LA House Tour: Steven and John's Original Splendor

LA House Tour: Steven and John's Original Splendor

Gregory Han
Jul 24, 2007

Name: Steven and John
Location: Village Green (National Historic Landmark), Los Angeles (Baldwin Hills)
Size: 1,161 square feet
Years lived in: Two and a half years

We live in a 1941 Modern building, and the majority of our furniture - designed by Gilbert Rohde and produced by the Herman Miller Furniture Company � is also from 1941. We�ve acquired the furniture over the last ten or so years. Rohde is an underappreciated (I think) designer, who introduced Modern design to Herman Miller in the early 1930�s, and paved the way for Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi and George Nelson after he died in 1944. The Gilbert Rohde Paldao collection features exotic wood veneers, leather legs with brass nail head trim, tables and chairs in organic biomorphic forms, paired with classic modern shapes for case pieces.

We're always looking for more candidates for house tours. If you or someone you know is interested in inviting us for a tour, please email us!

Our Inspiration: The classic Modern architecture really set the tone for the design of the house. We are fortunate to live at Village Green, which was built in 1941 as Baldwin Hills Village. Baldwin Hills Village was (and still is) a very innovative concept in multi family housing. It is located on 68 acres in the center of Los Angeles, and an exceptional amount of that space is devoted to open green space and landscaped garden areas, now mature and lush. No streets bisect the �superblock� of the property. The buildings are simple yet modern, and were designed by Reginald Johnson, in association with the partnership of Robert Alexander (later Neutra�s partner), Edwin Merrill and Lewis Wilson. Clarence Stein was the consulting architect, and Fred Barlow, Jr. was landscape architect. Lewis Mumford called it the most fully realized of all the Garden Cities. It is now a National Historic Landmark, one of only a handful in Los Angeles.

We are also inspired by mid-century architect/designer Paul Laszlo�s use of color, and the way Billy Haines and Paul Frankl mixed Asian accessories and lamps with their own modern designs. Gilbert Rohde wrote very interesting �What is Modern/What is Not Modern� treatises for his Herman Miller catalogues in the 1930�s and 40�s; those are invaluable. My mother grew up in Hawaii in the 40�s and 50�s, so there are modern tropical elements mixed throughout as well. We also collect interior design magazines from the 40�s, and find great ideas for color and accessories there, in addition to classic Hollywood films.

Favorite room: My favorite �room� in the house is the balcony off the master bedroom. The lacquered rattan couch is SO comfortable, so on the rare days I�m able to stay at home and read all day, I go up to the balcony with piles of books and magazines and a tray of snacks. It�s paradise!

Most talked about element: My favorite piece in the house is the Zebra chair. It�s a very rare design by Rohde for Herman Miller, from 1939. I found it in a thrift store outside of Sacramento, my only Gilbert Rohde thrift store find! It was covered in a horrible 1960�s Early American tapestry, but the lines were there. Rohde showed it with zebra skin upholstery at the Chicago Herman Miller Showroom, so when I had it reupholstered I went with that.

Biggest challenge in designing my home: I think the biggest challenge is always the budget, not being able to do everything you want to do right away, and finding the patience to wait until you can do things right. We had most all of the furniture when we moved in, so another challenge was trying to fit all these things that we already had and loved into a space that was smaller than our old house. Letting go of things that wouldn�t work in this space was hard, but sometimes you have to let them go back into the world for someone else to enjoy, rather than storing them.

Another challenge is living in the chaos in the midst of a project. Having the bathroom torn apart (and there is only one bathroom) during its restoration makes me apprehensive about restoring the kitchen, which is the last room that really needs attention. The kitchens at Baldwin Hills Village originally had beautiful stainless steel countertops, and nice marbled linoleum floors, so I want to return the kitchen to its original splendor - but don�t relish the thought of living in a dust filled mess of a house during the process.

What friends say about my home: Everyone seems to find it very comfortable above all, which is very important to us. People always love to hear about the history of the Village Green, and also how we came to acquire each piece inside the house. John finds great things in thrift stores, and has a side job selling them on eBay, so friends are always asking what came from thrift stores, and what came from dealers/auction houses.

Biggest Embarrassment in my home : We are thrilled to have a service porch/laundry room (most units at Village Green don�t), but it has turned into a chamber of horrors - the home for everything that doesn�t have a home. Luckily it has a door, but I was giving a tour to a group for the California Preservation Foundation conference last May, and naturally someone on the tour found that door. I was mortified.

Proudest DIY : I wasn�t able to find a competent furniture restorer in Sacramento, where we used to live. Most weren�t interested in doing it the right way, which is VERY labor intensive. So I decided I would have to do it myself. I wrote to Herman Miller, and they provided me with the process used to finish the furniture the first time, in 1941. I got books on furniture refinishing, and taught myself how to do the job correctly (with a lot of practice). My father restored antique cars, and was highly sought after for his perfect bodywork and paint, so it must be in my blood.

Biggest indulgence : Buying some rather expensive Maharam mohair for the Dining Room chairs � I saw that burnt orange color, and couldn�t live without it. It just so happened that I got the last ten yards left in the world, after they discontinued the color.

Best advice : Wait, and live in the space for awhile before you do anything major to it. You can avoid costly or ill-informed mistakes if you see how you use the space first, and let the space tell you what it needs. In our case, I learned to have greater respect for the original design intent of the architects, and found that no changes were needed, and that the original design was perfect for us already.

Dream Source for stuff : Since there isn�t room for any more furniture, I would love to find some of the great modern clocks Gilbert Rohde designed for Herman Miller, and I would love to find them in thrift stores! They�re considered some of his finest designs, and many go for over $10,000.00 - so I won�t be stocking up on those at retail prices anytime soon�

Appliances: Refrigerator � 1948 Hotpoint.
Stove � 1941 General Electric. We found it at an antique mall near Palm Springs, and bought it because we loved it. A couple of years later, we went to a poker game at another Village Green apartment, one that hadn�t been touched since 1941, and there was our very same stove. At the Village Green, half of the units (ours included) were all-electric, a deal the architects made with the DWP to bury the utility lines underground, something almost unheard of and radical for 1941.

Hardware: Refrigerator � 1948 Hotpoint.
Original brass hardware � stripped of old lacquer, polished and re-lacquered.

Furniture: Gilbert Rohde, for the Herman Miller Company � most every piece in the house is from Gilbert Rohde�s Paldao Collection of 1941 (collected over the last ten years, using dealers and auction houses around the country � though a couple pieces came from eBay).

The exception is the Living Room sofa, and the two club chairs in the Library, which are from J. Robert Scott. They are keeping with the 40�s style we like, and are just so well made and comfortable. That sofa is the most comfortable bed in the world. They were found by John in L.A. thrift stores, in perfect condition, for under $100.00!!!

Upholstery work by Residence, in Los Angeles.

Accessories: We collect vintage pottery, and are attracted to stylized animal forms. Most John finds in thrift stores. Also Weiner Werkstatte pottery, like the Walter Bosse donkey in the library, and the circus characters on the bedroom vanity. I also love Tommi Parzinger�s brass candlesticks and serving pieces for Dorlyn Silversmiths, Russel Wright Casual China for Iroquois, Dorothy Thorpe crystal, Raymond Loewy china for Rosenthal.

Lighting: Vintage Stiffel, Wilshire House, Kurt Versen, and other Asian inspired lamps collected over the years. Custom lampshades by Carl�s Lampshades on Beverly Blvd, near La Cienega. He�s been around forever, and really knows exactly what each lamp needs!

Paint: I generally think Dunn-Edwards is the best, but used Sherwin-Williams in the Living Room and Dining Room, a Martha Stewart color called �Mission�, which is a very deep olive - and appears almost brown - but changes depending on the light. That color followed me from our last house.
A lot of people seem to be afraid to use dark colors on the walls, thinking it will make rooms seem smaller. I think that dark colors make the walls virtually disappear - and the colors we have used in the downstairs rooms really pop against the dark walls. We use the Living and Dining rooms for entertaining mostly at night, so the dark walls create a glamorous, slightly mysterious atmosphere which is nice and people look good in.
Sherwin-Williams �Netsuke�, a warm ivory, is used in the rest of the house, with accent walls in the Library and Master Bedroom a deep, muted blue.

Flooring: Original oak parquet on the ground floor. Oak strip flooring on the second floor (now covered by carpeting).

Rugs and Carpets: Ivory shaggy textured rug in the Living Room is vintage, from a thrift store. Most people think I�m a freak for admitting this, but I prefer carpet to hardwood flooring, so the entire upstairs and stairway are wall to wall carpeting, a very short dense velvet pile from Expo Design Center in Westwood. Plain velvet wall to wall carpeting was considered �Modern� by Gilbert Rohde and other modern designers of the 30�s and 40�s, and I prefer the quiet acoustic qualities and warmth underfoot, especially in bedrooms. Wall to wall carpet also unifies spaces and makes rooms appear larger. I know I�m not going to convince anyone to cover their beautiful hardwood floors, but this is our style.

Tiles and Stone: Original pale yellow tile in bathroom. From the Mosaic Tile Company of Zanesville, Ohio (now out of business). We�re still trying to get some reproduced for the bathroom, where we have some gaps after being re-piped last year.

Window Treatments: 2� Venetian Blinds from Aero Shade on W. 3rd Street. Vintage 1940�s draperies in Living Room and Dining Room are beige linen, woven with gold Lurex threads, and hand screened with a Japanese/Tropical HUGE pattern. Upstairs draperies are vintage blue �raw silk� � I think they�re some sort of miracle synthetic material though.

Beds: Sealy Posturepedic, firm. The bedroom furniture is Gilbert Rohde, with dark mahogany cases, and ivory leather upholstered drawer fronts. The lamps on the nightstands are vintage Stiffel; the lamps on the chests of drawers are Target, though we lacquered them the persimmon color ourselves.

Artwork: Vintage watercolor and airbrush paintings in the Living and Dining rooms. Hand hammered copper tropical portraits, in their original frames on stair landing. I was an Art Major, and the fake Tamara de Lempickas and Matisse upstairs were college projects. The painting in the Living Room of the two turbaned ladies was my Grandmother�s, from the time they lived in Hawaii in the 40�s.

Other: Bookshelves in the library are �Billy� from Ikea.

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