When architect Steven Stept first saw the site of Los Altos Hills II with client Simon Yiu in September 2012, it was empty, gently sloping alongside a quiet cul-de-sac. Now, two stacking, intersecting bars perch on the hillside, opening onto an infinity pool nestled between the two elegant forms. Finished and photographed, polished and populated with furniture, Los Altos Hills II is the product of years of hard work and extensive collaboration but remains true to the original nature of the site; the home finds strength in simplicity and calm on the cutting edge.
“What I like most about the project,” says Feldman’s Humbeen Geo, who assisted with the project’s construction drawings, detailing, construction administration, and interiors, “Is that the main design concept translated into and through construction. Nothing was compromised.” As a custom-for-sale home, the home’s programming lacked the idiosyncrasies of a project designed as a client’s ‘forever home,’ but its design received the same level of focus and attention to detail. Conceived as bold composition of simple forms in the office of Axelrod + Stept Architects, prior to Stept joining the Feldman team where he fine-tuned the design and now serves as Managing Partner, it stayed that way, thanks both to the client’s trust in his architects’ vision and ability to execute and in Steven’s faith, in turn, in the team he assembled.
“Steven gave me the license to both learn and contribute in a meaningful way,” says Humbeen, for whom Los Altos Hills II will always stand out in his mind as his first residential project. Indeed, it is clear that the final home reflects the collective strength of all who worked on the project, from Huettl Landscape Architecture’s thoughtful design for the site, where the dark mulch relates to the dark wood of the house, to Tali Ariely’s lighting design, whose strong concept of a linear lighting system supplemented by down lights mimics the crisp lines of the house. So, too, the wide sliding glass panels that scale back to blur indoor and outdoor living spaces, turning the home’s main living areas into pavilions open to the breeze, represent Murray Windows and Doors’ integral contribution to the project. “Carol, your doors look great – I can’t see them!” Steven joked to the Murray representative after seeing the home completely open to the site and its pool at its center. He adds, “The indoor/outdoor living element is stronger in this house than in any other house I’ve designed.”
One of the collaborations that proved the most rewarding, Steven says, was with Hector Rivera, who crafted the home’s steel staircase. The staircase now casts a striking shadow on the white kitchen counter, and it has become one of the strongest elements of the home.
The project’s finishing touch was the furniture provided by Flexform San Francisco for an intimate open house gathering held at the home in mid-July. Flexform is a luxury furniture brand, handmade in Italy, for whom details are everything, and their furniture adds a softness to the sleek, modern design. “It makes it casual,” says Flexform’s Gregory Herman, “and therefore useable. It invites people to dive in, fire up a movie, enjoy the breeze, the view, the pool.” When, in a happy coincidence, it came to light that the large sofa Steven and Simon had selected for the living room was designed by the same Italian designer, Antonio Chitterio, who designed the Arclinea line featured in the home’s nearby kitchen, it felt as if the final piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. “Before, it was just a building,” says Gregory. “Now, it’s a home.” Feldman’s Aaron Lim, who also worked extensively on the project, added, “The building really came alive that evening; with all of the exterior doors open, especially the corner doors, guests were able to walk in and out the house easily. It felt very open, and well-proportion – not extravagant or ostentatious.” When guests walked through the large entry pivot door into the living room at the open house, immediately accessing views of patio, pool, and site beyond, Steven received his long sought-after response: a jaw drop.
I recently had the chance to walk the home’s dark wood floors, climb its steel staircases, and watch the sun pour into light wells, stairwells, and, well, everywhere from basement to crowning master suite. The sun beat down on the infinity pool, casting reflections of the ripples in the water onto the shaded underside stucco overhang two floors up, and it filtered through the slots in the steel stairs to become slits of light splayed across a concrete wall. All of the home’s doors were open, and all of its closets were empty, just waiting for coats to be hung.
Evan Shively takes the day at a jog. The handful of employees at Aborica, his mill and showroom in the rolling hills of Marshall, California, try to keep pace, running from the compound’s wood mill to its showroom and through the stacks of wood piled by the side of its uneven dirt driveway, hardhats clutched to their heads. They gesticulate wildly to each other – higher, lower, stop, and start – inaudible over the noise of the machines creating slabs from reclaimed wood Evan has gathered from throughout the area. Their heavy machinery careens around corners, kicking up dust in its wake and coating the yellow wildflowers along the barn in a fine powder. If there’s a sense of urgency to this June afternoon, it’s because Evan’s wood salvage business is high demand.
Today, Evan and his team are sawing second growth Redwood for a new supermarket south of the City. Seven Redwood trees were taken from the site of the supermarket and, after months of drawings and revisions from the client, Evan is sawing them into slabs according to the provided specs before sending them on to the fabricator, enabling them to inhabit their old home in a new way.
One employee, Chris, carefully positions the wooden slabs on the machine used to saw and trim their edges. Chris is new to the Pettibone machine required to move the slabs, and Evan pushes and shoves a piece of the redwood to position it correctly, wiggling the wood and his hips to place it in precisely the right spot. At times, the wood, too, appears to be dancing, animated by the machine that props it up on one edge and then the other. Maneuvering the long slabs and setting them down at just the right angle requires a certain dexterity from the heavy machinery and its driver, and Evan eventually hops up in the driver seat, a measuring tape marked with a Hello-Kitty sticker hanging out of his pocket, to help Chris steer the slabs into place. “It’s a careful choreography,” he calls over his shoulder. “It’s like ballet.”
The business of sawing wood, while often branded as based more on strength than on grace, is a careful craft requiring extreme precision and a willingness to linger in the creative process. And, like any artist, Evan draws inspiration from his materials in their original form and encourages his clients to do the same. “Being in the presence of the wood is going to give him clarity,” he says of one client lacking design direction. “He’ll think of the boundless ways he could accomplish his goal, rather than what would be necessary to get him there.”
For Evan, each piece of wood has a personality and a past, and deserves a project that will celebrate both. As we make our way through Aborica’s barn, removed from the din of the machines down the hill, and a cat scurries from one shaded corner to the next, Evan stops at specific slabs, pointing them out in their stacks as individuals. “This is one of the most outrageously beautiful things in the shop. It’s like a natural Noguchi,” he says in front of one Walnut slab. At a lovely Elm one that has yet to be put to good use, he expresses his genuine disappointment that it hasn’t found a good home.
Evan runs back to his office, a shaded and cool room, where the halves of a pitted slice of trunk lie flat on the floor in the form of two arched seats and sketches are strewn across the slab propped up as a desk. He picks up the phone and dials a friend.
“Happy birthday!” He says when the friend answers. “What you do want me to cook? And, remember we’re not beholden to finger food.”
In his former career, Evan was a successful chef and still throws dinner parties and cooks for friends in the professionally-equipped kitchen of his home. For his friend’s birthday dinner, he decides to consult the fish market of his choice and ends up settling on 3 lbs of shrimp and 5 lbs of squid, and, after asking if there is “anything else impossibly delicious” at the market that day, decides to “bust a little ceviche.” The ingredients at hand are driving the meal.
Like working with wood, cooking is predicated on natural materials, Evan explains, and the sweet spot sits at the intersection of resources and design. Both of the crafts he has turned into professions begin with and hinge on the materials that inspire them. “You don’t decide to make an arugula salad and then go about making the arugula,” he says. “You have the arugula and think, ‘This would make a really delicious salad.’” Evan, like us at Feldman, believes that materiality is never an afterthought.
An architect and an academic, Charles Debbas visited us in May 2016 to share a wide variety of images and projects from his successful and varied career. From the earliest project he shared, a flower shop in Berkeley, to the child care centers and preschool he designed for a community in Zimbabwe, to his forays into product design, each project he shared assumed its own identity, clearly catered to the client at hand. Yet, the driving principals behind his work – a belief in the strength of simplicity, a delight in shaping the spatial experience of users, and a commitment to creating designs that activate all human senses – stood out as common across the board. We are grateful that Charles, who has been an architect in Berkeley since 1989 and teaches at the University when not working in the studio, took some time out of his busy schedule to share his story with us.
Flower Shop, Berkeley CA
Giza Museum, Egypt, 2002
Child Care Centers/Pre-Schools, Zimbabwe, 2006
“Don’t do what’s hip. Do what’s you,” advised one of the owners of a recently renovated SoMa loft as he stood in his new kitchen. An executive coach to early age start-ups, he and his wife, an attorney, use the loft as an urban pied-a-terre after downsizing from Silicon Valley, splitting their time between the city and their weekend wine country home.
Their new loft strikes a balance between modern minimalism and the kitsch of the accoutrements they’ve collected over years of travel. It features both the crispness of uninterrupted lines in its casework and the curves of conch shells gifted from relatives, as well as an all-white palette integrated with coins of color. These complimentary design elements are a result of extensive collaboration between the architects and the owners, and prove that strong relationships are the foundation for good design.
At the core of the collaborative design process was Steven Stept, who designed the project with his previous partner Irit Axelrod and saw it through construction at Feldman Architecture.
“Steven and I are a lot alike,” explained the start-ups coach, who situated himself at the heart of the design discussion by managing the project with the help of a superintendent in lieu of hiring a general contractor. “We are focused and unafraid to disagree. I can tell if something is off by an inch from 50 feet away. It comes down to attention to detail, and Steven is absolutely zealous about that.”
Indeed, the project’s success as a coherent whole is built from thoughtful details, from a slight lift in counter height to accommodate the stature of one of the clients, to a discreet corner designed specifically with the needs of the couple’s cat in mind.
“When you’re anticipating a vision,” explained the attorney, “you see the pieces of the design, but you can’t know the usefulness of their whole until you live in it. The design functions exactly as we had intended it.”
When the couple, first encountered the space, they were attracted to its “warehouse vibe,” reminiscent of the 1924 building’s previous stint as a printing business. The loft’s high ceilings and abundance of concrete kept it from being a “cookie-cutter space,” but its maple floor was worn and warped, and a lack of storage would leave personal belongings exposed and the space cluttered with trinkets. With an initial vision centered on simplicity, balance, and symmetry, the couple and their design team set out to bring the space to its full potential.
To do so, Axelrod + Stept Architects crafted a precise plan to integrate the concrete structure into a fluid design, where carefully orchestrated spaces behind a horizontal sliding door would offer privacy for the bedroom, master bath, and laundry. The successful execution of their design incorporated carefully selected products and materials, proving the clients’ and designers’ commitment to design excellence from design vision to reality. The end result was a striking design, based on precision and expertly executed.
The remodel pulled one of the long, narrow apartment’s walls back from its previously angled position, allowing natural light from the space’s largest window to wash down the entire length of the apartment. The new wall is covered in sleek custom casework, whose elongated lines accentuate the loft’s length and flow into the kitchen and whose bright white offers a striking contrast to the dark wood of the loft’s floor.* Across from the casework, horizontal slatted aluminum and glass sliding doors from the Italian designer Adielle hide the master suite and a powder room when closed, creating defined spaces within a coherent whole. When open, the doors allow one space to flow into another, adding a sense of agility to a home characterized by rigid lines. So, too, an Ecro-USA track fixture with LED lights running the length of the corridor, splashing spotlights onto the doors and casework, can be adjusted for both intensity and angle. Throughout the apartment, the design team devoted careful thought to the integration of the space’s interior design and lighting, tapping into the expertise of local lighting designer Tali Ariely.**
With a new laundry and utility room, a guest Murphy bed that recedes into the casework, and extensive storage, the space remains free from clutter, and its sight lines stretch uninterrupted from one end of the apartment to the other.
“The casework is a wonderful looking piece of architecture,” commented one of the clients. “But, more importantly, the space just became more usable.”
Just as the architects brought a design centered on white casework and dark floors and the clients added animation and dimension through souvenirs and select art, the character of the neighborhood had a role in shaping the loft’s design. Just a few blocks from South Park, the loft is immersed in the energy of its growing neighborhood. New office buildings stretch towards the sky, and at street level lines for hole-in-the-wall lunch destinations stretch around the block. The modern aesthetic of the design anticipated the new life the past few years has brought to the neighborhood. Yet, while it reflects the freshness of its environment visually, the loft’s thick envelope keeps the space quiet. And, just as they find the minimalism of the space as calming rather than cool, the clients find a serenity in the apartment that sets it apart from its busy surroundings.
*The corridor casework is a custom linear cabinet by Bartlett Cabinets in Oakland, CA. The kitchen cabinetry comes from Downsview Cabinets.
** The ultimate lighting design warms the modern loft with surface mounted wall washers from Kreon, recessed linear lighting from XAL, bath wall sconces and pendant fixtures from Vibia, and wall uplight sconces from Leucos.
When a venture capital firm approached Feldman Architecture in the hopes of renovating an office space in San Francisco’s Presidio Park, the architects faced a challenge: How could they design offices fit for a firm based in innovation, one that both shapes and reacts to the most striking ideas for the future? How would they create a space where the only constant is the constant advancement of the elusive cutting edge?
On a recent afternoon, the venture capital firm’s Director of Operations walked me through the architect’s solution: a light-filled office whose materials pay tribute to the surrounding Presidio Park, fostering both calm and creativity within. It was clear that, just as the design team had refused to view the space’s pre-existing concrete structural columns as obstacles and had instead embraced them as inspiration for the space’s organization, they had welcomed the challenge of the project as a chance for creativity. “What comes through about the design,” she told me, “was that elements that may have been challenges were viewed as opportunities.”
One of the office’s strengths is a profound connection to the building’s location, where ferns cluster around the trunks of Coast Redwoods and wildflowers abound in the spring and summer. As the firm traded the dark, cramped spaces of their old offices for a space with more natural light, they were determined to create and maintain a strong visual connection with their natural surroundings. In the Presidio VC Offices, visitors are greeted in a high-ceilinged lobby, where sunlight washes in from the surrounding Presidio Park, coating the ivy of the room’s living wall with the sheen of natural light. In each direction, compression corridors branch off from the reception area. Private offices line the hallways, and the large windows on their exterior walls paired with the glass doors on their inner walls allow light to flow into the offices and through them, spilling into the compression corridor at their core. The complimentary textures of wood-paneled walls and ivy in the reception area and the trunk-like columns that progress down the office halls replicate the forest outside and its dappled glades of towering trees. The office fosters a calm productivity, void of the frantic energy that so often settles over industrious offices. “I love watching the look on people’s faces as they walk through the door,” the Director of Operations said. “Our lobby is striking and vastly different from most downtown office spaces.”
While the office’s effects are immediate, she believes it takes familiarity to fully appreciate the more subtle strengths of the design: the way it captures different views from the conference rooms and private offices, or how it frames the fog hovering over and retreating from the Golden Gate Bridge in the kitchen window. Staff members have noticed and embraced the clear visual language of the design, the dark accents repeated throughout the space, and the coherence of its palette. And, slowly, they have added their own subtle embellishments to its warm, clean canvas. A few pieces of art and silly décor elements personalize the space, but largely, the Director of Operations says, they allow the design and architecture to speak for themselves.
She appreciates that the office, created for hard-working, ambitious individuals, is anything but imposing. Its simplicity invites ideas and visitors, alike, and renders the space adaptable. For a past event in the office’s cavernous library, the firm rearranged the modular furniture to accommodate easels and cocktail tables, and, recently, they transformed the space into an intimate setting for a ‘fireside chat’ discussion. It’s an agile space, both adaptable for weekly events and prepared for the possibility of bigger changes down the line, tapping into the timelessness of the trees outside its windows.
– Abigail Bliss
In April, we had the pleasure of welcoming the two artists behind LC Studio Tutto, Sofia Lacin and Hennessey Chrisophel, into the office to speak about their large-scale public art projects. Members of the FA team enjoyed taking a break from comparing different shades of gray to learn about projects whose colors run the gamut of the rainbow. While LC Studio Tutto’s murals in tunnels, under freeways, and on the sides of silos were strikingly different from FA’s own projects in many ways, we were pleased to recognize a few shared core tenants: a careful consideration of site and integration, an attention to each client’s individual needs, and the use of natural light as a dynamic design element. Most notably, in LC Studio Tutto’s “Same Sun” project, three metal letters perched on top of a large water tank cast shadows onto its painted side below, their shadows shifting over the course of the day and throughout the year. Once each year, on the summer solstice, the shadow letters align with painted ones to spell out the phrase, “Sol Omnibus Lucet,” or “The Sun Shines Upon Us All.”
We are grateful for Sofia and Hennessey’s insights into the creative design process and the fantastic work it produces, as well as the meaningful discussion about collaboration and process that they struck up after sharing their portfolio.
Sofia Lacin and Hennessey Christophel