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Wood For Welcome Warmth

An Update on the Craftsman Aesthetic

January 11, 1998|MICHAEL WEBB

When costume designer Jo Davis considered expanding her Spanish-style cottage in Santa Monica, she quickly decided that it made more sense to build a new house than fix up the old. She commissioned a local architect, Jeff Sulkin of Sulkin Studio, who shared her love of Craftsman bungalows and traditional Japanese design. Together, they explored the Gamble House in Pasadena, admiring its decorative details and finely crafted woods, then resolved to bring the same interior richness and barn-like sturdiness to a modestly scaled contemporary house with a more modern sense of light and flow of space.

For Sulkin, the project was a fresh challenge. "My best qualification was that I had never done a Craftsman-style house, so I could rethink every aspect of the design," he says. For a year, he collaborated with Davis, his partner, Jeff Mills, and Davis' companion, theater director Frank X. Ford, which culminated in 130 sheets of working drawings for a structure of 300 interlocking Douglas fir posts and beams.

"We wanted the house to be a good neighbor, so it's only half the size it could have been and is outwardly reticent," Sulkin says of the three-bedroom, 2,700-square-foot house finished early last year. Pergolas frame the entrance and only the steel rods and plates protruding from the cedar-clad walls indicate that this is a new variation on an old theme. In contrast, the interior offers dramatic shifts in scale, from a snug living room to an atrium that soars 28 feet above the dining table. An intricate balustrade rises along one wall and wraps a gallery that leads to the bedrooms upstairs.

To satisfy a building code that is much more demanding than it was 90 years ago during the heyday of Craftsman-style homes, the sandblasted and clear-sealed timbers of the fully exposed frame were linked by those steel plates and rods. The plates and their oversized bolt heads are the principal decorative hardware. Plain white walls set off 21 varieties of wood, including vertical-grain Douglas fir, white oak, walnut and teak, that were carefully coordinated. For example, the architects hand-picked varicolored floorboards of Tasmanian oak to echo other woods used nearby. The result was so striking that the lumber salesman and several carpenters brought family and friends by for a look.

"We accomplished what we set out to do," Sulkin says. "We created a hybrid out of a tradition without literally mimicking it. And yet it still has the emotional impact of a Craftsman, the sense of being an inviting home. It's got simple character inside and out."

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