Striking Slatted Wood and Glass Home in San Francisco

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By Aaron Britt / Published by Dwell
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Teaming up with architect Craig Steely, an industrial designer and a mechanical engineer find just the right design for a striking home on a San Francisco hill.

I rarely went to the Peter–Craig design sessions," says Jan Moolsintong, a mechanical engineer, "but I imagined them to be very intense and animated." Peter, in this case, is Peter Russell-Clarke, her husband and an industrial designer, and Craig is Craig Steely, one of San Francisco’s premier residential architects. "For some reason, I always pictured things like foam core or cardboard flying around Craig’s office during these sessions, and you don’t really want to get in the middle of two excited artists when they are in the groove doing their thing late at night anyway."

Mechanical engineer Jan Moolsintong and industrial designer Peter Russell-Clarke get epic views of San Francisco from their 1,800-square-foot house overlooking the Mission District. On warm nights, they eat dinner perched on Eiffel side chairs by Charles and Ray Eames around a table from Room & Board. The distinctive facade has operable porthole windows and a slatted garage door custom-built by Raimundo Ferreira.

Whether any architectural models sailed across the room as Steely and Russell-Clarke mapped out what would become the couple’s four-story house, which skims the edge of a vertiginous San Francisco hill, is unclear, but Moolsintong’s not wrong about the ardor the pair of designers brought to the process.

“Peter and I’ve got shockingly similar and far-reaching design inspirations. Our conversations would move easily from brutalism to driftwood

to kachinas and then flow right back to something applicable to architecture. I can’t tell you how many times I will do that with a less-design-literate client and just get a blank stare!” —Architect Craig Steely

"Meetings would generally start with Craig’s son, Zane, running down to the studio in his PJs," reports Russell-Clarke, "with his latest design drawn out on a large piece of cardboard. After a thorough explanation of all the details over mugs of mint tea, Craig and I would start talking over sketches and noodling over models. We’d talk about projects he was working on and get carried away with things that inspired us. We were always running to his shelves for some obscure book or another."

The kitchen is beautifully textured and veined thanks to white Carrara marble countertops installed by New Marble Company and reclaimed cypress cabinets built by Wayne Berger.

Russell-Clarke tends a small garden.

Though the two quickly found that they shared a common design language and a host of mutual influences, the vacant site that Russell-Clarke purchased in February 2009, on the heights southwest of Dolores Park, provided a significant challenge: With a view of downtown San Francisco at a vexing angle, a steep slope to build up, and a public staircase inches from the facade, how could the 1,800-square-foot home scale the hill, open to the city, and keep prying eyes out of the couple’s bedroom? 

A 606 Universal Shelving System by Dieter Rams for Vitsoe hangs tough on the only opaque wall of the living room. Russell-Clarke and Moolsintong designed the coffee table, and Marcel Wanders gets credit for the Bottoni sofa for Moooi.

The solution was a deft bit of hide-and-reveal, one of the house’s abiding themes, and what Steely calls "a simple idea that solves a lot of problems." The trick here is achieved through a forest of tall, vertical louvers made from cypress trees reclaimed from a roadwork project upgrading the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. The louvers begin as a fence along the north side of the top floor, which sits on a plateau at the top of the site and holds the kitchen, dining room, and deck. Then, as the view unfolds behind the glass facade, the apertures between the boards—made by Japanese master builder and Zen Buddhist teacher Paul Discoe of Joinery Structures—widen to include the city and bay beyond.

The master bedroom is defined on the north side by a series of indoor louvers, which allow the couple to frame and manage their views.

At street level, the wooden garage door opens its toothed maw.

In the master bedroom and soon-to-be kid’s room downstairs, the louvers are inside the building, allowing the residents to adjust their views. "There is a thickness and mass to the cypress slabs," says Steely, "sort of an intensity in their size and quantity, that create a unique separation between the private and public, inside and outside."

Outside looking in: a look at the door's mechanism.

Two floors down, in the garage, the same idea plays out, this time in the form of a custom garage door. Built by Raimundo Ferreira, the door’s slatted fingers open outward to uncover a small space that doubles as car storage and a makeshift workshop.

Russell-Clarke and Moolsintong designed their bed. Credit for the custom joinery of the closet and cabinets goes to woodworker Wayne Berger.

The trip from garage to first floor is through a wood-clad spiral staircase that resembles a giant slatted barrel.

Steely and his crew finished the house midway through 2012, appointing the kitchen with marble from the New Marble Company and fantastically detailed cabinets by Wayne Berger. Though Russell-Clarke and Moolsintong have furnished the home with modernist classics—what industrial designer could resist the siren song of a flight of 606 Universal Shelves by Dieter Rams for Vitsoe or a Bottoni sofa by Marcel Wanders for Moooi?—they’ve also brought their considerable design skills to bear in the home.

The LC4 lounge is by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, and Pierre Jeanneret for Cassina. Operable porthole windows on the east facade offer ventilation.

They constructed the coffee table in the living room from offcuts of the marble used in the kitchen and some "retired" climbing rope. In the minimalist bathrooms, they fashioned a "towel ladder" from poplar dowels with small hidden joints. A prototype for the ladder resides in a storage room off the garage. "Jan and I love making things ourselves," Russell-Clarke reports. "I’m sure others could often do a much better job and do it a great deal quicker, but chatting over our designs and getting hands-on with materials keep us happy."

The drawers and cupboards in the closet feature the same masterful joinery established in the kitchen.

It’s that same spirit of collaboration—with each other, with Steely, with Discoe, with a tricky site and the beloved city surrounding it—that made the process of designing and building this house so nourishing. "Craig wasn’t precious about his ideas and didn’t tread lightly around mine," says Russell-Clarke. "We could just honestly tell each other what we thought in the pursuit of the project. For me, the process of designing was really important. It became a project where we could play with ideas, not just a method of having a house made."

At night, opening the entire top floor is a breeze. Russell-Clarke and Moolsintong are even planning of rigging some kind of sail over the back patio for shade. The hot tub is by Roberts Hot Tubs.

The public staircase is directly adjacent to the house, though the louvers mitigate the view of passersby in favor of views of San Francisco.

Architect Craig Steely has become fast friends with Russell-Clarke and Moolsintong. He hangs out in the kitchen and lives not far from the house.