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.

Not my Nuts!

Nut Tree Dining Room, Vacaville, California

There are times in history when all elements come together at a specific place to create something remarkable. Fallingwater, the Lever House, the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, and, yes, the Nut Tree in Vacaville, California. For most people growing up in northern California or Nevada, the Nut Tree was a ritual. Every trip we took between our ranch in the Sierras to San Francisco required a Nut Tree stop. I believe I have the Nut Tree to blame for my vocation. I was mesmerized by the packaging, signage, typography, and artwork. And I was 4. Much of the design was the creation of Don Birrell. He introduced high California modernism to the farming fields of central California. The Nut Tree had Eames chairs in the Toy Shop, and Dansk flatware in the Dining Room. The mix of folk art, hand-crafts, and minimal modernism predated Alexander Girard’s Textile & Objects shop by 8 years. There was a clear sense of joy, clarity, and quality that pervaded the atmosphere. And this was, basically, just a roadside store and restaurant, with a small local airport. If one of the tenants of modernism is to bring good design to the masses, the Nut Tree is a prime example and is long overdue for the recognition it deserves.

Sean (4) admiring letterforms on Nut Tree train
Sean (4) admiring letterforms on Nut Tree train

Nut Tree Train, Vacaville, California

Nut Tree Dining Room, Vacaville, California

The Nut Tree Shop

The Nut Tree Plaza

"Dendriform" by Jean Ray Laury at the Nut Tree, Vacaville, California, 1978
"Dendriform" by Jean Ray Laury at the Nut Tree, Vacaville, California, 1978

Charlotte Patera poster, 1975, Nut Tree

Lowell Herrero poster, 1970 at Nut Tree

Woodcarvings, Stan Dann, Nut Tree Poster 1977