Is ‘Modern in San Francisco’ an oxymoron?
As the second annual SF20 Modernism Show opens in San Francisco on September 24, the question ‘does San Francisco really embrace modern’ jostles and pummels me yet again. When will we see stunning modern houses by Herzog De Meuron, Renzo Piano, Foster, Nouvel, or Ando, commissioned by high-flyers at eBay and Google and Yahoo!
Pair of c1970 slatted chairs in rosewood and leather by Brazilian designer Jorge Zalszupin, from Hedge Gallery, San Francisco
DATELINE: SAN FRANCISCO Google and Stanford and Intel are just a few miles south down Highway 101. Twitter’s offices are in San Francisco. Facebook is nearby in Palo Alto.
Yes, the Summer of Love happened here. Yes, gay marriages were celebrated here. And yes, we all love one another. It’s all very modern. But do San Franciscans love modern design and architecture as well?
Design students and modern architecture fans imagine that San Francisco — free-wheeling and open-minded and spirited — would be a hotbed of modern design, constantly churning modern ideas, building experimental structures, and filling their houses with Eames and Aalto and Wanders and Starck, and espousing modernist ideals. No, that’s LA.
It’s true there are now high-rises glowering over South of Market streets. Nothing distinguished. Tall buildings with tiny apartments are popular with high-tech brainiacs because these pads are close to the highway for a fast shot south to Silicon Valley. They’re new and trendy but that’s no-one’s idea of San Francisco.
Art, culture, ideas all percolate here. But radical thinking applied to everything from farm food and wind power to bicycles and architecture for humanity has never filtered through to design and architecture. Residents here like the familiar. They want a house to look like their idea of a ‘home’.
San Franciscans protest and raise money for their causes, but fired up voices go home to a cozy Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury, a grand Edwardian mansion in Presidio Heights, a neoclassical Russian Hill apartment, a grand pied-a-terre on Nob Hill, or a colorful and eccentric perch overlooking Chinatown or the Castro.
Ask Stanley Saitowitz, the most ardently admired modernist architect in town, and he’ll tell you that almost the only truly modernist residences he has built in San Francisco are ones he has developed himself. His work is everywhere but here. Building codes earthquakes, and the stylistic requirements to meld into the existing bay-window landscape have restricted experimental architecture. Saitowitz recently built a superbly sleek new apartment building on a formerly rough-edged street. Modernist architect Anne Fougeron designed an elegant loft building on an edgy alley not far from Mission Street. These clear-eyed and refined modern buildings are few and far between.
Table in giant Sequoia with legs in maple by Borge Mogensen, Denmark, c. 1953. Antik, New York, NY.
What about Google people?
I have spent too much time explaining to New York design magazine editors why there is not a steady stream of new modernist residential architecture or new modern interiors in San Francisco.
What about those creative thinkers, the avid and avant-garde Google people with all their billions, they ask. Where are the new residences of the Apple and Oracle folks and all their gazillions? Well, Steve collects Nakashima furniture. Larry lives in a traditional Japanese teahouse, with a modern pied-a-terre in the city. They’re innovators. They are world leaders. They are visionaries; therefore their houses must be modern and great. No, they are not.
These hard-working innovators were mostly engineers or computer science grads, or marketing geniuses. They did not make their youthful fortunes with the burning ambition to hire Frank Gehry or Richard Meier the moment their first billion was in the bank.
High-tech execs are not style obsessed. Nor would they have had time to study art, design, architecture, or peruse Loos or Wright or Johnson. But some are open to being educated by talented modernists. Recently Google, eBay, and Apple execs are hiring San Francisco design talents like Steven Volpe Orlando Diaz-Azcuy and Martha Angus and Paul Wiseman—but their houses are not dramatically modern, not at all.
Unique asymmetrical stack-laminated dining table in cherry wood. Designed by Wendell Castle, USA, 1979. R 20th Century, New York, NY
San Franciscans Love Tradition
There are signs that modern is beloved. International art dealer Martin Muller founded Modernism gallery in San Francisco three decades ago—and many of his clients are international art connoisseurs.
Therien & Co, known throughout the antiques world for superb period furniture (dated before 1830) opened their 20th-century gallery, Therien 20th, offering exquisite contemporary pieces (illustrated here), most of them one-of-a-kind and custom-crafted.
Today, Therien & Co in San Francisco (now associated with Obsolete) offers only 20th-century furniture and decorative objects. It’s a dramatic transition, and one that reflects lightning-bolt changes in the antiques world and taste.
Therien 20th in San Francisco has superb, singular examples of modern furniture, including the beautiful chairs above. Therien 20th won’t be showing in the SF20 Modernism show—but will be at the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show, which opens at Fort Mason, October 28.
San Francisco interior design Orlando Diaz-Azcuy (about whom I recently wrote a monograph) is a modernist through and through—and he noted for decades that few clients in San Francisco want purely modernist interiors. Finally, at the age of 70, he said recently, he is inundated with young couples with modernist dreams.
Designer Steven Volpe has persuaded his clients of the sensual beauty of Ron Arad’s chairs and the sharp power of Prouve's and Le Corbusier’s tables. He's educating his clients about Marc Newson, Marcel Wanders, and modern Japanese-designed glass and lighting, all shown at Hedge Gallery.
At last there are glimmers that our dear friends who conscientiously rant against industrial food and plastic bags and tuna and gas-guzzlers are starting to embrace spiritedly embrace 20th-century design, or even 21st-century design. Finally the Google and Twitter generation and San Francisco’s fine minds are feeling comfortable with modern furniture. The twenty-first century has finally come home to San Francisco.
Pair of PK 27 chairs in laminated maple, leather, and rubber. Designed by Poul Kjaerholm for E. Kold Christensen, Denmark, c. 1971. Offered by R 20th Century, New York, NY
Hedge Makes Its Debut at SF20
“Steven and I are very excited about being in the SF20 for the first, time,” said Roth Martin, founder with Steven Volpe of Hedge Gallery, the six-year-old San Francisco gallery which specializes in a superb and exclusive selection contemporary and modern furniture, lighting, paintings, glass and decorative objects.
“This show brings a fresh perspective to modern style in San Francisco, and allows us to meet a new group of collectors,” added Martin.
Hedge will be showing ten chairs in a dramatic and graphic staging. Included in the group are one of Ron Arad’s fiberglass chairs, a Rick Owens Curial chair, a Marcel Wanders Crochet design, Joris Laarman’s Bone armchair, and an anonymous biomorphic chair in sycamore.
“Since we opened Hedge, we’ve seen an increase in the interest in collectible modern pieces,” said Martin. “Our clients are interested in new ideas concerning construction, new materials, new concepts, always moving forward. There is a growing knowledgeable coterie of serious collectors. Not everyone wants a Ron Arad chair—but connoisseurs of modern are avidly looking for the trophy pieces.”
Vessels in porcelain by Berndt Friberg for Gustavsbuert, Sweden, c. 1950. Antik, New York, NY
AN INTERNATIONAL CELEBRATION OF MODERN DESIGN AND ART
SF20 - San Francisco 20th Century Modernism Show and Sale returns to the Herbst Pavilion for its second annual show at Fort Mason Center, September 24th to September 27th. Boucheron and 1stDibs are lead sponsors.
Preview gala Thursday, September 24th benefits SFMOMA, from 6pm to 9pm. Preview tickets at www.sf20.net or SFMOMA at (415) 618-3263.
General show hours are Friday, September 25th from 11am to 7pm, Saturday September 26th from 11am to 7pm and Sunday, September 27th from Noon to 5pm.
SF20 features 50 premier national and international exhibitors presenting decorative and fine arts from all design movements of the 20th century including furniture, lighting, sculpture, paintings, photography, textiles, prints, ceramics, silver, pottery, jewelry, art glass, vintage clothing and accessories and all are for sale. New additions to the show this year are Hedge Gallery and Battersea from San Francisco, Docantic from Los Angeles and R 20th Century and Antik from New York. Los Angeles dealers returning are Reform, Downtown, Dragonette, Papillon Gallery and Habite. For pre show information please call (708)366-2710.
Black and white photograph by Lillian Bassman: Fantasy on the dance floor, Barbara Mullen, Paris, 1949. Offered by Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
Above images are highlights from the SF20 Modernism show at Fort Mason, opening with a preview gala on Thursday Sept 24, 6pm-8pm. Herbst Pavilion, For Mason Center. Show and sale, September 25-27. For more information on this show, which is sponsored by Boucheron and 1stDibs, go to www.sf20.net.