The Blessings of Home Design: From Garden Sheds to Fallingwater

By Stuart Mitchner

Home design begins the first time we draw the face of a house. For me, this was a clumsy but legible two-story square with windows where the eyes would be and a door for the mouth, a rooftop for hair or headpiece, and a chimney for Santa.

I was 11 when we moved into “a real house.” We’d been living in a grad-student-GI-bill barracks with a pot-bellied stove. It was like going from the Little House on the Prairie to a mansion. The change galvanized my austere English professor father.  One morning I came downstairs and he’d painted an abstract expressionist mural in the space above the mantel. “What happened to the wall?” I asked. “Think of it as a giant Rorshach test,” my mother suggested. I saw some birds, a snake, a melting piano, two shapes like boomerangs in flight, a harp, and a lady in a funny hat tripping over something. When a “real artist” we knew came by one day, he stood gazing at my father’s work for a minute.  Then he formed a small “O” with thumb and index finger, placed it over the tripping lady in the hat, and said, without irony,”This bit is quite nice.”

Two Great Houses

I thought of my father’s painterly audacity when I read about Cecil Beaton’s “amusing bedroom” in the Sussex Gardens home he and his parents moved into when he was 22. According to Cecil Beaton at Home: An Interior Life (Rizzoli $85) by Andrew Ginger, which includes a foreword by Hugo Vickers, Beaton’s “crowning effect” was to paint the walls “peppermint pink over-painted with large, stylized fleurs-de-lys in contrasting colors of light caramel brown and pistachio green.” He also dressed his small four poster bed in “scarlet stencilled in gold, with a bright pink satin bedspread edged with gold trimming.” The furniture was painted light pink in contrast to the peacock blue carpet. Although one journalist suggested that “one could not call it a restful room” and wondered if so much color was “almost too mentally stimulating,” another article declared it to be “probably the most original room in London.”

This lavish volume (“overwhelming in the best sense,” says one reader) about a 20th-century “Renaissance men”—photographer, costume designer, set designer, playwright, creator of fashion fabrics, and writer on raffiné interiors and the personalities who inhabited them”—is centered on two Wiltshire homes “dear to Beaton’s heart”: Ashcombe House, and Reddish House (pictured with Beaton on the cover), not to mention London’s Pelham Place and various New York hotel suites.

Beaton’s original reaction to Ashcombe House has an otherworldly quality: “I was almost numbed by my first encounter …. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.” Beaton employed the Austrian architect Michael Rosenauer to make alterations that included a passageway through the house to unite the front and the back; elongating the windows; and the installation of plumbing and electricity. The artist Rex Whistler designed the Palladian front door surround. Some 60 years later pop star Madonna and her husband, film director Guy Ritchie, bought the house; six years later it went to Richie as part of the divorce settlement.

Reddish House had a somewhat similar fate. After buying it in 1947, Beaton added rooms to the eastern side, extended the parlor, and installed new fittings. The costumes he designed for My Fair Lady were stored in the attic. He lived there until his death in 1980. Seven years later the house was bought by prog rock icon Robert Fripp of King Crimson and his wife singer/actress Toyah Wilcox; they lived there until 1999, made extensive renovations, and are apparently still married and living in Worcestershire.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th

New York’s Museum of Modern Art will commemorate the 150th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) with a June 12-October 1 exhibit, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. Edited by Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray, an eponymous monograph (MoMA $65) features a collection of scholarly explorations “rather than an attempt to construct a master narrative.” Each chapter centers on a key object that an invited author has “unpacked,” tracing its meanings and connections, and juxtaposing it to other works from the archive, from MoMA, or from outside collections. Fourteen contributors will cover subjects including Wright’s “quest to build a mile-high skyscraper, his status as one of the earliest celebrity architects, using television, press relations and other forms of mass media to advance his own self-crafted image; a little-known project for a Rosenwald School for African-American children.” Other investigations concern his “lifelong dedication to affordable and do-it-yourself housing, as well as the ecological systems, both social and environmental, that informed his approach to cities, landscapes and even ornament. The publication aims to open up Wright’s work to questions, interrogations and debates, and to highlight interpretations by contemporary scholars, both established Wright experts and others considering this iconic figure from new and illuminating perspectives.”

Fallingwater

Back in print in a new format in time for Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th, Fallingwater (Rizzoli Classics $39.95), edited by Lynda Waggoner with photographs by Christopher Little, includes authoritative texts on Fallingwater’s history, structure, restoration, and collections, including the house’s relationship to its setting and its importance to the sustainability movement; its meaning in the context of Wright’s body of work; the analysis and planning process that went into Fallingwater’s restoration and how a seemingly unsolvable problem was overcome through modern engineering. Fallingwater Director Waggoner’s introduction recounts the visit by architect Philip Johnson on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday. Standing on the west terrace gazing at the tower window, Johnson is said to have declared, “It is the greatest house of the twentieth century.” But when asked if he could be quoted, he said, “Certainly not. I’ve designed a few buildings myself you know.” In 1955, Wright called it “a great blessing—one of the great blessings to be experienced here on earth.”

“The Beginning Point of Any House”

Jane Field-Lewis’s The Anatomy of Sheds: New Buildings from an Old Tradition (Gibbs-Smith $30) takes a humble subject in an imaginative new direction with over 50 examples from around the world, some simple and modest and some extravagant. While the owners themselves describe how they have created their own hideaways, Field-Lewis provides style notes and comments based on her conversations with owners, architects, and designers. For the interiors, recycled, vintage and precious items are mixed with new, functional and practical ones.

One example Field-Lewis writes about has a literary source, having been inspired by the cabin in Thoreau’s Walden. The idea was to design a structure that would bridge the gap between Thoreau’s “walled-in space” and the outdoors, creating interaction between the internal and external environments. The walls and pitched roof were constructed from sections of traditonal pine and contemporary transparent acrylic glass panels, mounted on polyethylene floats and connected with rope screws. Recyclable acrylic panels were chosen instead of glass because they are lighter, more transparent, and consume less energy. The effect brings “transparency” to the building. For the builder, it’s “like a model of the primitive habitat at the birth of architecture…the beginning point of any house.”

George Kennan Builds a House

Many houses after the one my father exercised his inner Picasso on, I found myself living with wife and child in a carriage house behind statesman and historian George Kennan’s lofty, Italianate Hodge Road home. Our place was painted a deep red with green trim. Directly in front of us was the playhouse the former Russian ambassador had built for his children and painted in the same colors. It would have made a nice addition to Jane Field-Lewis’s book, true to the words of the craftsman builder she quotes in her introduction: “People appreciate having their attention guided to … something constructed carefully and well.”