Cape Ann juts out into the Atlantic Ocean just North of Boston and has been a destination for artists for over a hundred years. The light that reflects from the surrounding sea is said to give off a particularly advantageous light for painting pictures and sculpting. Scattered around the towns of Rockport and Gloucester are dozens of studios that were built over the course of time when the area was a magnet for artists. The buildings that they constructed for creating their art mostly remain. Vast skylights built into the two story ceilings let light flood into these rooms. Northern facing skylights were thought best as the light casts little or no shadows due to the lack of direct sunbeams. Most of these visually arresting rooms have been turned into living spaces but unfortunately a few have been torn down. This post is a teaser for an upcoming series of photographs and stories about the studios, artists and their works. A “preservation act,” if you will.

A golden rule in the design world is that one NEVER reveals design sources. I am about to break that time-honored credo.

We have been lucky enough to live in towns with great swap shops. Both our current home town in Massachusetts and our previous residence in New Hampshire had swap shops at the town dumps. These swap shops enable town residents to drop off unwanted but serviceable items and fellow townspeople to peruse through the items and take what they wish. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, indeed. If, after a week or so, the item has not found a new home, it goes in the dumpster as trash. Over the years, the scores of finds that I have rescued from the landfill could furnish a small nation. Antique bed frames, lamps, dishes, frames, silverware, trays, glassware, tablecloths, antique Christmas decorations, chairs, a Danish modern bureau, and books have all found their way into my house and houses of neighbors and friends. My across-the-street neighbor and I trade each other discovered items that we know the other would like. She has an amazing eye.

The priviledge of shopping at these dumps comes at a cost, however. A sticker on your car is necessary for admittance to the dump. In our Massachusetts town the yearly sticker price pushes the $200 mark. In the New Hampshire town, the sticker is had for a mere $6.00, good for two years. When we first applied for the sticker in New Hampshire some ten years ago, it was $2.50 and when I remarked on the low figure, the town employee replied, “when the sticker price went up from $1.00 per year there was an outcry.”

In reading a recent article in a shelter magazine about a decorator and her work, she was quoted as saying, “I always like to add a few thrift shop finds to a project to give it a not all new look.”  My philosophy is the opposite. I like to use mostly found and vintage items and add just a few new items so the end result is not dowdy.

The return policy at these establishments is unparalleled. If you tire of the item or it no longer works with your “look,” take it back for someone else to enjoy.

Here is just a tiny sampling of the items that I saved from destruction.

I dream of Jeannie lamp


Dine with a view

Those of you who took a child to Disney Land in its heyday and went on the Small World ride will remember that cloying annoying song that you could not get out of your head for days. That melody kept popping into my mind as I recently readied a 500 square foot living space for rental.

Wee space

The challenge in furnishing small spaces is creating a feeling of openness and yet providing areas where daily living activities can be performed easily and with comfort. No small order in 500 square feet. In most spaces this tiny, the common solution to the sleeping/living area dilemma is a daybed or a fold out sofa. The daybed solution requires a made bed with tons of pillows to support the back in order to sit during the day. The height of most daybeds are not conducive to comfortable sitting; the feet tend to dangle, not touching the floor. Fold out sofas have come a long way in recent years with inflatable mattresses — a vast improvement on the sofa beds of old. But removing the sofa cushions and placing sleeping pillows on the bed each night is still a bit of an ordeal. Reversing the process in the morning just makes you want to stay in bed to avoid your chambermaid tasks.

Disappearing act

Sometimes old solutions are the best solutions. We installed a Murphy bed in a sleek frosted glass fronted cabinet with huge sliding doors that conceal the bed by day. This frees up the limited floor space for a real sofa, end tables that have large drawers which double as bureaus, a coffee table, a dining table and chairs, and a Hans Olsen “fried egg” chair which looks like a piece of sculpture. All of the furniture you can see under; this expands the space visually, making it feel larger. The Murphy bed is counter weighted so that it comes down with a light pull. The other half of the cabinet is an ample closet with bars for hanging items and built in shelves and pull out drawers for clothes storage.

With large living spaces, furniture selection can be fluid as there are many choices as to placement of the pieces. If a piece does not work in one room, moving it to another is always an option. In a one room small space, each piece must be chosen to fit in its designated space and perform with aplomb. Form and function at its best. One painting graces this room and a modicum of “dust catchers” sit on surfaces. A music system, flat TV, and speakers all hang on a wall, freeing up floor space. The project’s end result is, although the space is compact, it has the comfort and feel of a much larger one.

Kitchen a la Jetsons

There were several “tricks” we used to accomplish this feeling. When sitting in the living room and looking into the kitchen, no appliances or sinks piled with dirty dished are visible. In the kitchen, most of the storage is below the counter with upper cabinet frosted glass garage door cabinets to house the dishes and glasses. The cabinets are lit from within and throw a soft glow of light through the frosted glass fronts. They seemingly float on the wall. All of the lower cabinets are on slender stainless steel legs and are lit from below, giving an airy open feeling to the room.

If the small world theme song would stop internally rewinding ad nauseam, we could appreciate our efforts.

A bit of extra space

After several recent encounters with houses with names, I have been pondering the phenomenon. Grand estates lend themselves to names. Do lesser abodes deserve to be named as well? What does the name of the house say about the namer? Just how famous do you need to be to name the house after yourself?

Up The Mount

The Mount in the Berkshires announced the social stature of its owner, Edith Wharton. It sits on a small rise, not a mountain, but then the name alludes to the lofty social position of the great writer.

The Vanderbilts’ Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, describes the mansion perfectly. But ironically the Vanderbilts referred to it as a cottage. I suspect that the Vanderbilts knew that the words marble and cottage are not normally used in the same sentence when describing a house.

Faded glory of Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York, owned at one time by an aunt and cousin of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, was named after an estate in England. The intent behind the name was probably to convey cachet. It’s ironic then that, after the 1972 film documentary and more recent Broadway musical about the squalor that Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale lived in, Grey Gardens now conjures images of rotting food, broken windows, and raccoon squatters.

Often on this blog, I have written about Howlets, a stone house in Folly Cove, Massachusetts built by the Hale family. Despite a family history encompassing Nathan Hale, Edward Everett Hale, Harriet Beacher Stowe, the painters Ellen Day Hale, Philip Leslie Hale, and Lilian Westcott Hale, and oddly enough, Helen Keller, the Hales nevertheless chose to name their summer home Howlets, meaning baby owls. The name suggests a certain humility.

Naming a house after your self is the ultimate act of ego. Sometimes it seems earned. One thousand-acre Appleton Farms, a land grant to Samuel Appleton in 1638, is the oldest continuous working farm in Massachusetts. This Ipswich, Massachusetts farm hosted many luminaries in its day, including the Duke of Windsor who hunted foxes on horseback there. As recently as a few years ago an Appleton still lived on the farm. It is currently owned by The Trustees of the Reservation and is very much an active farm. After nearly four centuries, the Appleton name has proved its staying power.

And sometimes naming a place after your self is just an indicator of a healthy self-regard. I recently stumbled over two such homes in Palm Springs, California. Villa Fontaine is named after the film and stage actress Joan Fontaine and Casa Liberace named after the pianist and vocalist. (Somehow the descriptor “pianist and vocalist” seems so inadequate to describe him, doesn’t it)? A good sense of self is important in life and absolutely vital in the entertainment business. The ownership of these homes has long passed to others, but the original plaques proudly remain. Staying power of a different sort.

LeFrak City is a sprawling 5,000-apartment complex in Queens, New York built in the 1960s. In his day, the developer Samuel LeFrak was the Donald Trump of his time. Years later, when LeFrak was asked about Donald Trump and his building of Trump Tower, LeFrak sagely responded, “a peacock today, a feather duster tomorrow.”

Party in the snow

Rockport, Massachusetts has an ordinance allowing liquor to be served only with a sit down meal. Despite this town law, Rockport has a very wild night life which begins at dusk and carries on with reckless abandon into the wee hours of the morning. A party animal was recently spotted, complete with a red fur coat, drinking out of our stone watering trough. Several days later, the remains of a late night feast were scattered on the front lawn. The reveler was at least following the town policy of having a meal with a drink when out on the town. While I was unable to get a photo of the foxy lady drinking from the trough at dusk, recent paw prints in the snow confirmed it was not just a hallucination. The squirrel that she had dined upon was left in furry bits across the lawn, like beer cans dumped from a car of underage drinkers. Who says Rockport closes up at night?

Can I check your ID?

Red fox eat mostly rodents and there is a plethora of them in our circa 1840 barn-converted-to-house. Generations of mice have been happily coming into the barn when the weather turns cold in the fall. Our cat is totally uninterested in performing his duties, so our hopes are now pinned on the red fox. From her paw prints in the snow we can see she has searched next to the foundation for her next meal. Would it be wrong to invite her inside for a mouse smorgasbord?  To further entice, perhaps a local microbrewery ale pumped through the stone trough spouts. We want to remain compliant with the town’s “drink with a meal” policy, even for the wild night life crowd.

Beer bong for wild life

                                      Click on any photo to enlarge

You do not have to travel to the Midwest to go inside a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Believe it or not, there are two Wright houses in Manchester, NH. One is privately owned and one is owned by the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH and is open to the public. Manchester’s riches of Wrightian architecture is unusual here. There are a mere scattering of  Wrightian houses in New England:  two in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, and the two in New Hampshire. The Zimmerman House is the only one in New England available for the public to tour. A mid-century modern visitable piece of architecture, right in our own backyard.

Carport with a view

The Zimmerman house was built in 1950 for Dr. Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman. The house is “Usonian” in design, meaning it is efficient, economical and possessing a panache of style available to people of moderate means. With Usonian houses, Wright designed the cabinets, shelves, furniture  and gardens as a total concept living experience. The Zimmerman house is no exception. Although Frank Lloyd Wright never set foot in Manchester, he designed a house for the Zimmermans that sits perfectly on the lot. In visiting the house, only one feature struck me as impractical. The house has a carport, not unlike many Wright houses. New England winters and carports are diametrically opposed. None the less, the carport is gorgeous and has a view of the backyard for the driver, through a picture window-sized opening. There is no paint on any exterior surface as the window frames are poured concrete forms or stained wood and the exterior walls are brick. I guess the low maintenance exterior makes up for the sleet and snow exposed, albeit sexy carport.

Golden orange Georgia cypress ceilings

The Zimmermans lived in the house from 1952 until they died. The museum took over the stewardship of the house in 1988. The Zimmermans had the foresight to realize what a gem they had and bequeathed the house and contents to the museum. Pottery, mid-century artwork, and sculpture all left by the Zimmermans are on display. The house originally was designed by Wright with radiant heat flooring under the signature red color concrete floors. Unfortunately, the heating system failed at some point during Isadore and Lucille’s time there and a forced hot air heating system with ducts was installed. The duct work ran discordantly along the sweeping interior ceiling lines. As the docent explained during the tour, the museum undertook a massive “bring it back” project and jackhammered up the floors, removed the eye jarring duct work, reinstalled new radiant flooring, re-poured the concrete  and matched the original Wright red floor color. The result is beautiful.

When the house was built, the area around it was a country-setting suburb of Manchester. Now the setting feels more  built up suburban, but once you are on the grounds and in the house the country sylvan feeling returns. During the Zimermans’ time, they hosted many musicales. Wright designed a four sided wood music stand for this musical family so a quartet can all play facing one another. The Currier Museum has a twilight tour with live music in the garden room. You can experience what it must have been like to be a guest at one of their parties. Alas, no cocktails are served as you are inside a work of art. No inebriated stumbles allowed please.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Sylvan setting

Icons take many forms. The word itself conjures up religiosity. Recently, I made a pilgrimage to an architectural icon named the “ship of the desert.” It is a house in Palm Springs, California, built in 1936. It is decidedly art deco in style and very unusual for the area. Most of the architecture in Palm Springs is either Spanish style with adobe walls and terra cotta tile roofs or mid-century modern flat roofs with enormous walls of glass. Curvy art deco did not make its mark in a big way here, so this house is one of a very few of its style in the area. The ship of the desert is tucked with its back just a few feet from the steep hillside rise of the San Jacinto mountain range and has a bowed front like a proud prow jutting over the desert floor. There is one small round window in the facade to root the house in Art Deco nautica.

The house is currently privately owned by fashion designer Trina Turk and her photographer husband Jonathan Skow. Check out Trina’s fashion sense at www.trinaturk.com and Jonathan’s photos at www.jonathanskow.com. She has her own retail shops in New York City, Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Tina and Jonathan recently had a holiday party at the ship of the desert, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend on the coat tails of an invited guest.  A true hanger on.

The house was built close to the peak of the Great Depression by the Davidsons, a department store family, for their winter retreat. The house has a doubly tragic past. Mrs. Davidson took her life after discovering her husband’s infidelity. The house passed through several owners and in 1998 it was a down-at-the-heels dowager in need of more than a fresh coat of lipstick. Tina and Jonathan were looking for a mid-century modern house in Palm Springs. Palm Springs is rotten with mid-century modern archtecture. Art Deco, not so much. They fell for the house despite its non-mid-century style and began a loving restoration. Midway through the process, tragedy struck again as an arsonist’s fire destroyed much of the structure. Crushed but undaunted, Trina and Jonathan hired Marmol-Radziner, an LA-based design firm to recreate the house as near to precisely as possible to the original. A kitchen stove miraculously lived through the fire and was incorporated into the kitchen design.

The subtle features of this house are discovered, not announced. The window shades, a neecessity to soften the harsh desert sun, disappear up into the ceiling when retracted. Indirect lighting is tucked up and recessed in the curve of the ceiling to softly light the living and dining rooms. An original main floor window that lowers fully into the basement but was destroyed by the fire, was religiously duplicated. “God is in the details,” as Mies Van de Rohe, an architect of other iconic buildings, once said. The end result of this restoration is breathtaking. This architectural icon perches proudly overlooking Palm Springs and the valley beyond. The chance to experience this house and, just for a while, fool myself into being someone other than me, was almost better than a trip to the Vatican. Viva coat tail pilgrimages.

A photo phantasmagoria from Rockport, Massachusetts and Palm Springs, California.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Happy Holidays,

Tom

In the early 1980s, my parents led The Solana Recyclers, a still thriving organization dedicated to building environmental awareness in southern California. They were early pioneers in creating ways to make recycling as easy as possible for residents of California communities. With this personal history, it was fitting that I took on the task of making recycling convenient for David and Heather’s family at Howlets. If my parents could do it for southern California, surely I could do it for one house in Folly Cove.

We all stuggle with where to put all of the yogurt containers, wine bottles, milk jugs, newspapers and junk mail which we are encouraged to recycle these days.  Convenient and aesthetically-pleasing storage is a challenge. Such was the case in the kitchen at Howlets. There were no current cabinet areas that could be sacrificed to use as recycling space. Fortunately, there was an empty area next to the cellar stairs crying out for a custom-made recycling center.

Recycling made beautiful

With the help of Michael Tocantins, a Gloucester carpenter, we were able to create a spacious recycling corner which fits right in with the character of the 100-year-old house. The space now accommodates three pull out bays, each with two receptacles inside, an orgy of space for the mountains of glass, paper, metal and plastic that seem to multiply like rabbits in a family of cooks. A spot for just plain old everyday trash was also incorporated into the design.

Michael started by building a “carcass” for the recycling center. The “skin” of the recycling center was made from old storm shutters that we had unearthed in the basement. These are the same shutters that were also repurposed for a headboard. Check out the earlier post entitled “Are they shutters or a headboard?” for details on the history of these shutters. The weathered grey shutters were flipped upside down in order for the reveal on them to act as a place to slip your hand in to slide open the bins — no handles needed to sully the clean architectural lines of this piece. The inside sliding mechanisms were ordered from Reva Shelf.

Recycling made convenient

The wide and long counter top is the same granite material that we used on the other counter tops in the kitchen, a softly creme-veined black granite. There are also two electrical outlet plugs for charging cell phones and laptops sunk into the top of the counter surface. On the end of the unit are three light switches that control the kitchen and cellar lighting. As the counter is directly at an intersection of a traffic pattern that bisects the entry to the kitchen from the living room and the stairs to the cellar, this added counter space has also proved to be a helpful staging area for all items coming and going.

After a few adjustments of the sliding mechanisms and bins that were initially not functioning optimally, the management of the kitchen detritus at Howlets is now easier by far. One of the owners’ daughters told me that it is her favorite “thing” about the house.

I trust my mother, still serving on the Board of Directors of The Solana Center for Environmental Innovation (the organization’s new name), would approve.

Like mother, like son

Pairing items together that are seemingly disparate challenges the eye and sparks visual curiosity. When you flip through the shelter magazines and look at all of those perfectly pulled together rooms, do you want to step into the page, mess it up a bit, and rearrange it all to make it look less predictable and more lived in? Placing pieces together that shouldn’t work — but somehow do — shakes things up a bit and gives a room or garden a distinctive feel. When you see items together that suit each other too well — like a velvet wingback chair and a mahogany butler’s table — your mind’s eye gives a great big yawn. The eye seeks out the different and the unusual in order to be challenged and amused. A touch (emphasis on touch) of whimsy pulls out an inner smile. By whimsy here I do not mean “This way to the beach” signs placed in a seaside house, but rather a subtle pairing of pieces that evoke a “that is fun and unusual” response. Predictable = boring.

Here are some pairings that are like an odd couple marriage that somehow work to complement each other.

Click on any photo to enlarge.