San Francisco Modern
by Zahid Sardar
photographs by J.D. Peterson
Published by Chronicle Books
Gardens of the Wine Country
by Molly Chappellet
with Richard Tracey
Published by Chronicle Books
1998, 204 pages
Coffee Table Tomes
Reviewed by David Middleton
There are some books that just make you say "wow." You know the ones: big, hardcover coffee table books full of color photos of beautiful places and things. Books that look so impressive sitting in a strategic place in your home waiting for someone to take notice. Coffee table books perform an important function in a book collection. They become set pieces in your life; part of the furniture, -- some big enough to actually be furniture -- providing a literary focal point to the composition of a room. They can be used to get across an unspoken message to visitors: this is a little of who we are and these are some of the things we love. The coffee table book can also serve as a conversation starter. Who could not notice and comment on something that takes two hands to move out of the way in order to find a clear spot to place your beverage?
San Francisco Modern and Gardens of the Wine Country definitely fall into the "wow" category. With the delightful combination of not only being spectacular to look at but also being informative, these two books proudly define the term "coffee table book".
San Francisco Modern starts with a short history of how modernism traveled from Europe to California where it evolved into a style unique to the American culture. How architects and designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Ray and Charles Eames, Irving Gill, and William Wurster -- with some influence from the Bauhaus -- would go on to create their own architectural language as it related to the people and surrounding geography of the San Francisco Bay Area.
By the 1930s, the term modern was used to define a twentieth-century style -- with roots in the Bauhaus, the design school started in Germany by Gropius -- that found fuller expression in the United States. This style was categorized by a simplicity of form with an absence of superfluous ornament, and an emphasis on functional concerns. The word modern means recent or current; therefore, it came into use in the discussion and criticism of art, architecture, interiors, and industrial, as well as graphic, design to describe developments of the early twentieth century in which historicism and dependence on traditions were rejected in favor of directions that would relate to the changing social, economic, and technical realities of the machine age.
San Francisco Modern's beauty comes in the form of J.D. Peterson's stunning photography. A contributor to such publications as Architectural Record, I.D. Magazine and House Beautiful, Peterson's work is clean and unencumbered by pretense, rendering home exteriors with well-composed geometry and interiors with elegant and glowing simplicity. San Francisco Modern showcases 32 fabulous residences in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, from historical houses to quaint loft apartments. Author Zahid Sardar and Peterson take us on a guided tour through each home recounting its history, current and past residents, renovation and pedigree and showing us that a living space is more than just a shelter from the elements or a place to store and organize our belongings in tidy little arrangements. As well as an extraordinary picture book it's also a fine glimpse into modernist architecture of the past and how well a good majority of the designs have aged and influenced current building design.
For those who love all things green and growing, Gardens of the Wine Country should be a delight to practitioners of the verdant art, taking us through some of the most spectacular and well-tended gardens of California's Napa Valley. We are not talking about flower pots on the balcony or growing tubers in that ten-by-ten foot plot in the back yard. Gardens of the Wine Country is about gardens big enough in which small cities could easily be misplaced. Gardens which would not look out of place intimately meandering around an old world Italian villa or coolly stretched out behind a French palace.
Photos of beauty abound, displaying the imagination and dedication taken to create these places of retreat and recreation. Terraced hillsides, intricate trellis work and idyllic lakes (swan included) are but a few of the lush vistas. To pore over the pages of Gardens of the Wine Country is to make a mental wish list of all the places you would ever like to take a romantic stroll or have a peaceful afternoon nap. Stories of gardening are also in abundance with many of the property owners recounting tales of both hardship and satisfaction in establishing and maintaining their pride and joy, giving a fascinating insight into what it takes to keep everything growing and blooming.
Chappellet and Tracey get across the point that this is much more than knowing the right plant for the right place, which plants are best for which situation or the length of growing seasons. Gardens of the Wine Country is not about gardening, it is about the desire to create a thing of beauty, to surround oneself with life, basking in the sensuality of fragrance and color.
The only thing missing from both these books, in my opinion, is a human element. We are allowed to see these most private places and personal possessions, and though we read about the people and their lives we never get to see them interact amongst the things they have obviously taken great pride in sharing with us. It's a shame that such human of spaces sees not a soul populating them, if for nothing more than to give scale to the venues. But this is a minor gripe. San Francisco Modern and Gardens of the Wine Country are wonderful books. Well-designed and produced and filled with page after page of superlative photography. | January 1999
David Middleton is art director of January Magazine.