In today’s design culture, with its fascination for novel materials and eye-catching forms, ceilings tend to be an architectural afterthought—the surface that caps the space and spans the walls.
But when Berkeley architect Thom Faulders had the chance to add an extra floor to a house that doubles as a private gallery filled with provocative art, he made the ceiling an intricate piece of art in itself. This is art forged from nothing more precious than medium-density fiberboard and white paint, brought to life through digital design and old-fashioned sweat.
"It’s been great to take such basic materials and manipulate them through methodology that allows you to explore new potentials," says Faulders, who talks like the architecture professor that he is (at the California College of the Arts). "I like creating, by digital means, what in effect is a 1,200-square-foot drawing."
It’s an unusual approach—but one in keeping with the wishes of a client who had already covered much of his body with tattoos and most of his home with paintings and sculptures. "Thom asked me, ‘What are the ground rules?’ and I responded, ‘Big flat walls, and the walls are mine,’" recalls homeowner Jeff Dauber, who manages computer development for a Silicon Valley firm and lives on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, a neighborhood with blue-collar roots and a boho reputation. "He said, ‘That’s great, I’ve got an idea for the ceiling.’"
What now exists on the new third floor behind a subdued gray stucco façade is the visual equivalent of a rhythmic drone, or a procession of EKG readings that have been stretched and smoothed and laid side by side. Line after line after line runs from north to south along the ceiling; they never overlap, there are no sharp turns, and no two are alike.
The idea is to provide a backdrop to a room where part of one wall is filled by radical artist Hung Liu’s Gas Masks and where there’s a Native American constructed from pushpins above the stairwell by Rigo. The artwork is the focus, yet the ceiling’s linear bands slide above you and around you, a soft warp of patterns that never quite snap into focus.
That ambiguity evolved digitally as Faulders fleshed out his initial concept of unique but interrelated lines: "Let’s create this system where you don’t know what the visual result will be until you experience it in reality." A set of rules was programmed; for example, any shift in a line’s direction must follow a 10-degree or a 45-degree angle, and a line could not get within one and a half inches of its neighbor. Each of the lines was then "drawn" by Faulders or one of his associates—but steered by the parameters of the initial code.
"It’s a very regular system, yet because it’s not purely programmed, we introduced additional levels of unpredictability and irregularity into the process," Faulders says. "The system was generated in the computer and it relies on digital means, but the program didn’t determine the final outcome."
To bring the design into three dimensions, Faulders called on Andre Caradec of Studio Under Manufacture, an Oakland design and fabrication firm that specializes in digital millwork. Caradec translated the digital files into software commands that would power his equipment, a milling machine that can glide above sheets of wood as large as four feet by ten feet. Each of those large boards was sliced into an average of five elongated jigsaw puzzle–like pieces, then numbered by hand so that they could be attached to the ceiling in the proper location.
"Crafting with these machines is like any woodworking tool. You have to know how it responds to the limitations of both the machine and the materiality," Caradec says. "The big hurdle here was fighting the modularity of the [four-by-ten-foot] sheet—the ceiling had to be devoid of any sense that it had been sliced from larger pieces."
The jigsaw pieces were shipped to Potrero Hill, and workers from Capron Construction spent six weeks assembling the overhead puzzle. Working one row of forms at a time, pieces were matched to their corresponding numbers and attached using glue and as few nails as possible—with pegs between each piece to keep a steady quarter-inch spacing that was essential to the final effect ("lots of pegs, everywhere," Faulders recalls).
Caradec sees this approach becoming more popular in the years ahead. "The standard of handing off the baton to the contractor doesn’t fit with the direction that architects are going," he says. "Digital milling isn’t that much more complicated than a table saw. You just run it with software."
Dauber is thrilled, calling the ceiling "another work of art in my collection." And Faulders is glad that he plunged into the unknown. "Through digital means it’s possible to reengage in the sort of customization that didn’t seem possible a decade or so ago," Faulders says. "Suddenly I’m in the construction process. We’re right back to the craft guilds of the Renaissance."
John King last wrote for Dwell on suburban urbanism, a far cry Hugh Ferriss's world of sky-scraping charcoal forms. Currently the San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic, King first encountered Farriss's atmospheric imagery in the 1980s, when its sky's-the-limit ethos seemed more archaic than it does today.