The House That Roy Built

The House That Roy Built

Elaine Smith and Ruby

Elaine Smith and Ruby, her harlequin Great Dane, in front of a watercolor by David Moreno that Roy McMakin chose for her.

Mark Tuschman

An Oakland, California, home is an art-filled, fuss-free collaboration between aesthetic soul mates.

Elaine Smith’s relationship with the Seattle-based furniture designer and artist Roy McMakin began some 20 years ago, when she searched in vain for a bed she liked. After finally spotting one in a magazine, she flew off to visit the designer’s showroom in Los Angeles. “I walked in, and I was literally shaking: I loved every single thing I saw. Roy’s aesthetic was so me, I almost couldn’t stand it. I was swooning.” Smith and her then-husband found the style and scale of his furniture an ideal match for the big, squarish rooms of their recently purchased 1893 Victorian (not to mention for their two active young boys) and embarked on a collaboration with the designer that resulted in more than 30 pieces – from tables and chairs to lamps, couches, and cabinetry. Says Smith of McMakin, “It wasn’t surprising to discover that we were born on the same day – down to the year – or that we share a high-school obsession with Fritos. We just seemed so much in sync.”

I’ve never seen this many pieces by Roy McMakin in one place, outside of an exhibition. And yet it does not feel crowded or cluttered.
When we bought the house it was a dark Victorian and crammed full of stuff. The previous owners were antique and junk dealers, and I had a dream one night that there was a hole in the wall that opened up and stuff just started pouring out.

Was McMakin the antidote?
It seemed to be the right kind of furniture for our house: durable, heavy, and not precious. There’s something in the lines that’s so sensible and real. The Simple chair, for example, is such an iconographical representation of a chair. There’s maybe something childlike about the simplicity of his work, like a child’s drawing of what a chair or a couch or a desk would be, but not in a naïve or silly way.

Sort of the Platonic ideal of chair-ness?
Exactly. His pieces come into your house and feel as natural as family members or good friends. People tell me that my house is comfortable, and I think it’s because his work doesn’t scream to be noticed. There’s the design, of course, and some of the verbal jokes, like my bed made of holly – thus the Hollywood bed – or a drawer knob as big as a baseball. But also his approach, like the obvious patches in the wood to cover knots and imperfections. It’s sort of his trademark, and maybe the echo of an era, the patchwork jeans and hippie vibe. The patches are part of the artistry, as are the mismatched knobs, and layering different shades of color together. Somehow it makes you feel instantly at ease.

Kind of like the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
Right. And it’s nice that everything doesn’t have to be so perfect. A guest at a dinner party slipped in my kitchen recently and sheared a knob right off a drawer in the island. I had an extra from one of the tables, and it fit right on.

You had a lot of rooms to fill. Was there any overriding concept going in?
One of Roy’s initial ideas was focused on circles and how they would morph to fit the rooms. There’s a circular dining room table, and a big round ottoman, and detailing on the fireside cabinets, and so forth. By the time we got to the kitchen, he made an egg-shaped table that slots perfectly into the bay window. And there were less deliberate strokes. Roy picked out that large painting by David Moreno with the motif of circular knobs at a gallery in New York. But I don’t think the connection occurred to him or me at the time – it’s part of the great collective unconscious of the house!

Your shocking-pink writing desk was in an exhibition at MOCA, yes?
Yes. I had seen it originally in Roy’s gallery, and remember thinking, “This desk is amazing but it’s hands down the ugliest pink I’ve ever seen” – I likened it to Pepto-Bismol. But I kept thinking about it. I needed a writing table, and a while later I contacted his studio manager, and probably because I’m impatient, I decided to buy the pink one rather than wait for another color. The strange thing is, I have several times in my life had the experience of being disturbed or repulsed or indifferent to something or someone, and then suddenly, I’m smitten. Now I love this desk so much the shade has almost become an obsession. And it’s in my bedroom, close to me, where I can arrange things on it and above it, and always look at it.

You do have many striking tableaux of all kinds of objects arrayed on surfaces and hanging above. Do you consider yourself a collector?
I’m not exactly comfortable with that word, but I grew up in a family with a lot of artists, and there was always something new being framed and hung.

You also seem to have a connection to Holland, from the art books to the upholstered chair by Piet Hein Eek to the oil painting of a tulip by Michael Gregory.
I went to Holland as an exchange student, and we lived there 17 years ago for a bit. I feel as if there’s a piece of Holland in me. I love the quality of light – that dark, sort of rich, layered gray light you can recognize from paintings and photographs by people like Hendrik Kerstens and Hellen van Meene. I think I feel things more intensely there. I loved the sense of art history, and how much more the average Dutch person cares about such things. And my younger son, Willem, was born there.

Is that when you began collecting all of this pottery?
Yes. It’s made by Charles Catteau, who was an artistic director at Boch Frères Ceramics. I first became aware of it by going to museums. Then one day I was in Haarlem for a wedding and we stumbled into a shop filled with collectible pottery and decorative arts pieces. I was originally drawn to how stylized it was, and intrigued that although I really didn’t like art deco- and art nouveau- and arts-and-crafts-era stuff, somehow Catteau’s pottery worked on me.

With all of your art, do you have a favorite piece?
This raku ceramic hand grenade my son made in a ceramics studio when he was very young. The top is separate and the empty space inside fits wooden matches perfectly and you can strike them on the inside of the lid. That was completely unintentional, needless to say.

Deborah Bishop is a writer in San Francisco and a frequent contributor to American Craft.