Elitism in Architecture | Like a Rolling Stone

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Two Wall Street Journal articles from this week are a painful reminder of much of what’s wrong with home design and “architecture” in general. Have you seen?

Sarah Susanka

Tony FadellBased on my field research here in Calif these last few years, combined with the previous decade-plus spent interviewing designers and builders and homeowners and investigating the neighborhoods of the US and Europe while researching for my other books on residential and while scouting houses for AD as its architecture editor, I can say with confidence that neither of these points of view, each exclusionary in its outlook, is in touch with what’s happening out there.

First of all, sweeping generalizations about how people will live “in the future” can make for entertaining reading, but they can’t represent more than a microscopic fragment of the population and its actual day-to-day activities, present or future. Such subjective viewpoints cannot possibly capture the present or predict the coming zeitgeist of the deeply unbalanced housing situation, the multifarious housing industry itself, and the historically change-resistant dwelling habits in this nation of 317 million. Essentially, such articles are valueless. Which is troubling because in the mainstream media there are increasingly few slots to discuss the real issues of how we shelter ourselves, both known and anticipated.

Sarah Susanka’s point of view is classic East Coast-suburb elitist.  In her relatively lengthy article, which you might be able to access in full here, in her casual talk of $70,000 Tesla cars and $500 Dyson vacuum cleaners—as if both were widely attainable and thus culturally ubiquitous—the architect and author doesn’t identify the demographics of the community about which she’s being paid by the WSJ to speak representatively, although in her very first sentence she does say “most of us,” so we are led to believe she is speaking for “the masses,” or at least the majority opinion of WSJ readers. (The WSJ is supposed to be a news-reporting entity, not a club.) But does “most of us” include members of, say, the Black or Hispanic populations?  Are we to believe that this is how they, too, are going to live in the future?  In speculating on a subject such as the “house of the future,” one ought to be a little more specific about the expected inhabitants’ demographics. Whose “house of the future” are we reading about?  When it comes to home building and houses in general, one “size” doesn’t fit all. It never has and it’s safe to say it never will, even in “the house of the future.”

I have to mention the ethnic-diversity point because, in making my latest book, in thoroughly exploring the history of “green” residential architecture in Calif, I haven’t been able to find, or have even heard about, a single Black or Latino owner or in-progress client of an architect-designed “green” home. That’s a deeply disturbing statistic. Not a single one. Ethnic diversity—wow; I won’t bother to go into how generally invisible Blacks and Latinos are in the pages of architecture books or in the shelter magazines, such as in Dwell and Architectural Digest and Elle Decor.

And for Susanka to suggest that the practice of site-built construction is on its way toward obsolescence and that, in its place, those of us who can afford a new house will get (much less even welcome) factory-made assembly-line architecture is quite the reach, a gross oversimplification of a gigantic and endlessly complex industry and a very personal subject for human beings.  And her comment that the house will be “a place for assessing the world around us.”  She’s getting paid to offer this “wisdom?”  With wireless Internet and 42″-wide TVs present even in low-income housing situations, has there been a time recently, or even since the days of Walter Cronkite, when the home wasn’t the principal perch from which we observed and evaluated the world around us? For those of us out of school, where else would such activity happen? At work?

All this talk about the house of the future… So what are we going to do with all the existing houses, the houses of the past, the defuncts conceived according to “antiquated” practices?

Meanwhile, in the other article, there’s Tony Fadell’s prediction of a new green nomadic housing phenomenon, one in which gasoline and jet-fuel prices and the attendant environmental effects miraculously have no bearing worth mentioning and where accessibility design practices and eco-focused tech that’s been available since the 70s finally conquers resistance to cost and sees widespread popular adoption. His is a far-removed first-class-seats-only viewpoint, one that could only stem from an experience marked by considerable privilege—well, that of a millionaire (or is it billionaire?), right?

Let me go out on a limb, as these writers so boldly have, and say that now and in at least what I consider to be the foreseeable future, here in the “mainstream,” the rest of us working folks, especially ones with families, will continue to reside close to where the work is, and in the preexisting housing (some of it quite attractive and spatially suitable and intelligent even) that fits our income brackets.

Sorry, Tony, not everyone has Google money and can afford—or would want—to live like an itinerant Trustafarian.

This house-of-the-future talk is not “news,” but rather yet another unwanted dose of the same stale old concoction. It’s a heavy stone that hasn’t come upon a wall substantial enough to stop its roll.

In effect, the house of the future is part of the classic “Architecture for everyone” fairytale. It’s for you too, really it is…so long as you’re rich enough.

 

 

Muennig in Monterey Herald

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Happy to be able to support the great Mickey Muennig.
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Gerald McCabe Dining Table | At SURFING COWBOYS, Los Angeles

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A 1968 dining table in shedua by Gerald McCabe, of McCabes Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, has come on the market at Surfing Cowboys and looks to me like a very rare opportunity, and one worth sharing here. I can’t imagine it’ll be around for more than a few days.

Surfing Cowboys: 12553 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90066 (310) 915-6611

Surfing Cowboys:
12553 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 915-6611

Road-Trip Finds | Reel-to-Reel: Harry Partch in the 1950s

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GOFF_PARTCH_www.richardolsen.orgAn exploration into the avant garde of 1950s San Francisco—specifically the anti-consumer-culture, suburb-dissenting, and, as I’ll show in the book, green-design-prefiguring architectural parallels of the art, music, Eastern philosophy, and literary scenes—is the focus of a chapter in my forthcoming book, California Green. The book comes out in late 2015.

Composer, instrument maker, and occasional furniture builder Harry Partch, a topic of that chapter in my book, was an endlessly fascinating component of a milieu of iconoclasts that included Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford, collagist Jean Varda, the young sculptor J.B. Blunk, filmmaker and poet James Broughton, carpenter Roger Somers, and Zen Buddhism philosopher Alan Watts. For several months I’ve been researching Partch, his midcentury experiments with driftwood-furniture design and construction in particular, and, other than one fantastical sofa for Onslow Ford that I’ve got going into the book, finding traces of the work has been a bit of an uphill journey.

Last week, while visiting Sandy Jacobs, during a break from the documentary film that is being made about him Jacobs mentioned having a tape containing a Bruce Goff lecture from 1954 that I might be eager to hear. Turns out it also includes a Partch lecture, recorded in April of ’56. Both recordings were made at the University of Oklahoma [Partch was there the year following Bruce Goff's controversial sudden exit from the position of Chair at OU's School of Architecture. Check out architect Herb Greene's unique insight on Goff and that incident here.]. A big piece of the puzzle had come together.

From my visit to the inimitable nest of Sandy Jacobs (see my book Handmade Houses for a complete look at Jacobs's home). Photo Richard Olsen.

From my most recent visit to the inimitable nest of Sandy Jacobs (see my book Handmade Houses for a complete look at Jacobs’s home). Photo Richard Olsen.

Serendipity—when making this kind of a book, you have to trust that the wind will blow some your way. That and plain old help from friends. Thanks for yet another hook-up, Sandy.

Check out this documentary on Partch.

UFO in the Woods

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The 1956–57 Pearlman Cabin, a Star Wars intergalactic cruiser earth-docked on an array of peeled poles, little known it seems and one of my favorite John Lautner houses, was a feature in my ’06 book for Abrams on log cabins. Unlike anything I’ve encountered, this house, it could be said, predicted the Space Age, which of course had its formal beginnings with Sputnik 1′s 1957 launch and which would have a resounding effect on the appearance of domestic architecture and interiors during the period.

And yet despite all the interest in and big marketing of Midcentury Modern now, I haven’t seen the Pearlman Cabin around at all. Which can probably be explained by the fact that Lautner tends only to receive media attention for houses unlike this one—those that are celebrity owned (Kelly Lynch and Mitch Glazer; Courtney Cox and David Arquette; and on and on) and/or that have been used in blockbuster movies (Diamonds are Forever, Lethal Weapon 2, Less than Zero, The Big Lebowski).  In the increasingly unsteady shelter-magazine universe, there are only so many slots for “architecture” stories, and these days there isn’t a single magazine editor who isn’t hunting for a job-securing celebrity scoop. So that’s what we get, over and over. Such is life in this top-10-list Kardashian culture of ours.

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For the house’s mountain elevation, Lautner created an accordion window wall, neatly slotting the glass directly into the logs. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

 

In midcentury Los Angeles, Lautner (1911–1994) was the guy who could put a house on the ether. Back then, if you were among the small percentage of would-be homeowners who were inclined to hire an architect for your house project and also had a lot that was challenging or risky or, worse yet, said to be unbuildable (in LA, there are many of those), Lautner likely would have made it onto your radar. And so the story of the Pearlman project is a typical one in the exciting Lautner canon. It goes like this: Agnes Pearlman was seeking an architect who could give her family of four a progressively designed but small and inexpensive vacation cabin in Idyllwild, a mountainous rural area near Palm Springs, about two hours east of Los Angeles, that was then becoming a popular getaway destination for “alternative-minded” Angelenos. It was 1956, and the middle-class bohemian Pearlman, a resident of L.A., was having trouble finding a taker for the job.

“Mom didn’t want an ordinary four-walled log cabin,” recalled Pearlman’s daughter, Nancy. “That’s what they were building up there then.” One of several architects from the city (Idyllwild itself didn’t have any architects) who’d turned down the job suggested that Pearlman see the LA–based Lautner. “Mom had studied interior design and Modern architecture in the 1940s,” said Pearlman. “She knew Lautner had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Like his mentor, Lautner usually took his design cues directly from the natural characteristics of the building site. Highly inventive, he was a great problem solver, and that too was evident in his architecture.

While not as off-putting as some of his Hollywood Hills jobs, Pearlman’s site was nonetheless a potentially costly major inconvenience—steep to the tune of about 40 degrees and boulder-strewn and with an enormous jagged rock outcropping in the very spot where a house would have optimal views of the adjacent mountain range. Access was narrow and similarly rocky. Heavy materials would have to be at least partially transported in by hand.

“They couldn’t get anybody up here to built it according to Lautner’s design,” Pearlman told me. Her uncle, William Branch, ended up constructing it, with great competence it should be said, and he lived on the property in a tent for several months until the job was completed.

Construction detail. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

Construction detail. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

You wouldn’t know it from looking at his body of work but it turns out Lautner has a long and intimate history with the log cabin. In 1923, at age 12, he helped his father build the family’s Swiss Chalet-style log house (Lautner’s mother was the designer) on Lake Superior in Michigan, a property that the architect would, himself, later own and keep for himself his entire life.

But the incredible Pearlman Cabin, all earthy and warm and yet also as tech oriented (from a construction standpoint) as some of the architect’s celebrated works, is what could be called Lautner’s only riff on the log genre. Certainly it’s a triumph, and one of a kind.

For more on Lautner, check out this website.

P.S. In the period since my interview with Pearlman, the cabin was placed on the market for film-and-television location rental.

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The living area, all done in concrete and conventional lumber, at the center of the circular plan. Photo by Radek Kurzaj.

 

A Bohemian Rhapsody: John Witzig’s Early-’70s DIY Surf Shelter

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Gusty sea-mist moments periodically relieving a blue-sky summer day. Golden coastal light filtering through a perfumed forest thick with cypress, banksia, and tea tree. Within earshot: a cobblestone right hander, uncrowded!, with a lone rider—an old friend at that—smiling wide and stretched out inside yet another perfect gaping foamy peeler. (Someone smartly glued down the repeat button on this image.)

Angourie, New South Wales, Australia, in all its glory. Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

Angourie, New South Wales, Australia, in all its glory. | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

Right here, near the point, on a little plot of land of one’s own, a vision of a home base coming to fruition, built exclusively with friend labor and unencumbered by code or other for-the-masses restrictions. Improvisation, of an original tune being recorded for posterity.

Ahh, to be coming into one’s own like this on the north coast of New South Wales in the late 60s/early 70s, what that air of freedom must’ve felt like! For years, among not just surfers, that lifestyle’s been romanticized, mythologized even, and, well, here I am now pouring on some more.  But to John Witzig, who lived that experience and even helped give shape to some of its more memorable characteristics, it’s of course something very real.

While also capturing the images that to a great extent define the revolutionary change chapter in a once-happily-slack lifestyle pursuit that’s evolved into a billion-dollar industry (see his new book with Rizzoli, A Golden Age;) and editing Surf International; and, in 1970, co-starting Tracks (the surfing mag that radically took its editorial cues not from sport journalism but from The Whole Earth Catalog and Rolling Stone), Witzig was pursuing a career in architecture.

While I’ve touched on this subject and his new book here before, and I included a bit on Witzig’s story and a few pics of his house in Handmade Houses, it’s time I respond to the requests from friends and fans of A Golden Age to fill in gaps and show more of Witzig’s own house.

I recall the first time I met the late architectural photographer Julius Shulman, in 2003, and spent time inside his Raphael Soriano-designed nest in the Hollywood Hills, a 1947 house that was the epitome of architectural adventurousness for its time. [It should be finally known that Shulman, too, had been drawn to and photographed surfing.]  I immediately realized then and there that, while a great photographer’s unique viewpoint will always be present in his pictures in ways worth understanding, how the photographer sees for himself— his particular requirements of his own personal sphere—demands as much study and understanding if you’re going to get a real handle on the work.

Witzig, who, like Shulman, is responsible for more than a few genre-defining and legend-making photographs, shares the distinction of having housed himself in a way that represents the very cutting edge of progression for its time and place. It was all about breaking the mold of conventionality…or at least loosening things up as never before. But in the counterculture-architecture statement that Witzig ultimately created, there’s no getting past certain allusions—the Northern California coastal-barn vernacular forms of the Sea Ranch, Prickly Mountain-style improv woodwork, the Australian vernacular and its emphasis on the veranda, and even the kind of indoor-outdoor plan fusion seen in the early Taliesin West tent shelters. Here was a design that was dead set on openly embracing its particular eco system, built of materials that might otherwise have ended up littering it. These and other moves show that Witzig, all sun-kissed and surf-blissed and out there in the land of “country soul,” hadn’t completely unplugged, that he had his history down and an eye on larger concerns. And now, I say, what he built has to be read as a vital part of that discussion—those larger concerns.

Here’s what he had to say about the place.Witzig_Angourie_x1

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"This tent was 'home' for many months. It had a floor that came from a house I demolished, electricity, and even a refrigerator. The pattern of leaves on the canvas walls convinced me to replicate those in the house. Driftwood was a useful source of materials for benches. It arrived complete with character."

“This tent was ‘home’ for many months. It had a floor that came from a house I demolished, electricity, and even a refrigerator. The pattern of leaves on the canvas walls convinced me to replicate those in the house. Driftwood was a useful source of materials for benches. It arrived complete with character.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

Nigel Coates at my house at Angourie in February 1974. When you’re building a house, some people are useful, and most just get in the way. No one helped me more than Nigel building this first house. He was too good a craftsman really. My impatience, and his inclination for doing it well were sometimes at odds.

“Nigel Coates at my house at Angourie in February 1974. When you’re building a house, some people are useful, and most just get in the way. No one helped me more than Nigel building this first house. He was too good a craftsman really. My impatience, and his inclination for doing it well were sometimes at odds.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

Construction gang c. 1973. This was the day that we raised the frame of the front part of my house. This event clearly needed the help of everyone that I knew at Angourie. Owner-building thrives on these celebrations.

“Construction gang c. 1973. This was the day that we raised the frame of the front part of my house. This event clearly needed the help of everyone that I knew at Angourie. Owner-building thrives on these celebrations.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

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“I added a lean-to on the back of the middle section of the house to give a bit of storm protection to the back door, and also the kitchen windows. The little veranda relieved the rather stark geometry as well… no bad thing.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

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“Ah… the interior lining done. As I remember, the boards were painted and I simply turned them around. They were wide, and quite beautiful. The kitchen cupboards were courtesy of the skill of my friend Nigel. They were designed to fit things like the old ceramic sink that I’d found somewhere, not the other way around.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

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“The western end of the middle section had fly-screen walls, and fibreglass sheeting for the roof. It was almost like living outside… lovely in the summer, and a bit cool in the middle of winter.”  | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

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“I plotted all of the trees on the site, and basically filled the gaps between them. Only one tree over three feet was sacrificed.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

Self-portrait at the Angourie house c. 1974. I really don’t know when I took this picture. The front bit of the house (it was in three parts) is finished (really!). There’s even a picture hanging above the fireplace. It could be as late as 1977, but I doubt it.

“Self-portrait at the Angourie house c. 1974. I really don’t know when I took this picture. The front bit of the house (it was in three parts) is finished (really!). There’s even a picture hanging above the fireplace. It could be as late as 1977, but I doubt it.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.

 

Stay at One of the Featured Homes from My Book Handmade Houses

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A view of the house at Van der Ryn Eco Refuge, a green getaway located in Inverness, California. Photo by Richard Olsen. Copyright 2013/14.

A view of the house at Van der Ryn Eco Refuge, a green getaway located in Inverness, California. Photo by Richard Olsen. Copyright 2013/14.

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

latest project: CULTURE, ARCHITECTURE & NATURE by Sim Van der Ryn

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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…

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Carving Above the Cloud Layer: Rufus Blunk Studio | My Q & A with Artist Rufus Blunk

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THE ORIGINAL HOUSE DESIGNED AND BUILT BY J.B. BLUNK AND NANCY WAITE, THE HOUSE WHERE ARTIST RUFUS BLUNK GREW UP. PHOTO COURTESY NANCY WAITE. COPYRIGHT 2013. NOT TO BE USED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

The original cabin designed and built ca. 1960 by J.B. Blunk and Nancy Waite, the childhood home of artist Rufus Blunk, reveals in its humble design the great reverence J.B. Blunk had for the Japanese farmhouse after having lived in Japan with Isamu Noguchi in the 1950s. PHOTO COURTESY NANCY WAITE. COPYRIGHT 2013. NOT TO BE USED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

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—blood on the streets—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 its offspring, 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.]

The JB Blunk House today. Photo by Kodiak Greenwood, from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design. Copyright 2013. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The JB Blunk House and workshop (left) today. Over the decades, the original tiny cabin was repeatedly expanded. The sculpture in the foreground is a J.B. Blunk. Photo by Kodiak Greenwood, from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design. Copyright 2013. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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.

J.B. Blunk, Nancy Waite, and the Blunk boys, Rufus and Bruno, outside their in-progress cabin in the 1960s.

J.B. Blunk, Nancy Waite, and their two sons, Rufus and Bruno, seated outside their house and surrounded by their own rock work, in the 1960s. PHOTO COURTESY NANCY WAITE. COPYRIGHT 2013. NOT TO BE USED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

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.

Rocking Bench - Redwood

Rocking Bench, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

 

Profile of rocking bench, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

Profile of rocking bench, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

Rocking Bench detail of burl inlay, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

Burl inlay detail of rocking rench, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

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?

Rufus Blunk, with J.B. Blunk's old truck in the background. Photo by Frankie Frost/Marin Independent-Journal

Rufus Blunk, with J.B. Blunk’s old truck in the background. Photo by Frankie Frost/Marin Independent-Journal

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.

Coffee table, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo Courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013.

Coffee table, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

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.

The log cabin of Howard Waite, built with assistance from Rufus Blunk. The house will be familiar to those who own the first Handmade Houses book, from 1973.  Photo courtesy Nancy Waite. Not to be used without written permission.

The log cabin of Howard Waite, built with assistance from Rufus Blunk. The house will be familiar to those who own the first Handmade Houses book, from 1973. Photo courtesy Nancy Waite. Not to be used without written permission.

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.

Bench, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

Bench, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

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.

Plates and bowls handmade by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

Plates and bowls handmade by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

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?

 

"Eye of the Sea" stool, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

“Eye of the Sea” stool, in redwood, by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

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.

Cypress bench, redwood table, cypress stool, pine stool, three-legged Bay-burl stool, all by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

Cypress bench, redwood table, cypress stool, pine stool, three-legged Bay-burl stool, all by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

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.

Bay burl throne stool by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

Bay burl throne stool by Rufus Blunk. Photo courtesy Rufus Blunk. Copyright 2013 RB.

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