A Perfect Union

Lots of clients fancy themselves design-savvy. Few have published their thoughts on the subject. But Todd Holcomb and Keith Yamashita had developed such an enthusiasm for Charles and Ray Eames that Yamashita went so far as to put together a devotional booklet titled “Fifteen Things Charles and Ray Teach Us” and distribute it as a sort of Christmas card. The text describes a visit to the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, drawing such lessons as “keep good company” and “make design your life (and life, your design).” It was such a clean and accessible piece of writing that the Eames Office snapped up “Fifteen Things” for publication after Eames Demetrios, the designers’ grandson, happened to see a copy.

So it’s a real tribute that Matthew Bear and Scott Moulton of Union Studio, a San Francisco furniture shop cum interiors firm, were hired by Holcomb and Yamashita not once but three times. Job number one for the San Francisco couple involved only furniture, Bear and Moulton’s original area of expertise after graduating from the architecture program at the University of California at Berkeley. The promising duo then secured a commission to design Holcomb and Yamashita’s New York pied-à-terre. On this second project, Union Studio applied furniture design’s concern for materials, scale, and craft to the larger canvas of an interior—sharing all tasks with extraordinary equity. When the couple moved to a larger residence in San Francisco, Union Studio won the job again, giving the firm a chance to work on finishes and fixtures as well as the plan and furnishings.

Built in 1941 by Anshen + Allen, the house was a duplex high above the Castro district, with views of the city and the bay beyond. Union Studio’s first goal was to open up the plan. To take advantage of the incredible views, the designers removed walls on the top floor, which featured a balcony running the entire length of the front facade. The designers placed French doors along that wall as well as along the rear courtyard, set into the rise of a hill. “The most outstanding thing about the original architecture was the siting, the way the house wraps around the courtyard,” Moulton says.

The upstairs, originally divided between the house’s two apartments, is now a single space. Each half, however, maintains a distinct personality: one for formal entertaining and dining, one for more casual living. Both of the two original units featured fireplaces, backed against each other at the dividing wall, and Union Studio preserved them while removing flanking plaster and studs. This creates separation without sacrificing the easy flow of light and visitors. Similarly, opening doorways all the way from floor to ceiling makes surrounding walls seem like isolated floating volumes.

When Holcomb and Yamashita bought the house, the units featured original dark-walnut wall paneling, sun-bleached after years of neglect. Although the treatment was unsalvageable, the designers decided that it had established a space-defining vocabulary. Panels of rift-sawn white oak now play the same role. The texture of the paneling, the white plaster ceiling and walls, and the near-blackness of the stained-oak floor keep the eye in motion, traveling from the lounge and den, past the fireplace, to the formal entertaining areas and the kitchen.

Behind the kitchen and master bedroom, in the huge bathroom, the floor is tiled in black porcelain hex, the walls in light blue glass mosaic squares. The blue is luminous in the sunshine, managing to feel simultaneously underwater and celestial. A freestanding tiled wall divides a storage area, with dark jarrah-wood shelving and towel bins, from a skylit sunken shower. A jarrah vanity supports a porcelain basin sink. A Japanese-style soaking tub made of epoxy-coated jarrah offers a view—through custom vertical shades concealing the bather from his neighbors.

Access to the top floor is via an existing staircase. “The stair’s big, curved plaster form was really compelling. It serves as a counterpoint to the crisp forms we like to work in,” Moulton says. At the foot of a second staircase, a small guest room is almost wholly devoted to a built-in bed. A full-length mirror and a silk-screen blowup of the house’s original blueprints, mounted on a sliding panel, conceal storage space.

Down the hall is the home office. Here, Holcomb and Yamashita set aside the formality of the upstairs as papers, photos, and knickknacks spill out of Union Studio’s elegantly capacious shelving. It is in this room that modernist austerity makes room for the Eamesian dictum about comfort and the making of a home, a sentiment immortalized by Yamashita’s little booklet that noteworthy Christmas.