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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back to a Bolder Future

August 18, 2010

Back to a Bolder Future

The new book Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes arrived this week, and I couldn’t wait to read it. Some of the happiest (retail) moments of my life were spent in the two San Francisco stores, especially the one at Ghirardelli Square. It was my undergraduate education in design. The shop was pure joy. It turns out that there are many local connections. Margaret Turnbull Simon, interior designer at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, was the store’s West Coast display manager. Lu Wendel Lyndon worked in the San Francisco and Beverly Hills shops and now owns that great store in Gualala, Placewares, with Maynard Lyndon, Jr. And my friend Lyn Hogan worked for Design Research here in the 1970s. Design Research was about celebrating modernism, and hopefully the book will firmly establish its legacy.

So far this blog has been about explorations that take place after my own mid-century mark. This has resulted in a number of laments and obituaries. Yesterday afternoon, to cheer myself up, I decided to take a little tourist excursion back to the site of the Design Research store in Ghirardelli. I started at Justin Herman Plaza.

The late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the plaza as an enormous piazza, like the ones you find in Italy. It used to contain a folly designed by Bill Turnbull and some wonderful curved concrete edges. Sadly, those are gone, but the great sweep of empty brick space is still there. No one would create something like that plaza now, but I am glad Halprin got away with it. It really works now as a foreground for the Ferry Building since the freeway got torn down. While I loathe the silly torcheres in the median, it hardly matters, because we got rid of that stupid freeway.

One of the great joys of my 1960/1970s childhood was running around the Vaillancourt Fountain. In recent times, the water is often turned off, but yesterday it was going full and furious. Because there is algae, the pool is green, but I thought it looked great with the sculpted concrete.

Vaillancourt Fountain at full blast

Children were dashing under the fountains and across the concrete lily pads, and I was transported back to happier times. The only problem with this sculpture (which I admit was designed to turn its back to a freeway that no longer exists) is that it needs the water to be complete. When the water is turned off, it feels like a graveyard of dinosaur bones.

The concrete lily pads

Across the street, the Ferry Building renovation is one of the great improvements to take place in San Francisco in years. A Ghirardelli Square for the new century. It was risky to focus on San Francisco tenants and food, but it appears to have paid off. The Cowgirl Creamery, with some of the best and most expensive cheeses in the Bay Area, is expanding into the space adjacent to its existing shop. I spied yellow Heath tile being installed, which reminded me to visit the Heath Marketplace, which opened this year in the Ferry Building. I was pleased to see that our friend Melody Mason was back at Heath, and we had a long chat. I have been meaning to blog about my visit to the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito (going back soon). Although the Ferry Building shop is really just a stall, it holds a lot of beautiful pieces without feeling crowded. It reminds me of Design Research in that it exhibits beautiful, durable goods that involve both craft and machines and that live out the Bauhaus ethos. As at Design Research, most of the merchandise is a bit pricey, but the design endures, and if you are careful, you can enjoy it for the rest of your life.

Heath stall at the Ferry Building
Courtesy Heath

I rode the busy F-line historic trolley down the waterfront to the end of the line at Fisherman’s Wharf. This is our Disneyland (without the planning), and nobody who lives here ever goes there. I walked west towards the Cannery along some of the most hideous street retail anywhere in the city. When you get to the Cannery, the magic is long gone, which made me wonder, what made it work? Why did it die? The west side of the site, the Haslett Warehouse, once the locale of the Dickens Christmas Fair, finally found a decent use as the Argonaut Hotel. (The sterile courtyard within is appalling, however.) When I was a kid, facing the plaza was a restaurant called Ben Johnson’s, with one of William Randolph Hearst’s dining rooms reconstructed. Back then the plaza was full of jesters and street musicians, and now it’s empty, cut off from North Point Street. The Cannery tenants included Upstart Crow and Company, a great bookstore, the Blueprint Café, and a fabulous candle shop. But Ghirardelli was better because it had chocolate and Design Research! Not to mention more interesting architecture and planning.

The Cannery entrance

The empty escalator at the Cannery

Ghirardelli Square was a former factory that grew incrementally, resulting in buildings of different scales and forms, which meant outdoor spaces and walkways that invited discovery. Again, Lawrence Halprin had a hand in shaping all of this. Design Research occupied the prime space, the clock tower. William Roth, Ghirardelli Square’s developer, had convinced Ben Thompson, the Boston architect and founder of Design Research, to expand into San Francisco. It was a perfect marriage of historic design and humane modernism. There was one glazed room a few stories off the ground, which was often designed as if it were its own living room. As a kid, I used to sit in the Eames chair and fantasize that I lived in the space with views out to the bay.

Ghirardelli Square today

My childhood fantasy chair

While my siblings wanted to explore the Irish knitwear shop or the waterfront, I wanted to stay in Design Research and look at every single object and all of the tags on the furniture to learn who designed them and where they came from. As I got older, I bought the best part of my wardrobe there. Marimekko T-shirts for my skinny frame (I couldn’t afford the looser Finn Farmer shirts that I wear now.) Marimekko school bags, and change purses. Throw in some clogs and scarves, and, well, it was a look.

We love Marimekko!

Two great pieces I never bought

The treat was always the hot fudge sundae downstairs, something our whole family could agree on. Now the chocolate empire has expanded upstairs into the former Design Research space and other places in the project. The bright, open space of Design Research has been erased. A hideous diner with a garish sign has replaced one of the fancy dress shops. The bookstore now houses a cupcake bakery. Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons’s original scheme for the renovation of the chocolate factory was fairly bold. They weren’t afraid of intervening and using plazas and connecting structures where they were needed. They left all kinds of nooks and crannies that made it fun for kids but probably hard for retailers. The new owners have built some restrooms behind the bookstore and in front of the restaurant (Señor Pico’s in my era, now McCormick and Schmick’s) that really disrupts the design. But even stranger is the idea that all of those boutiques on the high floors make a good place for Fairmont Heritage Place timeshares. Who will want to sit on their terrace looking at tourists dressed inappropriately? Bring back the Sea Witch club and the Magic Pan restaurant!

The tower where D/R once lived.

Who names a building after its architect? William Roth does.

The two plaza spaces between main groupings of buildings feel right sized and were full of people despite the modest choice of retail that exists now in Ghirardelli Square. Now if only someone were brave enough to resurrect Design Research and make it all feel new and white, yellow, red, and purple all over again. I haven’t been able to find any shots of the San Francisco store so enjoy an image of the flagship store designed by Ben Thompson.

Ben Thompson's D/R store in Cambridge.
Ezra Stoller © Esto.


Cherie said...

Thanks for a tour back to my adolescence. I loved DR, the Embarcadero, Ghirardelli Square, et al. You introduced me to DR, modern architecture, art and all the finer things. I'm forever grateful.


CBelmont said...

I purchased my first couch at Design Research. I also managed The Upstart Crow for five years. The Blue Cafe, Ben Johnson's, the Cigar Store all great memories.