens it’s possible to use in a similar way, to fly over and through a great many plans all at once. The best clients have explored all possibilities and systematically narrowed a project down to key design elements. We can’t all be artists or artist clients but we can all use the available resources to educate ourselves as to what is possible. Of course not everyone can visualize 3-dimensional space from a set of drawings so if the movie metaphor doesn’t work for you try staking out a few rooms on your empty lot in order to get a better sense of a particular plan. In any case, before hiring the architect — I mean stock plan — you need to design the client that is you. Lights, camera, action! (Images courtesy Sara Sackner.)

Inception Begins in the Basement

Architecture as Foundation

As dream manipulator Dom Cobb in the film Inception — which here means planting an idea in the brain instead of extracting it — Leonardo DiCaprio says to young, artfully named architect Ariadne, well played by Ellen Page: “We always wanted to live in a house but we really liked these buildings.” They’re touring a super-dense dreamscape of modern highrises conjured out of a collage of real and fictional buildings. The poster provides a glimpse of an imaginary Downtown — see the gable-roofed wing of Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel peaking around a corner in the distance.

A nondescript hotel elevator lobby enjoys some suspenseful choreography. And the horizontally striped L. A. Department of Water & Power headquarters, shown below (courtesy forms the base of an immense “Seussian” skyscraper — in the clever phrase of LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who observed in a recent piece that, overall, it’s pretty bland architecture for a film that’s about imagination.







I agree (though I’m a big fan of the Water & Power building), but hey, then I discovered that the house Dom and his wife Mal actually called home is a Craftsman style landmark by Greene & Greene — at least according to the website Curbed.

The courtyard is shown above (it’s the Freeman Ford residence of 1907, courtesy Greene & Greene Virtual Archives, USC). In any case, several scenes take place along a hallway and in a wood-paneled dining room that definitely have the look of Greene & Greene. This image, not from the film but from











the Wood-and-Light website of author and photographer David Mathias — captures the honeyed atmosphere of the Cobb home. Sounds a little contradictory — they like slick, machine-like, contemporary but inhabit warm, hand-crafted, romance (or is that the other way around?), but then the mind is full of surprises and a good house plan website could always help them figure things out. And guess what, in one of the dream sequences you reach the house by taking a highrise elevator down to the basement: literally the foundation of all dreams, not to mention the source of all plumbing angels and furnace demons. Talk about Metaphorland!

Needless to say director Christopher Nolan’s film is an enthralling and very entertaining ride and planted the idea in my mind — inception indeed — that good architecture begins at home, perhaps even in the basement. (For more on the locations that were used in filming read the fascinating On the Road blog by Jerry Garrett.)

Which leads me to thinking that a basement should be built for brainstorms. Here’s one that includes a Sport Court:

It’s Dutch Colonial Plan 56-604. Or how about acing a bank shot in a game of billiards.

You can do that in the basement of Marcia Trionfale Plan 481-1 by architect Bud Dietrich. Of course basement garages work well in some situations,

as in Linacre Plan 496-1 by architect Leon Meyer. But media rooms might work best, as illustrated by Prairie Style Plan 56-601

in a  house on a slope, which allows for a wall of glass. A good place to watch building — I mean block — busters and dream about your new home.

Home as Avatar — and Other Movie Musings

Machines in the Garden

On the surface, Avatar, the blockbuster bailout of a movie by James Cameron, has nothing to do with home design but everything to do with a fevered and fertile visual imagination.

You probably know the sci-fi plot (see the excellent Wikipedia summation) about colonists mining “unobtanium,” an elusive rock to be sure, on the planet Pandora (diagram of the miners’ control room above), who have created avatars that let them mingle with the indigenous Na ‘ve population in order to get them out of the way.  It’s not so much a movie as a fabulous computerized “dark ride” through a lush jungle world

where nature is nurtured into a frenzied confrontation (image courtesy avatarplanet)

between Pocahontas and the Air Force (image courtesy Wired).

When I saw it with my younger daughter, who contributed the Pocohontas analogy, we could only get seats in the second  row and thanks to our 3-D glasses I kept swatting at or dodging the ferns, branches, flying beasts, and other hyper-realistic computer-captured characters that whipped or whizzed past. Exhausting but fun. 

So my point is? Home is the ultimate avatar, whether machine or forest. It represents us to the world and is our refuge and second skin. Architectural sociologist Clare Cooper-Marcus’ groundbreaking book House As A Mirror of Self (Nicolas-Hays, 2006) details this phenomenon through her case study research with more than 60 individuals. As she states: “At the base of this study is a very simple yet frequently overlooked premise. As we change and grow throughout our lives, our psychological development is punctuated not only by meaningful emotional relationships with people, but also by close, affective ties with a number of physical environments, beginning in childhood.”

This is true in my own experience: when I was teaching architectural history at Carnegie-Mellon University, I asked my students to write a short essay about their college living environments. Some described their dorm rooms as a kind of refuge; others as a public meeting place. In effect, each room became a reflection of psychological need, an avatar if you will. The trick is to understand your “inner home” (the Na ‘ve people’s Hometree and Tree of Souls? Unobtainium?) without launching rockets at it — or getting a divorce.

Associations Are Important

Another film actually uses a house to tell part of the story. In Nancy Myers’ It’s Complicated the home of amicably divorced baker and restaurant owner Jane Adler, played by Meryl Steep, is a beautiful tile-roofed adobe, supposedly in Santa Barbara

It's Complicated house via Traditional Home

though actually in Thousand Oaks (photo courtesy Traditional Home) a spiffed up version of classic adobe style houses

from the 1920s and early 1930s, like the Donald Dickey guest house in Ojai by architect Palmer Sabin, or

the E. L. Doheny Ranch at Santa Paula Canyon by architect Wallace Neff. And because the owner is a chef

It's complicated kitchen set via Trad Home

it has a great kitchen with dazzling light and a seductive Carrara marble-topped island (photo courtesy Traditional Home). The house as presented by set decorator Beth Rubino is warm, comfortably contemporary, and richly historical all at the same time. In other words, it’s a house with a past and an air of contentment about the present. And it represents an ideal of modern-day, food-and-garden-centric Southern California. It’s like living inside a large tile-roofed croissant. Adobe bricks and terra cotta tiles, are, after all — baked.

The Adler character’s momentary fling with her ex-husband drives the movie but in the end doesn’t affect the character of the home. In fact, it seems fitting that she ultimately falls in love with the architect who is designing her new kitchen addition. The home and the character are “moving on” to the next stage of their lives. For more on the rationale behind the set design see the film’s Production Notes and a brief interview with the director at Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau. Our homes — whether sci-fi trees or adobe ranch houses — are yeasty metaphors indeed.