Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Red Tile Style: The Story

When Douglas Keister first brought up the idea of our co-writing a book on Spanish Revival architecture, I had my doubts. We had just come off of the relative smash success (by publishing standards, at any rate) of our first collaboration, Storybook Style. This was a book filled with remarkable and sometimes fantastical little houses which brought a pageant of color to every page. I clearly remember telling Doug, “I love Spanish Revival architecture, but I think a whole book on it might be really boring. They’ll be nothing but page after page of white houses.”

How wrong I was--spectacularly wrong. It turned out that Red Tile Style was, if anything, even more vibrant a collection of architecture than Storybook Style had been. And this was precisely because the agreeably clean, white canvas of these buildings provides a perfect backdrop for kaleidoscopic variation. 

When the proof copy of Red Tile Style finally arrived at my doorstep from Penguin/Putnam in New York, I practically wept for joy--the combination of Carla Bolte’s sumptuous book design and Doug’s unfailingly lyrical photography (“Sharp as a tack,” as he likes to say) was like a candy store for Spanish Revival fans, myself included. As an architect/author determined to do right by a style I’d long studied and always admired, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.


Doug Keister had the good fortune of early publishing success in 1987, when he photographed Daughters of the Painted Ladies, one of the landmark series of books on Victorian architecture. These titles had, as they say in Hollywood, “legs”, and were instrumental in creating the popular movement to restore Victorian homes across the country. And while early success can sometimes be a curse, not so for Doug--he soon followed up by photographing an equally influential series of books on the Bungalow home style, co-authored with Paul Duchscherer (The Bungalow, Inside the Bungalow, Bungalow Gardens, and more). It was after this highly successful series for Penguin-Putnam that Doug came to me with the idea of expanding a newspaper feature story I'd written into what became Storybook Style, the book that led directly to our working together on Red Tile Style.


For my part, after having spent the early years of my career content to merely practice architecture, I finally exercised--or should I say, rediscovered--my love of writing. After a few years of freelance journalism, I became an architecture columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle in the early Nineties. My semiweekly essay on architecture and the built environment, Architext, was picked up for national syndication by Chronicle Features a few years later, variously appearing in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Enquirer, and the Los Angeles Times (the column is now syndicated by Inman News Features).


Red Tile Style followed on the heels of an earlier collaboration between Doug Keister and myself. A feature story I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, about the peculiar “Hansel and Gretel” architecture found throughout the San Francisco Bay area, was the germ of Doug’s idea to co-author an entire book on the subject. This style of architecture, also referred to as “Storybook” or “Disneyesque”, had up to that time been completely unexamined, which made ferreting out its story quite a challenge. The result of our work, albeit quite a few years later, was Storybook Style: America’s Whimsical Homes of the Twenties.

Now, publishing is an ugly business, because an author’s love for the subject, alas, does not necessarily translate into proportional success for the published work (which is why Doug to this day remains unmoved by my idea for a book on old factory smokestacks. No, really! See, it would be this really tall, skinny book--but that’s another story.)  At any rate, to our delight, Storybook Style took off right from the outset, and it remains more or less the sole and standard reference on a topic that finds ever wider interest among architects and lay persons alike.

The problem, as always, was: What to do next? Neither Doug nor I felt like pursuing a book on any style that we were less than passionate about. But it quickly became apparent that Spanish Revival architecture was another clear instance in which our interests overlapped. 

A journey of a thousand miles, it’s said, begins with a single step, and that is how Doug and I approached the work of authoring Red Tile Style. After much dancing around the topic, that first and most difficult step was our mutual commitment to finally get cracking. Thereafter came the many road trips and airplane flights in pursuit of photographs and data, the stays at lookalike motels, the diner meals both good and bad; followed, when most of the information has been gathered, by endless vetting of images and the need to pull a chaotic jumble of images, facts, and ideas into some kind of focused, comprehensible format. Whenever panic struck in the face of this visual and textual pandemonium, the overarching motivation for us to slog on was a genuine affection for the architecture and the people who surrounded it. It was worth it.


Doug Keister has just recently turned in--if one can believe this--his thirty-ninth book for publication, Forever New York: A Field Guide to New York Cemeteries and Their Residents, which is also his fifth on the fascinating and largely unexplored topic of cemetery architecture. In the span of those five books, Doug has become an acknowledged expert on the history, symbolism, and aesthetics of America’s most famous resting places. He’s also had to endure every possible pun and wisecrack on the topic, so I think I’ll just lay that impulse to rest.

As for me, I still practice architecture as my “day job” while continuing to write my syndicated column, Architext (whose run is now closing in on twenty years). As an outgrowth of having written Storybook Style and Red Tile Style, I also do a great deal of consulting on historic architecture. Given my abiding fondness for these homes, it’s especially gratifying that people across the country entrust me to provide architectural guidance for their exceptional Storybook, Spanish Revival, and other vintage properties. 


Doug Keister may be busy writing and photographing his fortieth book, but he’s still available for professional architectural photography of the highest caliber. Doug is also an experienced public speaker who’s traveled all over the country to hold forth on architecture and other subjects dear to his heart. He can be reached at his website, <keisterphoto.com>.

As for me, I’ve provided architectural consultation from Maine to Alaska over the years, and I’m always available by email. Should you have a simple architectural query that can be answered in four words--such as, “Should I install new overhead garage doors in my Spanish Revival home, or repair the old sliding ones?”, I’ll endeavor to give you a prompt reply (a more complex question will probably cost you some money, though). 

Like Doug, I’m also available for public speaking, discussion panels, radio interviews and the like. You can contact me through my website at <gellner.net>. And incidentally, the correct four-word answer is “Repair the old doors.”


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