Every now and then, a book arrives which is not just a handsome presentation of information, but also a completely satisfying aesthetic object. This is the case with Handcrafted Modern by Leslie Williamson. Her photographs inside designers’ (mostly) midcentury modernist homes capture something of the inhabitant and his or her pattern of living. But they reveal something more—something of the life of the designer of the space.
Williamson created the book because she couldn’t find anything like it in the basement of San Francisco’s William Stout Books, where she used to buy design titles. She tracked leads to all kinds of modernist designers, but time and expense limited her to only U.S. projects. Fairly early in the process, she decided that she would include houses that were either currently lived in by the designer or kept the way the designer left them when alive. A few of the houses have been well documented over the last several decades, like the Eames and Gropius residences, but whether the house already has a public life or not, Williamson’s thoughtful yet informal style captures something fresh.
Even the Eames house, one of the most modern and best known of the residences in the book, acquired a handcrafted quality after Charles and Ray Eames were done filling it with their collections. I have never seen an image of their nightstand (with Ray’s bobby pins visible) or a close-up of the bookshelf. Meanwhile, several names in the book were new to me, like the unusual works of sculptor J.B. Blunk and woodworker and metalsmith John Kapel. Blunk’s sensuous sculptures fit well in his rough-hewn Inverness cottage, while Kappel, a furniture designer, uses wood to tailor a precise house in Woodside. Williamson also discovered Irving Harper before The New York Times brought his colorful and whimsical paper sculptures to light. Danish American furniture designer Jens Risom’s house appealed deeply to me, while Eva Zeisel’s antique-laden public rooms were a complete surprise. Rather than shooting starch-sharp magazine images where all of the objects have been rearranged, Williamson records the rooms as she finds them, with minimal disruption.
This is not a decorator’s book. It is a storyteller’s book, one for people who want to look deeper into the lives of 20th-century designers and then travel vicariously with the photographer as she describes her visits. The linen cover and the layout complement the photographs, while Williamson’s personal text adds another layer of insight. There are no formal portraits of the inhabitants: The portrait is found in the space.
Williamson is not afraid to share her stumbles or disappointments. As she writes in her introduction, “Perfection is supremely uninteresting to me.” She regrets that she didn’t get around to shooting Ise Gropius’ cookbook with notations on how “Gropi” liked his duck à l’orange prepared. She tells the story of the towel with his inked name hanging in the bathroom: “He was no longer an icon of Modernism. He was a guy worried about losing his towel.”
Simply organized, each entry opens with an image across a single page or a double spread followed by the photographer’s story of shooting the space, along with more photos. The graphic design is subtle: The title page for each entry looks like a keyhole—a special look inside. There are no captions, just the experience of the space.
As so much design information moves online, Williamson’s contribution makes a strong argument for the value of books. The photos are not perfectly lit (she only used available light) or parallax corrected. Williamson shot with a medium-format camera and film. The result is richer than digital, and it is deeply satisfying to look at an image, read an entry, and then return to the image. Although she took over 200 photographs for each residence, the editing process reduced the number to around a dozen per entry. (She has been posting some of the outtakes on her website.) But this complete experience of a book—its vision, execution, editing, and design—cannot be replicated on the screen. Now that Williamson has established her reputation as a multitalented cultural and design observer, we can look forward to future books featuring even more obscure houses, and perhaps some international ones, too.