My House: Gallery Owner Francis Mill’s San Francisco Loft Is a Poetic “Place For Looking”

My House: Gallery Owner Francis Mill’s San Francisco Loft Is a Poetic “Place For Looking”

By Jen Woo
Located in a former warehouse, Francis Mill’s two lofts encourage contemplation of light, art, and architecture.

It’s only fitting that Francis Mill’s San Francisco home is just as artfully curated as his gallery, Hackett Mill, which is located right next door to SFMOMA. The minimalist, concrete abode serves as a backdrop for Mill’s extensive art and book collection, which includes an archive of his father’s scroll paintings and an indoor sculpture garden. His main residence, a.k.a. the "cave," is a 1,300-square-foot space holding a studio, office, and living quarters; three flights up the same building is the "penthouse," shaped by Aidlin Darling Design.

"My home, consisting of my two lofts, is a sculpture; it is a self-portrait; it is a portrait of my mind; it is a stage for all my ongoing ideas; it is my intimate cave; it is my art bunker; it is my survival place; and it is my machine for living," says Mill.

The owl corner is a recent addition in the cave’s bedroom. A plywood perch below the viewing hole usually hosts a sculptural owl, while the light box installed to house drawings creates a calming tableau at night. 

Francis Mill emphasizes the importance of "uninterrupted looking" at home. This niche in the cave offers a tranquil place to read or contemplate art. 

The penthouse space allows Mill to escape from the noise and distraction of the city when he doesn’t have time for a weekend getaway. Accordingly, it’s set up for "the uninterrupted looking at of art and architecture, reading, and drawing." It also holds a gym, library, media room, and sculpture garden on the roof deck. A system of modular, mobile architecture forms migrate between "the cave"—his main residence downstairs—and the upstairs loft. 

"They function as sculpture, architecture, and vehicles to transport needed items between my two spaces," explains Mill. "When I travel to my retreat for a weekend, my architectural system (constructed of plywood) will provide the necessary vehicles to transport all that I need. You can see two of these vehicles parked underneath the kitchen island in the penthouse. One functions also as a step ladder to reach the upper cupboards."

The cave’s art-filled dining room.

In the downstairs loft, an Eames chair sits amid a steel sculpture garden; it’s the perfect place to sit and view an abstract expressionist painting by Bradley Walker Tomlin, hung from the ceiling.

Mill first discovered the building 15 years ago while searching for a place with the most "soulful history." Built in 1937, the concrete warehouse is now a historic landmark.

"I like to engage in the lengthy search that is required to resolve the tension between disparate entities such as aesthetics and function," says Mill. "I knew that the unmodifiable, historic structure would provide the needed tension with creating a fully functional living space for me."

Mill maintains a downstairs studio for day-to-day work, but he heads up to the penthouse when he wants a change of headspace.

Did you have a theme for decor? 

Themes are for amusement parks. My vision is to realize an efficient machine for living. My guiding force is the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and his book The Poetics of Space. I refer and return frequently to the chapters "House and Universe," "Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes," "Nests," and "Corners." These chapters have been very influential in my thought process.   

The upstairs penthouse is lined with Mill‘s library.

How do you curate for your home compared to the process for your gallery? 

In both home and gallery, I aim to break expected conventions. The gallery located next to SFMOMA is not a conventional white cube; rather it is a fully functional work space with all the staff on the floor or on the stage. There are no traditional offices. The expected hierarchical spatial order of front versus back, public versus private, are all eliminated. 

My aesthetic is rooted in function. Form follows function. The functions of a gallery and a home are immediately different, and therefore I created the spaces to respond and fulfill their respective functions. The gallery is a place of work. My home is place where I live with art. One has more chairs in order to support my prolonged and uninterrupted periods of looking. I don't need to talk to anyone in this space.  

A wooden "curtain," designed by Mill and fabricated by John Hiser, divides the penthouse from the roof deck and redirects light. "I am obsessed with looking at these plywood forms at various times of day," says Mill, "from early morning at 5 a.m. to early evenings when the sun goes down. The light play is pure spatial poetry for me." A marble sculpture by Manuel Neri anchors the area. 

Any standout parts of the house that are particularly special to you? 

I am obsessed with many parts of my home. I like seeing how I and others respond to decisions I make on impacting the space. It is what an artist does. It is what an architect does. That is how I define "living with art and architecture." 

The architectural system that I developed in the penthouse has been a constant reward for my thirst for uninterrupted looking. I created a curtain wall of plywood along the patio doors leading to the roof deck. This curtain of plywood functions to filter and redirect the reflected sunlight from the glass towers across the street so that my woodwork, cabinetry, and art is protected from the sun. The curtain wall is based on two-foot cubes of various interior forms stacked to eight feet in height. There are three plywood towers, and they slide on the concrete floor on wheels. I am obsessed with looking at these plywood forms at various times of day, from early morning at 5 a.m. and to early evening when the sun goes down. The light play is pure spatial poetry for me. 

The owl corner is a recent creation in the bedroom in my first loft. The hinged plywood panels covering the original warehouse window is for security. Note the perch with viewing hole, where a sculptural owl usually resides. It grew into a light sculpture and a box unit installed on the wall to house drawings that I like looking at. At night, the glow from the light box illuminates all these plywood surfaces and creates a calming light poetry.    

Another marble sculpture by Manuel Neri lies in the kitchen upstairs.

For someone who is constantly immersed in art, how did you choose what you would include in your personal space? 

My priority is art and the artistic process. Therefore, the choices I make are usually one-of-kind artworks and functional pieces that I collaborate with another artist on. 

A Manuel Neri painted plaster sculpture sits at the base of the penthouse stairs.

Where do you spend most of your time in your home? 

My Eames chair. It is where I do a lot of looking. It is situated in the indoor sculpture garden of steel. A painting by abstract expressionist Bradley Walker Tomlin from 1948 is suspended horizontally from the ceiling. I placed it there because of a functional need. Before I got my penthouse, I ran out of wall space, and the painting was either going into my storage or I could see it from my Eames chair, by looking up. I was in good company, as Charles and Ray Eames had hung their Hans Hofmann painting in this same position in their home, the Eames House. In the penthouse, my urban retreat, I spend most of time seated in my armchair directly in front of my curtain wall of plywood. I observe the light as it changes. It is my much needed poetry. 

The Light Wall sculpture in the penthouse was designed by Mill and fabricated by John Hiser. The blue Moon Door, which helps Mill "psychologically shut out the world," becomes the backdrop to the black wood sculpture by Louise Nevelson.

What is your single favorite piece of decor that you own and why? 

My favorite piece of anything (right now) are two sculptural architectural forms I created for the penthouse. First, my Moon Door. This is an extra door I added at the entry to psychologically shut out the world when I am in my retreat. When closed, this moon door becomes the blue sky background to my large, Louise Nevelson painted black wood sculpture. The oculus of the front door becomes the rising moon as I sit and meditate and contemplate in my urban retreat. Second, the two hinged walls. This functions as an unexpected sculptural form as I wanted to impact the quiet minimalist tone of the penthouse. It also provides additional privacy for the space, and most provocative is its role as a light source. I find it to be a rather thrilling light source at night, a night light if you will, and a provocative sculpture form to look at during the night sleep.

An archive of Mill's father's scroll paintings sits in the penthouse. The design is inspired by a temple gate in Kyoto, Japan. This archive functions also as illumination for the corridor in the penthouse.  

What was on your checklist when designing your home? What were your must-haves, in terms of furniture and accessories? 

I live with art and work with artists. I created, designed, and collaborated with other artists to fabricate the majority of what is in my environment. I transformed the entry closet of my penthouse into an art installation housing the fashion collection by designer Ke Zhang. The bedspread fragment in the penthouse is a custom-knitted piece by fashion designer McKaela Christenson. In my first meetings with both designers, I introduced them to my art world and we talked about the periods of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, and Color Field. We continued brainstorming by tossing ideas back and forth and finally I let them run with their creativity. The knitted piece for the bed was inspired by the collage painting by Conrad Marca-Relli which hangs above.   

What items for the home would you say are most important to invest in? 

The art. I place a high value on the artistic process and the creative process. 

The bedspread fragment in the penthouse is a custom-knitted piece by fashion designer McKaela Christenson.


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