DESIGN SPOTLIGHT: California Modern

by Jennifer Massoni Pardini


When it comes to the world of design, we all have our favorites — time periods, textures and philosophies — that resonate, that compel us to proclaim that this, right here, represents me. For some of us, a midcentury- modern aesthetic — epitomized by geometric lines, open floor plans and large panes of glass that offer a connection to the outdoors — does just that.

It was a style that spoke to John Klopf as a young architecture student at UC Berkeley, where he studied the midcentury-modern movement. Structures from the period, he says, “have a human scale and a connection to nature.” Klopf adds, “The houses, they’re not castles or mansions or objects. They are designed for people to live in. I like the modularity of the homes. They’re understandable. And I like the honesty of the structure.”

Northern California provides ample examples of that modularity and honesty. Here, Joseph Eichler, said to have been inspired by his former home in Hillsborough designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, developed thousands of single-family residences in the 1950s and 1960s. “My favorite layout of the Eichler plans is the atrium model that has the study room at the front,” Klopf notes, referencing a coveted 1960s layout by Eichler architect Claude Oakland. “As you look through the glass doors of the study through the atrium and through the living room, you can see out to the backyard.”

In addition to designing new homes, San Francisco–based John Klopf Architecture, which celebrates 20 years in business this September, is known for its restoration of Eichler houses, which were originally built for a 50-year lifespan. “The idea of being a modernist at that time was to be innovative and try something new,” says Klopf, whose firm has worked on some 175 Eichler homes over the years. “And it’s not based in assumed traditions that are not questioned. We see updating these houses as part of the natural process of a modern-style home.”

The owners embraced an Eichler mainstay — a clear wall of glass — for the master shower. Privacy is provided by fencing and landscaping. Photo by MARIKO REED/OTTO.

Working with older homes constructed of natural materials that warp or twist over time does present its challenges and underscores the importance of finding a contractor equally committed to achieving a minimal look. For their Truly Open Eichler House renovation in Palo Alto, Klopf and his architectural teammates Geoff Campen and Angela Todorova worked with Flegel’s Construction, Arterra Landscape Architects and Brian Dotson Consulting Engineers to push the concept of openness as far as they could.

According to Klopf, the buyers for these homes tend to be younger, working in Silicon Valley and starting their families. “And they don’t care about fireplaces anymore, I can tell you that,” he says with a laugh. “But they do really love the style.”

For this project, the kitchen was moved into a nook that was part of the original house. It now opens to the patio, while walls that once divided the kitchen, dining area and living space came down in the service of one great room. Arterra installed a firepit for outdoor entertaining, and the furnishings were selected by the homeowners. “You see how clean all the surfaces are in the home,” Klopf notes. “They were really dedicated to having that minimal lifestyle.”

In such dedication is a philosophy that values intentional use — and reuse. These Eichlers, after all, tend to have good, protected bones. “A lot of the house is still able to be saved… so that another family or two or three over the next few generations can continue to use the home.”


A before shot shows the back of the original Palo Alto home — now a restored ode to indoor/outdoor living. Photo by JOHN KLOPF ARCHITECTURE.

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