The Deep Dive: Peeling Back the Curtain

Original acrylic screens get museum-quality care in this Los Angeles restoration.
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As any issue of Dwell proves, the choice of material or joinery method can transform a good project into a design for the ages. The Deep Dive is a forum where design and building pros can obsess over those details. Here we ask expert colleagues to share the inspiration behind house elements that delight clients—as well as the nitty-gritty information about how they were built.

In celebrating the stewardship of Hamilton House in Los Angeles, the November/December feature "He Only Built One Home—So They Gave It a Singular Renovation" also gives due credit to the house’s original architect, Kazuo Umemoto.

Interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II and forced by anti-Asian sentiment to keep a low professional profile after his graduation from Illinois Institute of Technology, Umemoto worked in L.A. in relative obscurity. And according to feature writer Brian Libby, the house that he designed for family friends Donald and Dolores Hamilton in 1961 is the only residential commission in his oeuvre.

As Umemoto was navigating postwar Los Angeles, locally-based Jaylis Sales Corporation began producing an acrylic accordion curtain named after the company. Although the exact date of the product’s launch in the 1950s is unclear, the company marketed the Jaylis in earnest at the dawn of the new decade. An advertisement in the September 1960 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine explains that the curtain is a composite of DuPont Lucite and DuPont Zyetel Nylon, and Architectural Record reported in December 1961 that Jaylis was available in 22 colors and "[t]he covering is suspended on nylon rollers from drapery tracks when stacked, it takes up on 1/12th of the extended width."

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The following May, a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times made a verbose case for Jaylis as a solution for temperature control, daylighting, spatial organization, and decorating, without requiring the dry cleaning of traditional residential fabrics. Or, as a postcard of about the same time sums up, "Jaylis...The only new idea in elegant window decor in the world today! Combines the benefits of drapery, shutters, shades, and blinds all in one—everything a window needs to be completely beautiful, completely practical. Nothing else needed!"

Jaylis’s claims must have resonated with Umemoto, because he sourced the company’s eponymous product for Hamilton House. The checkerboard-patterned curtains line both long elevations of the residence, which are glazed from floor to ceiling, and they meet in a corner of the galley kitchen to screen the workspace from the living/dining area.

In renovating Hamilton House for professional poker player Simon Cremniter, architect Sonya Lee researched Umemoto with the depth that he deserved—going so far as contacting not only architectural historian Sian Winship, but even Umemoto’s son. In the process, Lee also rediscovered Jaylis.

Lee says she had no second thoughts about preserving the curtains. "They’re so unbelievably diaphanous and the quality of them makes the house glow at night," the architect says of the Jaylis installation at Hamilton House. "The quality of the light throughout the day is really remarkable, too. During the day, the little openings between the woven panels would create shadow patterns on the flooring, which almost danced as the sun shifted across the house," she adds.

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Yet unlike her efforts to learn about Umemoto, Lee’s investigation into Jaylis yielded few additional details that could inform her cleaning or conservation of the material. In turn, she worked closely with contractor Jeff Fink to feel out the most respectful course of action. That began with Lee’s cataloging of the installation, in which she identified the location, type, and repair needs of each panel. Afterward, the panels were placed in a climate-controlled storage space in meticulously labeled plywood crates of Fink’s creation.

Cleaning and repair involved delicately conducted rounds of trial and error. The process revealed that diluted Dawn soap, hand-applied by rag, "could take off years of oil and grease and dirt" least abrasively, according to Lee. (For comparison, the Los Angeles Times’s Jaylis ad called it a "magic material that actually repels dust, cleans completely with a whisk broom or water and sponge.") She and Fink also tried several different adhesives to mend tears in the brittle surface, finally determining that Duco was most suited to the task’s delicate nature. The first coat was kept thin, to provide a strong bond that still dries clear because, as Lee recalls, "We were very conscious of not leaving any errant glue on it."

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The duo refurbished the corresponding hardware more assertively, with usability in mind. The curtains’ C-track was missing its end caps in multiple places, as the plastic had popped off or failed from exposure to sunlight and temperature cycles. Fink refabricated these pieces in metal, and his team inserted carrier rollers within the track. These, too, had become lost or defunct over the decades, and the Jaylis curtains open and close smoothly since the swap was made.

The reverence and lack of preciousness with which Lee restored the Jaylis installation, she says, reflects her treatment of historic environments as an architect overall. "My approach is curiosity," she says, "Figuring out the heart of something, without insisting that there’s only one way to do something, is my goal." She praises Fink, who trained as an architect at UCLA and has earned esteem for working on iconic Rudolph Schindler restorations, for sharing her point of view. "So, replacing a curtain track when necessary and not getting too caught up in the original details allows the screens to be functional, and to stand out."

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Stand out they do. Lee is delighted by the soft glow that Hamilton House exudes once again. She observes that there are also unforeseen benefits, such as the vividness with which other colors read against the rejuvenated background, or how the curtains’ shadows dance more crisply against the renovation’s white vinyl composite tile floors, which are a period-accurate replacement for the original asphalt tiles. Plus, Lee notes positive, intangible results, namely insights about Umemoto’s relationship with the innovations of his day, and a deeper kinship with her predecessor thanks to their "shared investment in materiality and craftsmanship."

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