Home Is Where The Hand Is

Home Is Where The Hand Is


Photos (2): Mark LaFavor

Artists' Handmade Houses
By Michael Gotkin
Photography by Don Freeman
Abrams Books, $60

Every so often a new generation calls for a more personalized, often simpler approach to nesting that forgoes "pre-fab" inside and out. This desire usually focuses on the present day - as with the flurry of 1970s books on that era's handmade homes - but recent volumes suggest our zeitgeist is also interested in looking backward. One of the best is Artists' Handmade Houses, which showcases 13 homes ranging from the late 19th century to the 1980s. Along with those by familiar craftsmen (Wharton Esherick, Sam Maloof, George Nakashima), there are surprises (such as Ruth and Robert Hatch's beach cottage).

Such delights make for vicarious pleasures. The house essays, insightfully written by Michael Gotkin, landscape architect and passionate preservationist, portray the artists' lives in relation to their habitats, artfully weaving anecdotes with social context. Don Freeman's intimate photographs show many of the houses in a moody light, reinforcing their mystery. A photographer for shelter magazines, he catches many of the handcrafted details within these architectural spaces. Many are wonderfully evocative, as in the rustic ephemera left behind in Raoul Hague's Woodstock, New York, home or Costantino Nivola's sculpture garden on Long Island.

The notion of "handmade" is loosely applied, as is that of "artist." While all of the artists, designers, and craftsmen (all are men, save for the women in four artist couples) had a hand in their home's creation, the extent varies considerably. Frederic Edwin Church certainly used builders, whereas Henry Varnum Poor built almost entirely on his own. Meanwhile non-artist wives or partners, who also lived in and shaped these homes, receive scant attention. A minor complaint would be small factual errors, noticeable to this reviewer in the essay on Poor's Crow House. The numerous photographs, many staged, tease by inviting one in but not offering a full tour. Fortunately, eight of these extraordinary houses are open to the public.

Caroline Hannah is a design historian in New York.