The Yarn House

Originally published on DesignObserver, April 14, 2018

Forms and Surfaces, Bronze Doors, 1973

“You know, you’re really nobody in Los Angeles unless you live in a house with a really big door,”—Steve Martin

Oddly, my life recently intersected with the big door issue. A friend directed me to the sale of a set of doors designed for Forms and Surfaces in 1973. They are magnificent examples of the post-war west coast craft and style movement. Unfortunately, my front door is a standard size and a 6-foot wide set of doors will not fit. I also can’t spend the equivalent of a small house on two doors. 

Jackson and Ellamarie Wooley, 1962

The West Coast Craft and Style movement led to the publication of a series of exhibitions and thirteen books, California Design. The content is not a collection of Santa Claus figures made with felt and a toilet paper roll. It represented a movement that started after World War II when artists and designers, working in California, explored new materials and techniques. Taking the concepts of modernism and optimism, artists crafted functional objects, furniture, pottery, and textiles using natural materials. Tupperware, pastel-colored plastic radios, faux wood chairs, and Naugahyde spoke to technologies and materials developed during the war. The craft movement turned toward nature as a response to the industrial mechanization of production and proliferation of new synthetic materials. 

The environment and history of California also informed the work. Natural materials alluded to the redwood forests, Sierra Nevada mountains, and endless beaches. There was a historical connection to the Arts and Crafts movement and Greene and Greene’s architecture using handmade and unique doors, cabinets, and dinnerware. The environment and history inspired the colors. Orange came from the California Poppy and oranges grown since the early mission period. The 1859 Gold Rush inspired ochre and gold. And the natural world created palettes of brown, rust, avocado, and burnt red

Barbara Shawcroft, Arizona Inner Space, 1971

The movement evolved, and by the 1970s, artists and designers created increasingly fanciful and provocative work led by the counter-culture attitude. Barbara Shawcroft’s Arizona Inner Space (1971) is, perhaps, the most miraculous house made with textiles ever. Evelyn Ackerman’s Animal Block Series (1971) is a musical narrative. Elsie Crawford and Douglas Deeds addressed the public sphere and urban experience with experimental fiberglass benches and seating.

The sleek aesthetic of the late 1970s and appropriation of the synthetic in the 1980s drove the movement to the backburner. Many California art and design schools have the myth of a kiln that once serviced a ceramics major. In the past decade, the artifacts represented in the California Design books have found homes in high-end stores that previously focused on mid-century furniture and art. The technological and easily disposable manufactured world today has rekindled the drive to use natural materials and actual human hands to create. I may not be able to build Saarinen Womb Chair, but I can learn to macramé a hanging house. 

LEFT: John Marko, 1962. RIGHT: Architectural Pottery, 1965.

LEFT: Jean Ray Laury, Scarlet Garden, 1962. RIGHT: Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman, 1971

Douglas Deeds, Architectural Fiberglass, 1968

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Which Craft?

I’ve been accused of living in a bubble. Supposedly, the real world is very different than the one I inhabit. One of the issues with my bubble world is that I assume everyone knows the same things I do. Last week, one of my students told me she had read only ten books in her entire life. The week before someone told me they like old movies, especially Clueless. I assumed my Vertigo references and discussions about Ginsberg’s Howl made sense to everyone. A light bulb went off in my head, and I discovered that references I take for granted are not as universal as I thought. Of course, it’s a 2-way street. When someone asks if I like any new music, I say Thompson Twins.

Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman are remarkable artists. I presumed everyone knew their work. But, as I have learned, sometimes that isn’t true. The Ackermans are integral to the fabric of California craft. Since they opened Jenev Design Studio in 1952, they opened the door to the idea of craft combined with modernism. Their ability to swing from ceramics, wood, textiles, metal, and glass is remarkable. And across all these media, the sense of exuberance and joy is apparent. Bad design can sink under the weight of its own importance.

The Ackerman work is incredibly important. It inspired generations of artists in California as well as everyday people who wanted to dabble in craft. Yet, it never is self-important. The work always communicates the idea of the human hand. And it invites viewers to stop whatever they are doing and begin to create.

Many of these images are from one of my favorite sites,