Excerpt: Book
Handcrafted Modern

It’s possible you’ve spent hours foraging flea markets, wondering how a Russel Wright pitcher or an Eames shell chair or a Jens Risom credenza might fit into your home décor. But did you ever stop to wonder how those pieces may have figured into the homes of their own makers? Leslie Williamson, a San Francisco–based photographer, did — and the result is Handcrafted Modern, a new book that offers an intimate glimpse inside the houses of 14 of America’s most beloved mid-century designers.

Williamson writes that the book was born of pure, old-fashioned curiosity: “What would an architect build for himself, without the demands of a client upon him?” she wondered. “Would he experiment? Would what an architect builds for himself be the purest manifestation of his creative vision?” But as she immersed herself in the project it became less about the big questions and more about the tiny details, the items that told the story of who each designer was as a person rather than as a “demigod of design,” as she puts it. Williamson photographed personal artifacts as much as furnishings — Walter Gropius’s bath towel, Ray Eames’s bedside bobby pins, Vladamir Kagan’s shower, Jens Risom’s drafting tools — and in doing so, she’s created a warmer, more humanizing portrait of modernism than has perhaps ever been captured in print before. We’ve excerpted eight of our favorite details in the following slideshow.

From Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Mid-century Designers, by Leslie Williamson. Copyright © 2010 and reprinted with permission from the publisher, Rizzoli.


Charles and Ray Eames: Williamson was determined to get inside the Eames’s Case Study House No. 8: “I thought everyone had seen the house, and there was no need to photograph it yet again, but how wrong I was! The interiors have rarely been photographed.” Inside she found evidence of Ray’s collecting habit; in the living room, animal prints, Americana quilting, and American Indian rugs speak to the couple’s democratic approach to design.


Irving Harper: Harper’s Rye, New York, farmhouse is filled with vintage Herman Miller, and no wonder: As a designer in George Nelson’s office, Harper was the vision behind classics like the Marshmallow Sofa. Even more fascinating for Williamson were Harper’s paper sculptures (pictured), which filled both the house and a massive barn out back. Made from everyday materials like toothpicks, pins, and straws, they were Harper’s main creative outlet post-retirement. “It kept me sane,” he says.


Russel Wright: The American Modern dinnerware designer — who also created furniture and textiles — used his Garrison, New York, home as a canvas for material experimentation. “I gave up counting when I reached twenty different treatments [on the walls and doors],” Williamson writes. “Pine needles mixed in paint on the living room wall, a hundred butterflies laminated in clear plastic in his daughter’s bathroom, a door covered in the bark of a birch tree (above), and so on.”


Vladamir Kagan: “Each room unfolds into the next as an unexpected surprise,” Williamson writes of the designer’s Park Avenue apartment, which he shares with his wife Erica Wilson. In the living room sits Kagan’s 1953 leather Contour chair, surrounded by abstract paintings by Frank Stella and Joe Crum and a cagelike enclosure for trees and other greenery.


Walter Gropius: The Bauhaus founder built his home in Lincoln, Massachusetts in 1938, and thanks to his wife, Ise, the house remains as it did when he lived there. Williamson was able to capture details like a cookbook left on the kitchen counter, “complete with penciled-in notes on how ‘Gropi’ preferred his duck a l’orange,” and Ise’s red evening dress (above), which hangs in the couple’s dressing room.


Eva Zeisel: The second-floor studio of Zeisel’s country house in Rockland County, New York, charts the evolution of her designs. “Glasses, plates, teapots, casserole dishes, dinnerware — some with patterns, others plain — all happily cohabit on these shelves.” An un-upholstered version of her 1993 lounge chair is in the foreground.


Jens Risom: Flanking the desk in the office of Risom’s New Canaan, Connecticut, bungalow are two golden Rs, left over from the designer’s Jens Risom Design, Inc. showrooms. Over lunch, Risom gave Williamson some decorating advice: “Good design goes with good design. It doesn’t matter what style or period.”


J.B. Blunk: The late designer’s home in Inverness, California, is now run as an artists’ residence, and it was the only home in which Williamson had the pleasure of staying the night. Blunk built the one-room cabin with his wife in the early 1960s; strapped for cash, the two salvaged the majority of the wood in the house from nearby beaches, including this hand-carved redwood sink in the bathroom.


Join Leslie Williamson and Sight Unseen this Wednesday, October 13, for an evening of cocktails and discussion on the making of Handcrafted Modern, at New York's USM Modular Furniture Showroom. RSVP required.