Work in Progress: Back to the Future

A New Jersey mansion looks to 1950’s austerity Britain for inspiration

Here is a sneak peek at a project that has been on the practice drawing board for the last nine months.  It is a curious tale of childhood memory, migration, displacement and family connections.  It raises questions about the personalization of architecture and its potency as a concrete manifestation of ‘home’. But let’s begin with a story:

In the mid-1950’s the client’s father, a successful retailer, decided to build a contemporary home for his young family in the London suburbs. The appointed architects, Higgins Ney & Partners, developed a design that combined traditional brick construction with the then-fashionable Brutalist style. The house presents an entirely blank facade to the street, while a fully glazed living room to the rear faces the open countryside. This understated approach reflects the prevailing post-war mood when it was considered unpatriotic (or just bad taste) to flaunt your wealth while rationing and austerity remained the everyday norm.

Image group 1 sm

Fast forward to today and our client, now living in New Jersey, is ready to build his own contemporary home. For him ‘contemporary’ has a very specific meaning: it is that particular mix of English vernacular and European modernism that represented ‘home’ throughout his childhood.

His design brief was simple: to create a property that is discrete and imposing in equal measure, with an interior arrangement that lends itself to both grand entertaining and extended family gatherings. Architecturally it should draw upon key aspects of the original family home: it will have a blank entrance facade, like its 1950’s counterpart; a flexibly planned living room should form the primary space of the composition, also echoing the earlier house but on a much larger scale; the private areas of the house are to be strictly separated from the public realm, in this case by an internal courtyard. Other accommodation, including a swimming pool and a play room, are located in a lower floor which is largely invisible from the outside.  Here are some preliminary visuals that give a flavor of the current design:

Ext.1 sm

View from driveway with the Great Room window at center and blank entrance facade to right

Ext.2 smCorner view with master bedroom above and pool room below

Great Room comb. smViews of the Great Room

There are many points of similarity between the two houses, from the treatment of the windows and patent glazing to the use of identical bricks imported from the UK.  But equally interesting is how the design diverges from the original.

The distinctions are clear when comparing the two main floor plans side by side. The original house (shown left) has a pinwheel arrangement largely dictated by the topography and orientation of the site – in this respect the design closely follows the natural planning approach of Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra. The new house by contrast is an O-plan, focused on the interior rather than exterior world. The natural environment is visible but kept at bay, with the controlled environment of the inner courtyard acting as a counterpoint.

Heathbrow plan comparison sm

As in all residential commissions the home is ultimately a mirror of the self. Although this design draws upon the client’s childhood memories it really expresses a more developed attitude to the public and private realms of an individual’s life. Architects are not psychiatrists but they should be aware that the homes they create are ultimately representational of their client’s individual (and possibly subliminal) self-image; the design’s success may be more contingent on what is not said than on the initial requirements of the brief.

Stay posted for further developments.

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The Mid-century Modern Craftsman (2)

A new selection of unusual cabinetry pieces from Bay Area Craigslist posts:

Executive-style desk, possibly in teak, c.1960

The most striking feature of this desk is the complex design of the frame, which is similar to a wishbone car chassis: it comprises a horizontal x-frame that supports both the top and the filing/storage units, and terminates in four splayed legs. The animistic design of the frame brings to mind horns or antlers, perhaps to reflect the executive-user’s bullish ambition?

It is hard to tell from the images but the top also appears to have curved edges, reinforcing the organic undertones of the design.

Pedestal table, c.1970

An attractive design, possibly by one of the major manufacturers (Hille?). The L-shaped steel supports clustered to form a cross is an elegant solution using inexpensive off-the-shelf sections. This is the only image available and so the connection of the supports to the underside is unknown.

Dining table, 1930-50

An appealingly simple design which is a hybrid between the craftsman and modernist styles. The plank legs and cross-bar peg connections suggest this could be made by a talented amateur from found materials, but the quality and elegance of the item make it likely that it was commercially produced. Date of manufacture is hard to guess, but signs of modest wear suggest anywhere from 1940 to 1970.

The Mid-century Modern Craftsman (1)

Aside from the star names associated with mid-century modern furniture design in wood (Eames, Nakashima etc.) there are countless other obscure designer-producers whose work crops up in flea markets or the ‘for sale’ section of local classifieds here in California.

A few examples, found recently on the Bay Area Craigslist, are shown below. They have been chosen because the various pieces have unusual or particularly elegant details. The designers are unknown, at least to me, and we welcome any further information on their origins and date of production:

Drop-leaf table with an unusual reverse-folded central section – assumed Danish, c.1960.

This is an extraordinarily compact design where each element is pared down to the minimum. See for example the leg supports, using a gateleg arrangement with the two hinged sections half the depth of the main frame to give a flat profile when folded. The general appearance of the fully expanded table is also intriguing – a combination of Danish modernism and Japanese minimalism.

Glass-topped coffee table with sloping under-shelf and chevron-style legs – assumed American, c.1960.

An idiosyncratic design veering towards the Jetsons aesthetic, this is almost a parody of mid-century modern living. A particularly enjoyable feature is the shelf which seems designed for the display (rather than the actual reading) of coffee table-style books, to be glimpsed in all their glossy wonder through the glass top.

2 x 3 chest of drawers on front and back H-frame legs – possibly Danish, c.1960.

Despite the poor quality images this has the look of a classic modernist piece, with Danish-style legs and the proportions of a credenza.

Nest of tables with rosewood tops and chrome-steel legs, c.1965.

Unlike the typical nest of three tables in diminishing sizes this consists of one large table that is twice the width of the two smaller (but equally sized) tables, enabling them to be concealed almost completely.

More examples to follow as we come across them.