One of the most significant homes in Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design—and one of environmental architecture’s seminal houses— just became an eco retreat, available to rent as a private getaway. To present it as such, the house’s owner had hired me to photograph the property and build a website, and all of that is now live. Check it out: vanderryn-eco-refuge.com
In a few days, Sim Van der Ryn‘s second book to be published this year, Culture, Architecture & Nature: An Ecological Design Retrospective arrives in stores. In 2012, Sim hired me to help him create an editorial concept around his talk transcripts and essays from the 1960s to the 2000s. There was an enormous amount of material to consider, with even the very earliest topics having surprising relevance today—some more now than when they were written decades ago. For the final selections, we ended up employing a reverse chronology, so you start the book in the 2000s and dig your way ever deeper to get into the past, decade by decade. Along the way, many of the major issues of the day are called out and explored and challenged. And for each decade, there’s a list of books for further reading—the books that, in those moments, had most captured Sim’s attention. Partly for purposes of pacing, we chose to illustrate with his own watercolor landscapes painted during the same time span, which I think worked out beautifully.
Buy and read printed books. Build home libraries. Live happier…
The heady early days of green architecture’s gelling into a real movement, in California in the 1960s, were as much a not-so-subtle middle finger to the general state of utter disturbance in society as they were a rejection of the lame status quo within the residential design-and-construction scenes. In architecture, the rebellion had two prongs. First, on the high-culture academic end of things, green’s pioneers (young architects, builders, and would-be homeowners) were turning their backs on the International Style, which for some of its practitioners had amounted to license to build a single kind of house, in steel and glass, no matter its site and circumstance; and what we now call Midcentury Modern, which by then had an image much like the Ranch House—a look cheapened as a seemingly ubiquitous pop idiom of the Leave it to Beaver age; and last but certainly not least, the horrific but somehow widely adopted concrete-bunker aesthetic called Brutalism. Second, on the middle to low end, increasingly there were examples of housing tracts stretching as far as the eye could see, and while the tracts succeeded in accommodating the incredible population explosion of the times (in ’64, Calif. became the most populous state in the nation), their construction usually had the effect of leveling entire ecological habitats.
Searching for a more impact-aware and place-sensitive mode of architectural expression, a more soulful and otherwise humane and in-touch approach to making a home for one’s self, green’s pioneers, most of them in their 20s and 30s, retreated to rural parts of the state. In trying to make a go of it there, many soon found a path leading to the self-awareness practices of Zen Buddhism; the nature-first “organic” Japanese farmhouse; and, of course, earthy American-agricultural architecture like barns and chicken coops. More directly, many of them turned to the example of certain painters, poets, sculptors, and other progressives and intellectual radicals who, starting with some consistency in the wake of the Great Depression, had drawn from those very (aforementioned) influences in the making of their live-work spaces in California’s mountains and coastal forests. As poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “the first thing a poet has to do is to live that type of life which doesn’t compromise himself.” This kind of hands-on living—demonstrative of self awareness and nature-oriented and earthy in the way that a weathered old barn suggests—was that type of life.
One of those artists who, early on, had moved to the country and established what might be called a template for conscious living was the potter and wood sculptor J.B. Blunk, of Marin County. In ca. 1960, Blunk and his fellow-artist and architecture-aficionado wife, Nancy Waite, had built a cabin for themselves on donated land and a budget of $1,000. Much of the house was assembled from driftwood collected near Point Reyes and from WWII shipways scraps laying around Sausalito’s Gate 5. From the very start, the couple grew their own food in a garden next to their construction site. What they needed as far as kitchenware, Blunk would go on to make himself on-site in his own kiln. The same went for clothes and shoes—all of it homemade. [For more on the adventures of Blunk and Waite, see Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design.]
Blunk and Waite soon had two boys, Bruno and Rufus. Today, Rufus Blunk lives and works just a short walk down a country road from the house built by his father and continues the Blunk legacy of ignoring lines between “art” and “craft,” all with a profound understanding of and respect for the land.
That conscious-living template that J.B. Blunk and Nancy Waite established for themselves in 1960, Rufus Blunk and his wife and children honor it in their lifestyle in 2013. It’s a beautiful thing to behold…and so too is Rufus’s sculpture.
Here’s the outcome of my recent visit with Rufus Blunk at his studio in Marin. I hope you’ll enjoy it. —R.O.
Olsen: Finding your own way as a young artist, you not only had the formidable shadow of your father to overcome, but also there were innumerable other artists, some of them more famous such as Isamu Noguchi, regularly passing through your family’s sphere in West Marin. That seems like it could be a pressure cooker of an environment for a developing talent. Of those artists, who made the greatest impression on you…and why? And how did you navigate that situation—the influence factor—as well as you did?
Blunk: As a young boy, I was inspired by visitors, events with artists, and neighbors who were close like family, such as Gordon Onslow Ford and Jack Wright. I met many sculptors and crafts people who were nearby and making interesting things. I shared adventures and learned skills from my artist father, JB Blunk, and my mother’s father, Howard Waite, an engineer. They were constantly doing, making, and inventing things and I was often by their side.
I don’t understand your last question. I never thought of “navigating” my situation. I existed in a rich environment. I guess I never questioned that. In fact, I was eager to take advantage of everything that was available.
OIsen: At what age did you show a serious interest in making sculpture? How old were you when you made your first serious piece? Did J.B. mentor you in those early years? What was his policy on the use of his workshop, his tools?
Blunk: My father built tool benches in his workshop, one for my brother and one for me. Each tool bench had a vise to hold small projects and places to put our own basic hand tools—hammer, chisel, rasp, drill, handsaw, sharpening stone, and knife. At age 5, JB gave me a small hatchet which I used to make kindling, fell and chop trees, and make early art projects. Simultaneously, I became an eager companion to my maternal grandfather, who had retired and set to building his dream log cabin house in the nearby Bishop Pine woods. Together we searched the woods for the perfect curved or straight logs for the cabin.
At age 8, I dug local clay with my father and built my own tiny wood-fired brick kiln to fire my ceramic pieces, modeling the kiln and the work my father and grandfather made just up the slope. There was a lot of excitement around digging and firing local clay.
Our lifestyle during my childhood included making everything. We grew much of our own food, dug the clay, made the pottery, and ate out of our ceramic and wooden vessels. My brother and I built lots of tree houses in the bay forest. Our water comes from a gravity spring, which my father developed. My father mentored me on this system and in time, I came to be the steward of that water and the lands around. My wife and I have raised our own children with many of the same make-it-yourself traditions.
At a very young age, we scavenged beaches for interesting building materials which went into the making of my father’s house and for gifts we all made. By age 11, I was sculpting stools from solid pieces of cypress and redwood. I also made cheeseboards, candle holders, and small lathe-turned things which I sold successfully at a local gallery. With the funds raised through these early art sales, I helped pay for my trip to Kenya and Ethiopia the summer after fifth grade, when I went on safari with my aunt, also an artist, who lived near Nairobi.
Olsen: Would J.B. give you feedback on your work?
Blunk: JB would rough out the stools, and he provided strict safety guidance, technique, and care of the tools. JB was open to the correct use of almost all tools, if they were put back in their proper place clean and sharp, where he could find them when he needed them. Everything had a specific place. I learned to sharpen tools before I was allowed to use them freely. The dangerous adze was the only tool JB said I couldn’t use freely—until I was able to beat him in arm wrestling. That restriction was stopped after some years and after I’d demonstrated enough safety techniques. When I first started work with the chainsaw, JB would hold it with me to make the cuts, four hands on the saw. As I gained experience, he would start the saw for me and let me cut the easy cuts only. Later he’d let me do all the cutting only if he watched me. Eventually he let me do it all.
My own work developed through exploring the scrap pile of my father’s works along with the use of my personal collection of found materials. I had a good eye. I worked in wood, and clay, and much later stone. Much of my work includes a portion of the original natural surface from which I detect a story. JB did give constant feedback enabling my skills to grow quickly as my imagination flourished. I remember him using certain words to describe my early work—”whimsical” comes to mind. He was excited when I discovered something new, something he had not uncovered. One of my father’s favorite quotes, which he placed on a wall in our house: “There is no beauty in which there is not some strangeness of proportion.” As I matured, our feedback became more reciprocal. On one occasion, JB had me forge a special offset gouge chisel to help him carve out a deep salad bowl.
Olsen: Is there one piece that you made in those early years that marks a major turning point for you, as far as your own development is concerned?
Blunk: One early piece that might be considered a turning point for me was a four-pillared stool I carved at age 12 while working beside a woodcarver at the home of my aunt Jony in Kenya. I was inspired by things I saw in the many museums we visited in Kenya and Ethiopia. I began a series of pillared works. The pillars of the stool present a space to see through or even crawl through. I’d remove the heartwood on pieces made from green wood which helped to control cracking during the drying process. I used this technique on stools, benches, and small tables. I have more to explore in this realm still.
Olsen: In your little rural corner of West Marin, you’re part of a rich tradition of making work that goes back at least as far as the 1950s. What is it about where you live, other than wide open space, that is so conducive to making art?
Blunk: Besides the priceless gifts of open space and the abundance of inspiring materials, I have a long and deep connection and relationship to the place here where I was born and where I now have been raising my own family, all of which feed into my art and creative process.
Importantly, the material I work with, too, has a “place” and a “family,” which I recognize and try to honor. The source of the material influences the path of the project. Sometimes a fault, a crack, or a rotten pocket reveals itself as I consider the piece. This guides the process. I like to base the goal of an art piece on the potential I see within the materials on hand, much like JB based the frame of our house on the available pile of timbers he found.
I love the small surprises and the mystery that unfolds when working in wood, especially.
In my very full life, with my three growing children and my wife, many aspects are artful. I practice art in a sort of playful day-to-day expression with whatever is on hand. This includes landscaping, teaching, growing things, grafting, beekeeping, fishing, stewardship of our local waters and land, helping out in place-making projects, and the list goes on.
Olsen: Tell me about the work you’ve been doing the last few years. You’re still working exclusively with wood? Are you taking commissions? What’s been your main emphasis?
Blunk: In the last few years I have been very busy applying my aesthetic talents and practical skills in many areas including stone work, landscape, and public space projects.
I’ve completed a number of private commissions, including two rolling interior redwood barn doors, a redwood burl conference table, a redwood burl rocking bench, cypress stairs, and a fir timber bench and table set. Private commissions over the last few years include a set of eight madrone wood plates, a walnut coffee table, a Bishop Pine dining table, a Madrone and Bishop Pine breakfast table, a redwood sculptural bench, and many more.
Public works of recent years include the Jonathan Rowe memorial sculptural bench in Point Reyes Station; seating for a playground; an outdoor display cabinet for a local land-preservation organization, MALT; other landscape and public gathering space presentations combine my familiarity with growing things and my work in stone and wood.
Some recent work has been in stone, including a birdbath, a stone element that is part of a coffee table, and finish features on a wood fired bread oven. Most of my current work uses the supply of seasoned wood I have collected over years, as well as some new arrivals. I’m always open for commission work and like very much to work with a client to develop an idea. If I don’t have specific materials in stock, I can find it through contacts.
— THANKS FOR READING —
A holiday postcard I recently made reminding of the existing book and announcing the forthcoming one. Ten years of research has gone into these two projects. Tens of thousands of miles traveled. Hundreds of creatively energized and otherwise inspired folks befriended along the way. Thank you for opening your doors to me. And thanks to Rizzoli International Publications for supporting the journey. -R.O.
Reposting this Q&A I did with Free People’s Amy S.
Check out the work of Holly Tornheim at her website.
“The book recounts stories from my half-century of experience in the world of architecture and my journey of discovery of the importance of considering humans and nature as part of any project. It’s illustrated with my own watercolors… I hope it will inspire the next generation of architects to design places we can all enjoy.” — Sim Van der Ryn
My own tattered copy of Not Man Apart (1965)—one of my favorite books. As with all the volumes in David Brower’s Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series, Not Man Apart‘s print-production is of the kind of quality that, nowadays, is rapidly on its way out, at least within mainstream publishing. The many riveting moments Edward Weston, Cole Weston, Steve Crouch, Wynn Bullock, William Garnett, Cedric Wright, Ansel Adams, Don Worth, and more caught on film during their ventures into the wildest corners of Big Sur—well, it all leaps off the page. This was, after all, a book made not long after the tipped-in-color-plate era, when “art books” were, themselves, works of art. Released three years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that sparked the modern environmental movement, Not Man Apart was one of those ’60s books that carried on its back the new earth-attuned message.