Is Stickley is the New Ikea?

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You’ll have to pardon the breakout of bungalow fever on the blog this week, but I’ve vowed to spend the summer patching, painting and fixing up things around our almost 100 year old house. One of my projects is an all out war on ugly furniture. Sorry, Ikea, but you’re out. Stickley is in.

Thanks to the folks at you can download a copy of Gustav Stickley’s 1909 furniture catalog as well as Gustav’s brothers Leopold and John George’s 1910 catalog. Gustav and his brothers enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame between the years 1900 and 1915. Furniture trends changed during and after WWI and Gustav’s company went bankrupt. It wasn’t until the 1970s when interest in the Arts and Crafts movement returned.

stickley 811 rocker
We were lucky to have picked up an L. & J.G. Stickley rocker #811 this week that now graces our living room. At nearly 110 years old, the rocker looks a whole lot better than the disposable Ikea couch it faces. If one were to amortize the cost of a well made piece of furniture versus something cheap and disposable I think it’s obvious what’s the better choice.

Screen Shot 2017-06-23 at 8.42.24 AMCraftsman furniture seems to have fallen out of favor again with the ascendancy of mid-century modern mania. I’m hoping for a Stickley revival. To that end, please note that L. & J.G. Stickley seem to have manufactured the world’s first futon couch and it’s a lot more handsome than the ones I see discarded on every other block in Los Angeles.

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Lastly, I’m trying to think of the lifestyle adjustments that would justify a weekend in the garage making a copy of the L. & J.G. Stickley dinner gong. How exactly would a dinner gong work out in our 1,000 square foot house occupied by just two people? Would its existence prompt more inspired daily meal prep? Would reheating a frozen Trader Joe’s meal (what a friend calls the Ikea of food) in the microwave justify a bang on the gong? Would it cause the cats and dog to scatter? Should I develop a gong app instead?


My attempt to craft a longer blog post with a clickbait headline, “Is the Dinner Gong the New Killer App?” failed due to lack of source material, but I’d like to share this bittersweet object: a French dinner gong crafted from a WWI artillery shell.

America’s Worst Remodeling Disaster?


The September 1955 issue of Sunset Magazine documents what may be one of the most misguided remodeling projects since the Puritans took hammers to the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. The article reports on the transformation of an ornate Craftsman house in Pasadena, California designed by Greene and Greene into what looks like a sprawling mid-century Japanese restaurant.

Famed architects Charles and Henry Greene, along with a team of some of the finest carpenters in the U.S., designed and built houses for wealthy clients in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They’ve been called the “ultimate” practitioners of the Mission bungalow style and are probably best known for the Gamble House, a masterpiece of Asian-influenced Craftsman architecture. In 1903 they built a large, two story residence for James A. Culberton that overlooks an arroyo in Pasadena. The house was bought in the 1950s by the Dunn family. Sunset, breathlessly and uncritically describes what happened next,

Half a century later, the site in old Pasadena was still distinguished, the garden was fully grown, and the house had mellowed. But it was out-of-date. The owners asked themselves, “How can we remodel without losing any of the old charm. Here, in photographs, is the answer.

Indeed. Here is what the house looked like in 1903:

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And a post-remodeling shot:


The Brady family is ready to move in!

Sunset Magazine continues,

The house, for all its seasoning, presented serious problems: too much space for present needs (and too much space to take care of), and a kitchen that was small and dark and out-of-date.

Architects Whitney Smith, Wayne Williams and William L. Rudolph recommended a bold step: Completely remove the top floor, which was no longer needed. Double the size of the kitchen, and modernize it. Rearrange the floor plan.

But, as the photographs show, the treatment was respectful, and the finished product is something the famous team of Greene and Greene themselves might have done if they had been designing for present-day living patterns.

Respectful? An article in the trade magazine House & Home also covered the project,

And the story shows something else, too: it shows the direction in which domestic architecture on the West Coast has been going since the Greenes, and one or two others gave it a big send-off. For the differences between the old house and the new revisions and additions are as interesting as the similarities: the change from a tall two-story structure of 1897 to a long, low-slung house today–a house designed to extend everywhere into its surrounding gardens; the change from leaded window panes to large, continuous walls of glass; and the change from elaborate, art nouveau decorations to plainer surfaces and simpler patterns.

Lest we forget that architects are only as good as their clients, we should not place too much of the blame on Smith and Williams. The Western Builder article notes that the architects convinced the clients not to completely tear down the house and they did manage to preserve a few details such as the front door and an arbor in the garden.

It was, of course, too little to save the essence of the original house. I think there are a number of lessons that can be learned from this appalling “remodeling.”

  • Architectural trends fall out of fashion quickly. The Mission style fell out of favor right after WWI. Right now mid-century modernism is hip again and 1980s/90s post-modernism is out. Architecture takes a long time to prove itself.
  • The craftsmanship of the trades fell precipitously in the mid-twentieth century. Even the wealthy were happy to trade hand carved woodwork for drywall.
  • Don’t trust magazines. They, uncritically, turn press releases into stories. I’m including myself in this warning as I’ve been guilty of falling prey to hype.

I have another reason to bring up this remodeling story as I’m, unfortunately, seeing a trend in our neighborhood of house flippers and  homeowners mangling bungalows yet again. There was a brief period of admiration for Craftsman and Colonial bungalow style in the late 1990s and early aughts. Now, I’m seeing built-in cabinets and molding ripped out and replaced with granite countertops and cheap Ikea crap in a misguided attempt to turn old bungalows into Dwell Magazine party pads. At the risk of old man crankiness, if you want to live like the Brady Bunch please buy something more modern.

Frankly, I’m not seeing a lot of stuff built post-WWII that’s standing the test of time. New buildings should have to prove their worth, and that’s a high bar. But, perhaps, I’m making the same mistake. Only time will tell.

Biography of Greene and Greene, An Enlightened Client.

Post-remodeling Dunn residence photos:

Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and WilliamsEdited by Jocelyn Gibbs, Debi Howell-Ardila, Anthony Denzer, Lilian Pfaff, and Alan Hess.

“This Pasadena House . . .” Sunset 115:3 (September 1955) 52-53.

“A Fine Old House . . . Remodeled With Respect,” House & Home 9:3 (March 1956) 180-184.

“The Old Living Room . . . Now a Bedroom Suite,” Sunset 116:1 (January 1956); 40.

“Entry Way to Charm,” Western Building (May 1957); 14-15.










Natural Cooling: The Fresh Air Bed

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 8.04.38 AMTechnology, such as air conditioning, has a way of flattening the ups and downs of our life’s experiences. We trade seasonal heat and cold for a bland, indoor sameness. Prior to the late 1950s, when air conditioning appeared in homes and apartments, builders used to have to consider regional differences. After air conditioning you could build any house anywhere. You could replace walls with sheets of glass, overhanging roofs with modernist boxes.

Particularly in hot, humid climates houses often had a screened porch or balcony on which to sleep on a sweltering night. The early 20th century was probably the zenith of the screened sleeping porch.

Taft's sleeping porch. Photo: Library of Congress.

Taft’s sleeping porch. Photo: Library of Congress.

President Taft even installed one on the roof of the White House in 1910.

The early 20th century’s sleeping porch movement also had a bit an anti-modernity vibe. To mitigate the pollution and psychic toll caused by 19th century industrialization, sleeping porch evangelists recommended dozing outside in fresh air. Entrepreneurs marketed a number of solutions, in addition to sleeping porches, such as sheds, tents and the gadget I want to focus on in this post, the convertible indoor/outdoor bed.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 9.37.06 AMThe California Fresh Air Bed Company
A number of patents exist for space-saving built-in beds that can switch between indoors and outdoors (Charles Hailey, “From Sleeping Porch to Sleeping Machine: Inverting Traditions of Fresh Air in North America“). The California Fresh Air Bed Company of San Francisco marketed a bed that converted from an indoor sofa to an outdoor bed. A 1914 ad in the Pacific Medical Journal describes the device:

It is built half inside and half outside, forming a handsome davenport in the room, and an ornamental balcony outside. Can be used as a full size indoor bed or by a very simple operation converted into an outdoor bed. Can be aired all day and yet be concealed.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 9.37.17 AMIt’s a space saving mashup of the fold-up Murphy bed with the screened porch. It also reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s alcove bed and the built-in ironing board in our kitchen. There’s a lot to say in favor of reviving the California Fresh Air Bed Company. I can say from personal experience, living in a house built in 1920, that space is at a premium. And, particularly in the late summer and early fall here in Southern California, it would be nice to be able to get some cool, fresh air at night. The downside would be all the light pollution: the overabundance of street lights, billboards, porch lights etc.

The Baby Cage

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A related and, perhaps, more harebrained outdoor sleeping arrangement was the window cage for your baby.

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An article on Mental Floss goes into greater depth on the brief reign of the baby cage which seems to have been a thing in England. You’d think that baby would get a bit cold and wet in London, but the “experts” thought the fresh air outweighed the cold and falling risk. There’s even a newsreel on the baby cage:

These days child protective services would stop by if you stuck your kid in a cage out the window.


The idea lives on, but only for cats, in the form of the Cat Solarium and in many homebrew kitty window solutions.

But enough about cats, what we really need is to bring back the California Fresh Air Bed Company’s clever indoor/outdoor bed. As many consider downsizing to smaller houses, space and energy saving furniture such as this make more sense than the oversized sofa sectionals that plague our modern mega-houses.















How long, fake red brick color will you continue to abuse our patience?

Go ahead and call me a color snob, but we just have to retire this ugly red tinted concrete color from our landscapes. I don’t think this color has a name so let’s just roll with the hip kids and give it a hashtag: #FakeBrickRed. While we’re at it let’s go ahead and start the movement to #StopFakeBrickRed.

#FakeBrickRed has its ancestry in the unholy family of fake masonry products, chunks of concrete that try to masquerade as something they are not. Real bricks are made by firing a combination of sand, clay, lime, iron oxide and magnesia. The iron oxide and lime give bricks their distinctive red hues. Fake bricks are simply molded concrete with a bit of tint added in to hide the gray. Fake bricks are related to their ugly cousins, the cinder block or concrete masonry unit, ironically the construction material of choice for the big box stores that peddle #FakeBrickRed. #FakeBrickRed was probably arrived at by some unholy combination of market research and raw materials accounting back during the lowest point in architectural history, the 1950s and 60s.

IMG_2259Unfortunately for us all, #FakeBrickRed has metastasized from the masonry department and spread throughout the Big Box Store. Why were these wood products #FakeBrickRed?

Image source: Wikipedia.

Image source: Wikipedia.

And why, for the love of Zeus, does mulch end up this color?

Yes, there may be more urgent hashtags to agitate about such as #envelopegate and #FewerFeatures. But things that try to look like other things always end up looking like, well, things that try to look like other things. #StopFakeBrickRed!





Adventures in Extreme Making: The White Rose

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For reasons I can’t fully articulate, I often think about an obscure film by the artist Bruce Conner called “The White Rose.” Conner’s film documents the moving of a huge and mysterious painting by the artist Jay DeFeo. The painting is so large that the moving company had to cut a hole in the wall of DeFeo’s second second floor apartment to get it out.

Perhaps the appeal of this film is the problem solving or the obsessiveness of DeFeo. Or maybe it’s the shots of the much more gritty San Francisco streets I remember from childhood visits to see my grandfather.

The painting now lives at the Whitney in New York. Here’ how the Whitney tells the story of the painting:

Jay DeFeo began this monumental work simply as an “idea that had a center to it.” Initially, the painting measured approximately 9 x 7 feet and was called Deathrose, but in 1959, the artist transferred the work onto a larger canvas with the help of friends. She continued to work on The Rose for the next seven years, applying thick paint, then chiseling it away, inserting wooden dowels to help support the heavier areas of impasto. Now nearly eleven feet tall and weighing almost a ton, the work’s dense, multi-layered surface became, in DeFeo’s words, “a marriage between painting and sculpture.”

First exhibited in 1969, The Rose was taken to the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was covered with plaster for support and protection, and finally stored behind the wall of a conference room. Legend grew about the painting, but it remained sealed until 1995, when Whitney curator Lisa Phillips had it excavated and restored by a team of conservators, who created a backing strong enough to support the heavy paint. DeFeo resisted offering an explanation or interpretation of the work, although she did acknowledge that despite the work’s enormous size and rough surfaces, there was a connection to “the way actual rose petals are formed and how they relate to each other in the flower.”

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Conner’s film documents moments familiar to any “maker” such as the “how the hell do we do this moment?”

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And the “I can’t believe we’re doing something this crazy moment.”

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Lastly, Conner shows the “I’m having a hard time calling this finished” conundrum via a shot of DeFeo dangling her feet off the fire escape. She began the panting in 1957 and the move took place in 1965 when she was evicted from her Bohemian hangout at 2322 Fillmore Street. As Conner put it, she needed an “uncontrolled event to make it stop.” I think anyone who does anything creative can relate to the problem of letting go and calling something done.

Thankfully, “The White Rose” has a place of honor in a darkened room at the Whitney. You can watch Conner’s film with its haunting Miles Davis soundtrack here.