Thursday, September 10, 2009

Modern in San Francisco

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

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 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


The Peak of Chic said...

Diane- Such an interesting post as it is surprising that people who are at the vanguard of technology do not embrace modern, cutting edge design. So nice to see that things are slowly starting to change.

Dumbwit Tellher ♥ said...

Diane such a thought provoking, informative post. When you dissect those who work/live in San Francisco & would have the fortunes to hire a talent modern residential architect, it is no great surprise that modern is not what these innovators of high tech are drawn to. I've lived with and have friends who are engineers, & computer "geeks" (I mean that in a positive light) and I agree, their brains are typically not hard-wired to worship modern design. Style obsessed they are not. I grew up in Seattle & much applies the same there & in Portland, OR. Terrific post as always Diane. Many thanks ~

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Dumbwit-

Thank you for your kind comment.
Your insight is astute.
Yes, in fact, the same problems arose in Seattle after the Microsoft millionaires were building and acquiring their Ando or Meier there, either.
What is true: the venture capital execs and sometimes the marketing side and business side of Google and Kleiner Perkins or Oracle or eBay so call the top designers in San Francisco, like Steven Volpe or Paul Wiseman or Martha Angus. But it's unlikely if our dear Google founders have ever cracked a book on Herzog deMeuron or Piano.
And is best that way, so that they can drive and guide Google and Blogger. A personal anecdote: When I was about to launch THE STYLE SALONISTE, I was at a private dinner and Larry Page and Sergey Brin were guests. I was chatting to Larry Page, and he said, 'So what have you been doing lately?' I said, 'I am starting my blog'...and he said "Great, be sure it's on Blogger and we can share the profits.' I assured him that I was working on Blogger. (At this point I do not take advertising.)
The reality is that modern --in the 21st century--has only recently become understood and liked and used by Americans in general. And that's a kind of oxymoron. America, the land of invention and promise and enterprise and advanced thinking--and 98 per cent of all furniture sold is 'traditional in inspiration'....
San Francisco, land of the avant-garde, is no different after all.

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

Hello Diane,
Thanks so much for your tip on the Marcolini chocolates. I've just discovered that he has a shop in NYC which I will try to visit on my trip there this week. I can hardly wait to be surrounded by the great architecture of New much is new since my last visit. (I lived there for 10 years.)Amusingly,where I live now people can't seem to decide whether they want a chateau or a tuscan villa and so they mix it together. Of course, neither belong here. Oh well, to each his own!
Will catch up with you on my return,

Lynne Rutter said...

Well presented as always, Diane, and I agree that about the residential design market here tending towards the traditional rather than the modern or contemporary styles. There are some notable exceptions of course, in commercial interiors mainly.
Just as the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles seems to have been all but completely overlooked in the Bay Area when the post-gold rush era barons embraced the Beaux-Arts/ neoclassical styles so they could appear more "established," I think the high tech crowd admire innovative design in electronic products but not so much in their bedrooms. When they give up the urban loft condo for a real house it seems they also want the comfort of a traditional interior. Even so, as I do a lot of "historical" style work, I am often (and happily) surprised by the juxtapositions of old and new we can achieve when called upon to add some old world atmosphere to a new space.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Catherine-
About Marcolini-please be sure to send me a report on a taste test (perhaps with your chef husband as well). I think his chocolates are superior--and so elegant and refined. He has the most unusual origins--a single fazenda in northern Brazil, for example--so you are tasting truly rare and beautiful chocolate.
In terms of regional style: yes, you are right that SF is not alone in its preference for traditional styles. Everyone, it seems, dreams of living in a Tuscan villa, a Palladian villa, or a French farmhouse. I can't help wondering if Realtors are partly to blame--by telling clients what will sell and what they will make most money on. Not modern, i am guessing.
Lynne: than you for your insider comments. Yes, you, as a fabulous decorative artist, see the best houses and the best architecture. We know that it is unlikely that you would be called into decorate a modern interior, but are right that innovation in business is one matter, and a living room or house style is quite another. Everyone--almost--wants a house that looks familiar, that looks like their idea of 'home', and especially an aspirational idea, an enhanced concept of heritage, old-world elegance, and the implication of culture and riches.

Penelope Bianchi said...

Hi! I think we figured it out! this is the first time I have been able to leave a comment!


Elise said...

LOVE the b/w photo ! Genius post, absolutely brilliant ! Loving your whole blog. Thank you & best wishes...