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Friday, December 17, 2010

Joanna Howells: A Potter in Wales

One of the United Kingdom’s most innovative potters lives in Wales with her husband Tony in a small house with a big garden. In the summer we sat for hours in the tiny conservatory (more like a glass shed really) that spills out to the terrace. In the winter we curl up with the dogs next to the fireplace in the living room, which enfolds you. A few steps from the house is a sturdy looking boxy building that houses the kiln and wheels. When we’ve gone to visit them we are too busy eating and talking about politics and family to talk about pots. We conducted this interview by email.

Q: You went to Cambridge to study medicine. How did you end up a potter?

Howells: I took physics, chemistry, maths and ceramics ‘A’ levels. My family were all scientists, and at the age of 17 I had my life planned – I was going to do medical research. Taking ceramics at A-level was a way of getting myself out of ‘General Studies,’ which was compulsory, but was a subject that was used as padding of the timetable. Students and teachers regarded it as a waste of everyone’s time.

Q: Sometimes the most valuable lessons are found in the wasted time.

Howells: I had always been interested in making things as a child. I had gone through various phases, including carpentry, wood carving, knitting, lace making and I drew all the time. That first contact with clay, though, was both memorable and gripping. I was hooked. In my first two years at Cambridge, I continued to make pots, and by my last year, I decided to go to art school, instead of going on to do clinical training in a hospital. A friend of mine had managed to get himself an invitation to go and view Henry Rothschild’s superb collection of 20th century studio pottery, and said, “I know someone who’d like to come too.” That, of course, was me. Through Henry Rothschild, I met Colin Pearson, who advised me on where to go to study – which was Whitechapel and then the studio pottery course at Harrow followed.

Q: Why did you decide to work mostly in porcelain?

Howells: While at Cambridge I haunted the Fitzwilliam Museum, and their collection of early Chinese and Korean porcelains were the pieces that inspired me to be a potter. In our first year at Harrow we were only allowed to use stoneware and I always struggled to make it attractive. I was interested in form and texture, and I always felt that stoneware needed a lot of ‘covering up.’ My breakthrough came when we had an assignment to make a porcelain tea-set. I loved it and I think it allowed me to think in the manner of the pieces which had early inspired me – those early Song celadons. Porcelain seems to me to be almost artless, transparent, and open. It can be left virtually ‘naked,’ and therefore has a fresh and direct quality. I think that is what attracts me most.

Q: The pieces are almost like flesh. How do you create these glazes?

Howells: My early interest in science and research becomes useful in the development of new glazes. It’s a fascinating blend of imagination, understanding of fundamental materials that make glazes, then intuition, perseverance, and serendipity. Just like any research, in fact. Sometimes, I have a clear idea of what glaze surface I’m trying to achieve, and with others, it is a case of figuring out how to use to best advantage a glaze effect one has stumbled upon.

Q: I see contradictions inherent in your work. Porcelain is very hard to work with and often breaks during firing. Should it survive the firing process it remains fragile. Is the symbolism of fragility and survival part of its appeal for you?

Howells: Very much so – I find it fascinating that this material embodies both immense durability and fragility. Ceramic will not wear or degrade over time – it is the material that survives intact and unchanged from the earliest civilisations. Yet it is fragile and easily broken if not handled with respect. Porcelain is fired to the highest temperature of all ceramic bodies, yet it has an aura of delicacy and fragility. It is also extremely white and fine. These are both images of purity and spirituality – trial by fire is one of the purification rites that come down to us from myth and the colour white has the same connotations. The contradictions that porcelain embodies do make it intriguing and containing a certain mystery and an echo of humanity – in the intense physical journey it has taken to come into being.

Q: Can you talk about other symbols that can be found in your work?

Howells: In ‘Ceramics’ Philip Rawson writes of “…the primal interweaving of matter, human action, and symbol that each pot represents. Inert clay, from the earth is made into something that is directly and intimately related to active craft, to the processes of human survival, and to social and spiritual factors in the life of man, all at once.’

Ceramic represents the transformation through fire of what is basically mud into a vessel – a container. In my medium of porcelain, that transformation is the most extreme – into something, which has pure, ethereal, heavenly and imperial overtones and so represents the most complete transformation of what is basically mud or dirt into a thing of value and elevated status. I used to concentrate very much on the colour (or perhaps non-colour) of white and very pale celadon blues and greens, but I have recently become interested in using the ‘Chun’ blue effect. ‘Chun’ glazes are blue by virtue of the scattering of light, due to the millions of microscopic bubbles that form in the glaze. This makes the glazes opalescent and with an ‘optical’ blue effect. A similar process by which the sky appears blue. A Chinese description of Chun blue is ‘the colour of the sky after rain. The colour blue is interesting symbolically, as it contains many and often contradictory images. A byword for misery and depression (as in ‘the blues’) – yet more than 50% of the world’s population cite blue as their favourite colour. I am in the middle of writing an essay about the meaning and metaphors of blue as it is a colour on which more than one ceramic tradition has been built.

Q: Tell us about the idea of “The Way We Live Now.”

Howells: ‘The way we live now’ was an exhibition in which I examined aspects of contemporary culture. Functional objects in craft are often portrayed as being without the ability to include what are thought to be the essential conceptual element of ‘Art’. With works such as the ‘Joanna-Pak Jug, ’‘No time for a break,’ ‘Pyramid Selling,’ ‘Stay-Home Dishes’ there was commentary on our consumer and disposable society, the shift of our eating, shopping, and cooking habits, work/life balance and so on. It was important however, that each element was a fully functional piece.

Q: How does living in Wales influence your work?

Howells: Wales provides many influences on my work. I continue to draw, and try to take a sketchbook with me when I go out walking. I live a mile from the sea, and the textures of water and sand are definitely reflected in my work. Then there are the cliffs and rocky, fossil-encrusted beaches, which inspire a more primitive response to the immense geological forces that shaped the landscape. My ‘Chthonic’ pieces (chthonic means primeval) have some resonances of this. I do not consciously use these influences, however. They are filtered through my subconscious and appear through some rather mysterious process of assimilation and reinterpretation, rather than a literal attempt to portray them in clay.

I have just started developing some new work using leaves and flowers to create etched, fossil-like impressions. This started with thoughts of using my garden as a theme. The ideas I am playing with are at the same time seasonal in that the leaves are only available at certain times, yet become transmuted to the ageless quality of the fossil. There is that fragile/durable dichotomy again.

For more information:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Looking for Billy Baldwin

I always wanted to have an apartment like Billy Baldwin’s. Finally I got to live in a high-rise and have a little desk in my living room. Still don’t have the slipper chairs. I search the Internet for articles about him and for tips on where to purchase his best designs. (Shortcut: Ventry Limited, Bielecky Brothers.) His best work was his most contemporary. What I would have done for Si Newhouse’s white art-filled living room! As soon as Rizzoli published Billy Baldwin: The Great American Decorator, I ordered it. Many of the images are also in Baldwin’s earlier books, which took me to back to my late teens and early twenties, when I poured over those volumes fantasizing about living a bigger life in Manhattan.
Billy Baldwin's apartment with the famous slipper chair
Billy Baldwin's apartment
Kenneth Hair Salon
New York
In my first blog, I mentioned an early childhood memory of seeing Mrs. Gilbert Miller’s Mallorca house in the pages of House & Garden. The indoor/outdoor terrace confused my young mind, but I never forgot it. Several years later, as a teenager, I opened the heavy brass and glass door on Grant Avenue and walked down a few steps into Tiffany’s perfumed tranquility, designed by Billy Baldwin (with Tiffany’s design director, Van Day Truex.) I wanted to live there. Who would have thought that Tiffany’s San Francisco outpost occupied a windowless ground floor of a parking garage (that was once a great department store)? It was hushed and elegant, but not intimidating. The slip-covered sofas were small, complemented by black lacquer Parsons tables and Bielecky Brothers cane side chairs and just a little shiny brass. Even if all I could afford was a modest vase or drinking glass, I felt truly swell for those few minutes. I understood what Holly Golightly was up to.

Mr. and Mrs. Harding Lawrence Residence
Dallas, Texas
Cole Porter's apartment.  Rendering by Mark Hampton
Mr. and Mrs. William Paley's Apartment
St. Regis Hotel, New York
By high school, I knew all about Billy Baldwin and his slipper chair. His simple one-room apartment seemed like the epitome of an elegant New York life out of reach. One of the first design books I bought was Billy Baldwin Decorates, essentially reprints of articles he wrote for House & Garden. He wrote another book, Billy Baldwin Remembers. And then his heir, Michael Gardine, prepared an autobiography that was a bit more gossipy.…

Arango Apartment
Madrid Spain
Now there is Billy Baldwin: America’s Greatest Decorator, by Adam Lewis, who has written biographies of designers Van Day Truex and Albert Hadley. The good news is twofold. There are a few images that have not been seen in any of the previously published books. And the lectures Baldwin gave at the Cooper Hewitt in 1974 are published for the first time. The bad news is also twofold. Lewis’s text contains little new information, and the writing is as stilted as in his other two books. Perhaps worse, at least for a design book, is the uneven quality of the images. Some of the photographs are reproduced beautifully, as you expect from a Rizzoli book, while other images, many of them by the famous photographer Horst, appear to be scans from magazines. Jane Thompson’s recent book about Design Research (published by Chronicle) faced a similar challenge of uneven visuals, but the clever design by Pentagram fixed that. Not so here. The design does not mitigate the uneven reproduction quality. Some of the fuzzy pictures are full pages! When confronted with relatively few visuals, the designers of Lewis’s earlier volume on Van Day Truex resorted to a smaller format. That might have been a good choice here, although the subtitle wouldn’t have made sense. And small books don’t sell as well. I am not sure that Baldwin would want something that was not as tailored as his upholstered furniture.

Mrs. Clive Runnells Residence
Hobe Sound, Florida
Lewis interviewed several people, but many of the key folks are dead, including Michael Gardine and Way Bandy, who provided Baldwin with his final home on Nantucket. Baldwin retired in 1973 and died in 1983, apparently broke. The narrative isn’t compelling and doesn’t capture Baldwin in his time. Lewis writes about Baltimore’s upper middle class, which Baldwin grew up in, and then about the superwealthy that Baldwin catered to in New York and elsewhere. But Lewis provides little insight or analysis. And he adds little color or texture to the tale. (Odd, given Baldwin’s love for both.) Although Lewis says Baldwin lived as an out gay man, he rarely mentions Baldwin’s homosexuality, treating it as if it shouldn’t be discussed. While that might have been a hallmark of the time, I am not sure it was Baldwin’s way. Curiously, the author doesn’t connect Baldwin’s father’s disapproval to his initial false starts and his later ambition and incredible success. Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t really place Baldwin in any larger context than the upper reaches of the Upper East Side.

For a glimpse into Baldwin’s actual life, I would suggest an interview Baldwin gave to Francesco Scavullo in the 1970s for the book Scavullo Men. (There are also a lot of great interviews with leading cultural figures of the time, like Leo Castelli, Henry Geldzahler, Leo Lerman, and Sam Wagstaff.) This interview is not listed in Lewis’s bibliography, and I think that is a serious omission. When asked if he was spoiled, Baldwin refers to his mentor Ruby Ross Wood: “I really pity most rich people, and I don’t want to see very many of them. I think they’re boring. My old boss, Ruby Wood, said to me ‘Now, Billy Baldwin, you’re coming here from that nice town and you’re going to have a hard time because New York is very tough. But don’t forget one thing: you’re going to see an awful lot of rich people. You get as much of their money as you can. That’s all they’re worth—money—and we’re lucky because we’re going to get some of it.’” Baldwin is quite open about being “1000 percent homosexual” and about how he looks on serving the superrich and what it meant to be gay. When asked, “As a man, what were your feelings about becoming a decorator?” he replies, “Since the day I was born I’ve never had the slightest idea of being gay. It just seemed perfectly normal.”

With both of Baldwin’s volumes out of print, Lewis’s book provides a survey, if not a critical look, at the great decorator, who by the way loved being called a decorator. In the Scavullo interview, Baldwin responds to the question about the difference between a designer and decorator by saying, “Michael Greer, if you please, was the first person to call himself a designer so people wouldn’t think that he was gay. Designer is supposed to make a man of you. It’s perfect crap.” Despite its shortcomings, the volume is important for the library of future decorators—and designers too.

All images (unless otherwise noted) courtesy Rizzoli USA.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Handmade Portraits in the Modern Age

A Conversation with Leslie Williamson

Handcrafted Modern by Leslie Williamson

Every now and then, a book arrives which is not just a handsome presentation of information but also a completely satisfying aesthetic object. This was the case with Handcrafted Modern by Leslie Williamson, which was released a few weeks ago. Her photographs of modernist homes capture something of the inhabitant and his or her pattern of living. But they also reveal something more. Something of the life of the creator of the space.

The linen cover and the layout of the book complement the beautiful photos. Leslie’s informal and personal text adds another layer of witness. Leslie and I met at my office recently to talk about her work.

Q: How did you decide to become a photographer?

A: I grew up in San Jose, and I always did art. From the age of about 8, I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I hated to draw and hated to sew. This was a problem. Of course, this was before the entire world wanted to be a fashion designer. It was rather unusual then.

Out of high school, I was studying fashion illustration, a foundation year at art school, and I just decided to stop. I thought I would change my major to photography because taking pictures was faster than drawing. That was completely wrong, of course, but something about me and photography worked. It stuck.

Sink at Wharton Esherick Home

Q: When and where did you study photography?

A: I took my first photo class was when I was 21 at Foothill Junior College in Los Altos, California. After a year, I applied to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and got my undergrad degree from there. I thought I was going to end up shooting fashion, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to shoot fashion every day. I liked photographing real people.

Q: Did you intend to shoot architecture and interiors?

A: I have always been into design, but I never shot interiors in any serious way. Most of my work has been shooting people, portraits for magazines and advertising . The closest I got to shooting interiors was doing work for Travel + Leisure. I would shoot a story for them, and it always required a restaurant shot or an interior in a hotel, but that was completely different to my approach to shooting interiors for my book. I don’t consider myself an architectural photographer.

Q: How did the idea for the book come about?

A: I needed a break from photography, so I took a job at William Stout Architectural Books. I was in charge of interiors, photography, and furniture design books—all of my loves.

Q: You mean downstairs?

A: Yeah, downstairs was my domain. I still get emails from clients who ask me about photo books. I would still take interesting photo assignments when they came, but most of this time, I was at the bookstore full time.

I think the idea was already in my head before I worked there, but I visited Palm Springs and got a little obsessed with Albert Frey’s home. This was April 2005. I started asking around and found out that you could gain access to his house for architectural study and research. Frey had left his home to the Palm Springs Museum so that one of his buildings would be kept intact architecturally. I got the idea then, but I figured we would have a book like that at Stout.

Albert Frey's Home

So when I got back, I looked around at the bookstore thinking that this kind of book would exist. But it didn’t. There were a few books on architects’ homes. I like looking at those archival images, but I wanted something more. How do designers live with their own work? What sits on the bedside table? What books do they own? The images in my book are all portraits of people through their home. I shot the book that I wanted to buy.

Early on, and through much of the process, I just called it the Book Project. I never sat down and made a plan. I am not sure I knew what “doing a book” really meant. If I had thought it out, I might have never finished it. But I just couldn’t stop shooting this once I started. It was a rather organic process. When I got a big job, I would shoot a house or two. I only had a publisher for the last year or so.

Q: After Frey’s, what was the second house you shot?

A: Gropius’s was next. That was when I realized that everything had to be in the house, as intact as possible. It is about the house and the stuff. Gropius’s daughter arranged the house just as it was on a day in the 60s. It is sublime in its detail.

Walter Gropius's desk

Q: How did you connect with Rizzoli?

A: I met Dung Ngo, one of the senior editors, at the bookstore. I told him I was working on a book, and he was very kind. He had just started at Rizzoli, I believe. Whenever he came back to San Francisco, he came into the store. I sent him contact sheets throughout the project, and he would encourage me to keep going.

Q: Did you know you were a writer as well as a photographer? I really enjoyed the text.

A: I knew I was an OK writer, but I had not done it since college. My writing the book was a matter of necessity. It turned out that the money for the writer would come out of my advance. I needed all of the advance for the photography expenses. I shot everything on film. Plus there was travel, shipping, and of course all the film processing. Most of the time I was working at Stout’s. I couldn’t afford to stop.

So I said I could write it and sent Dung a writing sample. I wrote four chapters in the third person and threw them all away. Luckily, I figured out I had to write in the first person for it to be any good.

Q: But the text doesn’t seem overly personal or self-centered.

A: That’s because I am a fan. I just love these people. I get choked up. And meeting them makes you love them more. Just being able to spend time in the houses and look at their life through their possessions and how they lived.

Even though I am not an expert or a historian, I realized that I had to be the one writing because no one else had my experience being in these homes for two days. Whatever I know is because I look and observe and wonder what the story is. If something piques my interest, I am like a dog with a bone.

Q: What were your criteria for including a house?

A: At the most basic level, I had to really love the house—how it looked, I mean—and the work of the designer who lived there. But other criteria formed as the project went on. Nothing crazy and rigorous…

Q: What kind of camera do you shoot with?

A: A medium format. Mamiya RZ67.

Q: Why do you still use film?

A: I think it’s richer. It’s more beautiful. But also, I started the book on film, so I was adamant that I had to finish that way.

Q: How did you get into all these incredible houses?

A: For the first few, I wrote formal letters. That would be Frey, Gropius, Esherick, Nakashima, and Russel Wright. Honestly, it wasn’t that difficult. And once I had those five, it got easier.

 George Nakashima's Home

Q: Some of the houses are relatively well known, like Eames’s or Gropius’s, but others are not.

A: After I had shot about seven houses, it started to get a bit harder. I had big names, but I wanted unknown gems that no one knew about. So I researched. Irving Harper I knew about, and he had not been seen that much. He has a computer, but he doesn’t use it. So I called him.

Once you start shooting, people start telling you about other houses. I would get a name and research them online, and of course I was spoiled at the bookstore. My friend Cathy Bailey at Heath recommended a couple of places.

 Irving Harper's Studio

Q: Were there some you didn’t get?

A: There are a lot I didn’t get. I wanted to do Oscar Niemeyer but couldn’t. I even got the OK to photograph Finn Juhl’s house. I was all set to go to Copenhagen, but the house got broken into. Then they were handing it over to the Danish Government and asked me to come on really short notice. So it didn’t happen. But it became clear that because of budgetary reasons, this book would focus on just North America.

Russel Wright's Home and Studio

Q: What links all of these houses and designers?

A: I guess the main thread is that I was in love with the house and the work. The interior told a story about the person. But also, there is a thread running through all of these designers—whether furniture or product design or architecture—in that most are from the same general era, except for Wharton Esherick.

Vladimir Kagan's Apartment

John Kapel's Home

Q: Where did the title come from?

A: I didn’t have a title for a long time. Of course the houses are not all handcrafted. The Eames house is basically prefab. The title is not about the structure of the house in every case, but about what you make of the interior of the house over time and how it evolves. There was talk of calling it Handmade Modern, but that didn’t feel right to me. These homes were more handcrafted over time. That title stuck. Handcrafted Modern.

The Eameses Living Room

Q: What about the outtakes, about what we don’t see?

A: I shot 250 to 300 images per house. That’s a lot of pictures! In doing the book, we edited it down to what gave the best idea of what it feels like to be in the house. I ordered it so it was a walk through the house, but there is only so much space in a chapter. I am putting some of the outtakes on my blog.

J.B. Blunk Home at Sunrise

Q: Did you work closely with the graphic designer?

A: Dung knew I had to work with somebody here because I was going to be so hands on. I worked with Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman of Volume Inc. They totally got the idea. They found this gorgeous typeface and came up with the concept that you are looking through a keyhole, which can be seen on the title page of each chapter. I thought it was perfect.

Q: Over the course of working on the book, what changed in you?

A: I feel like I really found my calling shooting this book. I have no doubt I will continue documenting and shooting homes in this way for the rest of my life as well as shooting these people’s portraits when I can. I think that the way I shoot makes these people more accessible and human. I hope the way I shoot shows these people’s humanity as well. I don’t want to shoot just designers and artisans either, although that is where my heart tends to go. I just like people who are passionate about what they do. Don’t get me wrong, it helps to have great furniture and a cool interior, and these homes I shot for Handcrafted Modern have that in spades. But there are other places I am dying to shoot that have nothing to do with design at all. I have a list started. It is getting pretty long.… I really want to shoot Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms in London. I literally dream about that place.

Self Portrait at Henry Varnum Poor's House

More info can be found at:


All photos courtesy Leslie Williamson

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Day Time

Celebrating Robin and Lucienne Day

courtesy of Design Onscreen

It’s time for Robin and Lucienne Day to have their moment in the light. Too-long regarded as the Charles and Ray Eames of the UK, their individuality and accomplishments will finally receive due credit with the release of a new film, “Contemporary Days,” followed by the opening of an exhibit next year at the Pallant House Gallery in the UK. Embarking on their prolific careers in furniture and textile design during the turmoil of post-World War II England, the young married couple found themselves in a challenging environment in which to promote design as social vision; the country had been heavily bombed and was without basic materials well into the mid-1950’s. But the Days shared, among other things, a deep optimism for modernism’s potential to help steer the war-torn country in a new direction.

Contemporary Days: The Designs of Lucienne & Robin Day from Design Onscreen on Vimeo.

The film, directed by Murray Grigor, tells the Day’s story in a straight-forward manner through several interviews with people who worked with them. There are more recordings of Lucienne Day, so her voice is more prevalent, but the viewer doesn’t sense that either she or Robin dominated. While the Eames’ collaboration was largely represented through Charles as the spokesperson, the Days pursued their own interests independently and had separate studios right next to each other. Despite this autonomy, Robin’s furniture and Lucienne’s fabrics work well together because of their shared vision rooted in the education (at the Royal College of Art) and wartime experience they shared. Both of them wanted to shape Britain’s modernity after the war.

Not surprisingly, in this post-war context, excess ornament seemed pointless, so Robin’s minimal furniture felt right for the moment. Many of his designs were successfully produced for the low-cost market, in particular his stacking wood, and later, plastic chairs. But when permitted a bit of luxury his work could be almost whimsical, like his some of his pieces for the Festival Hall in 1951. The wood arms feel like wings that might lift the chair into space.

Looking back at Lucienne’s textiles, many designed for Heal’s Department store, we find beautifully drawn and colored patterns. The repeats are subtle and the designs look timeless. Some of them have been reintroduced by Classic Textiles, and Unica Home carries modest, limited edition tea towels.

Calyx textile courtesy of Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III
Collection of British Textiles

The executive producers of the new film, Denver-based collectors H Kirk Brown and Jill A Wiltse, are also loaning their extensive collection for the Pallant Gallery exhibit next year. Their effort and commitment to celebrating the couple’s work have been instrumental in giving the Days this moment.

While the Days were a charismatic and successful couple – with their good looks, beautiful voices, and winning competition entries – they more importantly shared a profound talent and a desire to create change in a challenging time. They had faith in the future. In our own age, perhaps environmental awareness and more efficient technologies may renew the power of design to steer us in a more sustainable direction. The talented young optimists are somewhere among us.

Robin Day passed away on November 9th at his home in Chichester, England.

More Information:

The movie:

The exhibit in 2011:

The textiles:

The tea towels:

The interview:

courtesy of Design Onscreen

Monday, October 11, 2010

Design District Ramble

The new Restoration Hardware showroom on Henry Adams

Walked down the street the other day to check in on the new Restoration Hardware Showroom that replaced Ed Hardy’s antique emporium in at the San Francisco Design Center. The garden draws you in, but the store makes you want to turn around and run. It felt like an oversized dark nightclub with lots of puffy linen furniture or a nightmarish exaggeration of an undertaker’s office. Not a spec of color, just grey, grey, grey. Ed Hardy’s space worked because he found ways to bring in the light and make each nook enchanting, if somewhat unaffordable. The gardens were pure delight – now you may not reach the rear courtyard.

The courtyard is the best part of the new Restoration Hardware Showroom

The nice entry garden

Set for a funeral party

Inside the undertaker's chamber

Light at the end of the tunnel

The line between wholesale and retail has gotten increasingly fuzzy down there in the design district. Some showrooms won’t let you in without a decorator, others will. In the long run this may be good for transparency, if not profit. But when a retailer makes such a huge investment with such little impact you wonder what the future of design driven retail might be. If you want neutral, Room & Board is just a few blocks away and a far more pleasant environment than Restoration Hardware. Less Faux France though. In these budget times you can often see a decorator walking the floor with a client. While I like Room & Board I think of it as a source of big background pieces, not a place for new design. Design Within Reach during Rob Forbes’ tenure nearly became a real design shop like our long lost Design Research. I still like most of the furniture at DWR, but some of the joy is missing. I am not sure it is possible to have a high quality national design chain. The pressure of quarterly returns ruins the good news. It takes the hand of the individual, Ben Thompson at Design Research, or Maynard and Lu Lyndon at Placewares, (http://www.placewares.com) to create enduring beauty in a retail setting. (More on the talented folks up at Sea Ranch later this year.)

It’s also fun to stop in at Inja, 215 Fifteenth Street and see what they have in stock in Asian design goodies. I found a tiny Buddha head for just $25.00. But the real treat in the neighborhood is next door, a talent to watch, designer Siobhan Brennan.

Buddha head from Inja

Living room by Siobhan Brennan
Photograph by David Wakely

Siobahn will have an official opening party for her showroom from 1 to 4 pm on Saturday October 16th with special guest John Wheatman signing his beautiful books. She worked with John for over twenty five years and decided to open her own business after he closed his shop last year (http://designfaith.blogspot.com/2009_11_01_archive.html). She continues his tailored Asian influenced aesthetic, with her own stamp, mainly bolder color and a broader variety of artists. The photographer for John’s books, David Wakely, has kindly loaned us a few images of Siobhan’s work. I am sure there will be more beautiful rooms coming.

Napping space by Siobhan Brennan
Photo by David Wakely

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Sunday Surprise: The Harland Hand Garden

The Harland Hand Garden
September 27, 2010

I am not a gardener. We don’t even have a terrace. But I love to listen to gardeners talk about their creations. The one I know best is the garden that belongs to Paul’s uncle, Graham Cousins, near Lutterworth in Leicestershire in the Midlands. Someday I hope to interview him about his life’s work and write about it. When he came to visit us several years ago, he took a trip to El Cerrito to visit a woman named Marjory Harris and see the garden of the artist Harland Hand (1922–1998), which she owned at the time. He came back impressed.

On Sunday I wandered over to Shevlin Drive to see what looked like an interesting open house only to find that the famous garden was for sale. The house reminded me of Wurster’s modest little houses in Point Richmond. Simple and straightforward. I haven’t found out who designed the home, but it feels a little like Wurster’s mythical carpenter with good taste might have been involved. Who ever created the house made it a neutral background for a stunning view of the Golden Gate and what would later become one of California’s most interesting gardens. Apparently Harris renovated aspects of the house and garden but sold it in 2008 when she moved to the Inland Empire (where she is at work on another garden).

Entry to Harland Hand's House

High windows face the street

It looks like the garden may have been too much for the subsequent owners, a family with a young child. I only wish a garden conservancy or botanical garden could afford to purchase this treasure.

On a curving street of unremarkable houses (although El Cerrito has a large number of great midcentury modern gems), you come across a funny metal fence. A patch of stucco with a large black door (actually, a curious configuration of four pieces of wood) and two high windows offer very little to the street. Once inside the fence the visitor knows something special is happening with the boulders and fountain. The nearly blank fa├žade gives you time to look around the first intimate garden.

Front garden

Living room fireplace with cantilevered concrete hearth

The view of the Golden Gate

West terrace

Garden from the terrace

Once inside you are drawn to the light and the view. There is nothing to impede you. You stand on the terrace and overlook the steep garden out to the bay. The modest house is almost forgotten as you look for a path down to the mystery of succulents, flowers, and stone. Or what appears at first glance to be stone. Indeed the garden was shaped by concrete that Hand mixed himself. There are paths, walls, stepping-stones, benches, and everywhere, ponds. He wrote an article about his concrete garden, which appeared in Pacific Horticulture in 1976. Over the years, the plantings seem to merge with his very personal reference to the Sierras.

The garden is over a half acre and holds three thousand species. There was hot afternoon sun, and welcome shade, filtered light, and leaves that shimmered. All shades of green and occasional bursts of color and scent. Crisscrossing the hillside until reaching “the cliff” and then finding a spot to have a rest, I couldn’t stop thinking of all the work that Hand, and later Harris, put into this. It is a kind of meditation or prayer. A joining of nature, design, and faith.

Out the bathroom door to the garden

Curving staircase from the terrace
leads to the garden

Concrete steps and ponds

A simple fountain and two pools

Another concrete pool and paths

The house at the top of the garden

There is a wonderful website created by Marjory Harris devoted to Harland Hand and his garden at www.harlandhandgarden.com.

If you are interested in the property, go to the realtor’s website at www.theharlandhandgarden.com.