interiors

An Evening with Leo Marmol and Steven Price at Modernism Week 2017 by Alston Thompson

  This newly constructed Al Beadle designed house in Palm Springs was open to tours during Modernism Week 2017.

 This newly constructed Al Beadle designed house in Palm Springs was open to tours during Modernism Week 2017.

Easily the most interesting event of my first weekend at Modernism Week in Palm Springs was the panel discussion featuring Steven Price, with his new book Trousdale Estates: Midcentury to Modern in Beverly Hills, and Leo Marmol, notable architect of Marmol + Radziner. Moderated by the clever editor Michael Boodro of Elle Décor Magazine, the discussion organically bounced across challenges and trends in preserving mid-century homes, the iconic architects and architecture in Trousdale and Palm Springs and the surrounding areas. As Boodro acknowledged, “. . it’s not enough to preserve midcentury homes... nobody wants to live in a period room. So we really wanted to talk to someone who understands how you adapt mid-century to the twenty-first century. And there’s no one more experienced in that area than Leo [Marmol]”

The National Park Service of the US Department of the Interior Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties provides guidelines for four distinct approaches: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Marmol made a point to highlight the midcentury architecture of Palm Springs as the one place his firm has applied all four approaches in their work.

Steven Price’s droll and entertaining humor immediately set the stage when he asked the audience to set its collective “33’s to 45” because he had a lot of ground he wanted to cover. The evening was an enlightening and often hilarious course in modern mesign by a master practitioner and a knowledgeable historian whose passion and insight made for what was in this writer’s opinion one of the most exhilarating educational experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Price reminded the audience, some of whom were decked out in go-go boots and mini dresses, of the relative nature of the term “Modern”. Most of the homes in Trousdale are over fifty years old. Steven Price suggested Mid-century modern falls into two categories: “The Ceremonial” in which the design is aspirational and “The Familial”. When Trousdale Estates was begun in 1955, Paul Trousdale, the developer, had already built around 25,000 mostly conservative houses, shopping centers and hotels. Trousdale built only eight of the 535 houses on the 410 acres, which was essentially the backyard of the 46,000 square foot Graystone Mansion at Doheny Ranch. For the other 527 home sites he supplied the infrastructure and the lots and the homes were built by the owners. Trousdale’s marketing material described living in Trousdale Estates as living “above it all”. Stephen Price fell in love with the Trousdale Style at the age of ten cruising around the neighborhood with his dad who he described as Don Draper minus the alcohol. But what made Stephen Price’s presentation so enthralling and his passion so contagious was his irreverent humor. He dubbed the look of an A. Quincy Jones designed home made-over from its original earth tones and wood to mostly glass and mirrors: “Ice Palace Disco” and an extravagant home dominated by glass and gold alloy aluminum, he called “Mies Van Deluxe”.

An architectural review board, headed by master architect Allen Siple, mandated the homes be at least 3,000 square feet, well over double the national average at the time, and single story with a fourteen foot height limit to protect the views, but the homes were not prescribed stylistic constraints. Price observed that the best designs “didn’t even look like homes. They more closely resembled banks, museums or country clubs”. Since Trousdale didn’t fill the development with spec homes, the designs weren’t watered down to appeal to the broadest spectrum of the market. These were statement homes designed by A-list architects and interior designers, fueled by massive budgets in a time of exuberant optimism and conspicuous consumption.

By the 1990s Trousdale had lost a lot of its appeal and many homes were razed and replaced. Fortunately mid-century modern has come back into favor and many buyers are restoring and adapting the homes to today’s sensibilities.

Leo Marmol recalled the lack of interest in mid-century modern architecture in the early 1990s when he and his partner Ron Radziner were chosen to restore Neutra’s 1946 modern masterpiece the Kaufman House in Palm Springs. With a touch of self-deprecation, he acknowledged the fact that he and Ron were chosen for the Kaufman House because they were the only firm willing to drive out to Palm Springs to look at it. “There just weren’t any preservationists interested in that type of design in the late 80s and early 90s” he said.

Marmol emphasized that his firm’s approach to preservation is not about fighting change but rather respectfully adapting homes to current sensibilities. As an example he noted that most kitchens were “back of house” in the forties, fifties and sixties. Now kitchens are opened up to the living room and dining room experience.

Michael Boodro asked how the design community could be doing a better job of educating people on the beauty of modern design. “Why do we see so much ersatz Georgian and ersatz Tudor and ersatz Victorian?” Marmol pointed out that doing modern is hard; the history of ornamentation is about covering up imperfections. He use crown molding as an example; it’s there to cover up a gap between the wall and ceiling that’s unsightly. His point was that less is necessarily more expensive when it comes to modern design. The response from Marmol and Price was also hopeful and often hilarious. Price quipped “I completely agree with the excellence of the clarity of the modern, but I had to learn to love other styles too; and let myself love them. I was always thinking ‘I’m not going to be cool if I like Victorian’... which I don’t….”

He pointed out that the preservationists’ latest challenge is in defending postmodern design. Examples he sighted are three Michael Graves’ homes in Malibu. While Price is not necessarily a big fan of Michael Graves’ work, he recognizes its importance and hopes the homes will be saved. This raised an important point about how it takes time for many styles to be observed, appreciated, and thereby preserved.

Marmol went on to challenge the premise of the question with some rhetorical questions of his own: “How many people came to Modernism Week this year compared to year one? How many books are being sold today on modern design? How much traffic is there on the internet looking at modern design in a way that’s never happened before?...I think we’ve seen a tremendous rise in the influence of modern design. Look at Elle Decor. When you look at magazines like Elle Decor and your competitors that are putting the word out at the level you are, it’s great!”

The watershed moment for preservation of Mid-century Modern homes in Beverly Hills and beyond was the Kronish House, a Richard Neutra designed Modern masterpiece. After years of being unoccupied, the home was listed as an $11 million dollar tear down in 2011. When demolition began, public outcry demanded the house be saved from demolition. Thankfully a Marmol+Radziner client had the resources and vision to rescue the home. With Marmol taking the lead, the Kronish House was a rallying point and galvanized the city of Los Angeles’ preservation efforts, ultimately culminating in an innovative, yet very restrictive, preservation ordinance. The unintended consequence of protecting homes through landmark designation is that homeowners sometimes find it’s easier to raze an existing home and build a new home, rather than to seek approval for changes to a landmark home.

Boodro brought the discussion back to community oversight and planning; and how helpful or restrictive it might be in producing great design. Marmol’s opinion is that “the communities that have been the most successful, the planning guidelines are not aesthetic...they are about scale...they are about mass...they are about setback…We’ve done new houses in Trousdale and the original planning guidelines were very restrictive but nowhere in there does it say ‘and it has to be modern’.”

 

Studio Visit: Surface Architectural Supply by Alston Thompson

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Floor, wall panelling, tables, and chairs at Tazza Kitchen, Midlothian, Virginia provided by Surface Architectural Supply

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Floor, wall panelling, tables, and chairs at Tazza Kitchen, Midlothian, Virginia provided by Surface Architectural Supply

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Wall and ceiling panelling, and desk at the Boathouse, Short Pump, Virginia, by Surface Architectural Supply.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Wall and ceiling panelling, and desk at the Boathouse, Short Pump, Virginia, by Surface Architectural Supply.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  The game room at a private residence in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia. Surface Architectural Supply provided the wood flooring and panelling for the bar. 

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

The game room at a private residence in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia. Surface Architectural Supply provided the wood flooring and panelling for the bar. 

When we started the renovation of our studio in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, a friend in construction recommended we talk to the guys at Surface Architectural Supply. As photographers of architecture and interiors, we were immediately impressed with the beautiful reclaimed wood surfaces in their showroom and the space itself.

When Alston Thompson Photography sat down with Kirsten and Hunter Webb, owners of Surface Architectural Supply, we asked them how they would explain the benefit of old growth timber to someone who may not know much about wood. Hunter likened it to a Stradivarius violin. While the craftsmanship of a Stradivarius is second to none, the wood is where the magic really happens. Antonio Stradivari hand picked the trees he used in the Fiemme Valley of the Italian Alps where spruce trees in that climate and that particular altitude form what is called “Il Bosco Che Suona” - The Musical Woods. Webb goes on to say “Old wood is different. Anyone who cares just understands that. When you see the tightness of the grain….what it’s really about is how the trees were allowed to grow.

"You can't fake 100 years of wind, rain, and sun."

Most of the stuff people are growing today is farmed, but a tree that grows up in a competitive forest doesn’t get as much light, it grows slower, the ring count is tighter; it’s reaching and growing straight because that’s where the light is. In a farming situation the trees don’t grow many branches, they grow up faster. Because it’s easier for them to grow, the wood is less dense. Using our reclaimed wood keeps this material out of the landfill,  we are honoring the generations before us by reusing their captured energy in these materials. A lot of the things we have are unique; once they are repurposed there is no more like them. You can’t fake 100 years of wind, rain, and sun. I can spot the

‘distressed’ wood trying to be reclaimed wood from across the room. It’s all about taking what nature has done and polishing it a little bit." 

Surface’s sweet spot is buying an old barn and reclaiming the lumber; floor joists, flooring, siding, everything. Hunter gets especially excited when he has the opportunity to salvage an old walnut tree. He’s a self-proclaimed wood hoarder. Especially when it comes to scarce and one-of-a-kind wood sources. Did I mention he likes walnut (his license plate says “WALNUTS”)?  He’s taken an excavator to a golf course to salvage a walnut tree that was four feet wide and over forty feet tall, “I even dug up the stump, that’s where the good stuff is…” They received a phone call after Hurricane Sandy to see if they were interested in reclaiming part of the old Coney Island boardwalk. Kirsten laughed and said “the client who was interested in the boardwalk planks asked if we’d make sure to scrape all the gum off the wood.”  You name it, they’ve seen it, gymnasium floors, bowling alley floors, the list goes on….

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Surface Architectural Supply sourced and finished the wood for the island in the kitchen at HKS Architects in Washington, DC.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Surface Architectural Supply sourced and finished the wood for the island in the kitchen at HKS Architects in Washington, DC.

When Surface sources wood and brings it back to their facility their work has just begun. They have a passionate, energetic team that handles the millwork in-house. In other words, they don’t just do floors. They can mill trim, casing, shoe moulding, base board, risers, landings, nosing, balustrades, newel posts; build furniture, doors and casing, wall paneling, decorative joists, functional supports, corbels, mantels; and source hand hewn, rough sawn and milled surface beams. They recently supplied Shou Sugi Ban wall paneling for a major corporate client’s feature wall. Shou Sugi Ban is an ancient Japanese technique of scorching a wood surface, which makes it impervious to bugs and fire resistant. While it’s traditionally done with cedar,  the technique can be used on other wood types. Kirsten adds, “It’s used in a lot of really modern environments. Juxtaposed with lighter wood and metal, it is absolutely stunning”.

Kirsten and Hunter were attending San Diego State when they met. Hunter was in graduate school and Kirsten was studying furniture design under Wendy Maruyama. After they graduated Hunter convinced Kirsten to return to his native Richmond. Hunter’s family home in Manakin-Sabot had the ideal woodworking shop, an old carriage barn that they added onto as the company expanded. They both love Richmond, “It’s a friendly, easy place to live….” said Kirsten. They’re also proud of Richmond’s unconventional vibe: “Did you know Richmond has more tattoo parlors per capita than any other city in the world?”  The Webbs are anything but conventional. With a post and beam home furnished with modern, industrial chairs and tables that they designed themselves, the fact that they live in rural Manakin-Sabot and work in Scott’s Addition mirrors their business philosophy; to repurpose what is old in a contemporary application. For anyone not familiar with Richmond, Scott’s Addition is an industrial district developed around the 1920s and 1930s featuring colonial revival, classical revival, and art deco buildings.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and has been experiencing urban renewal ever since. It’s where all the cool kids want to be. In August 2013 the Webbs moved into their Scott’s Addition headquarters and never looked back.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography  Knotty pine sourced by Surface Architectural Supply marks the entrance at Tazza Kitchen in Midlothian, Virginia.

Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

Knotty pine sourced by Surface Architectural Supply marks the entrance at Tazza Kitchen in Midlothian, Virginia.

Having the chance to watch the process and meet their team, it’s obvious they value bright people with great attitudes. “I look for passion. If it is apparent that a potential hire believes in something and has worked hard towards that goal, chances are good they will work towards our goals too. Honor, creativity, and work ethic are crucial. Being able to work with others on the team and be open to criticism to improve are a must.”

With a strong team and amazing clients like Richmond’s Tazza Kitchen and HKS Architects’ Washington, D.C. office, Surface Architectural Supply is poised for continued growth. They also have sales reps in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and California.