Photo Source:Flavin Architects, Photo by Nat Rea


Practicality, function and beauty go hand-in-hand when it comes to Mid-century Modern design. Whether looking at the work of architects like Richard Neutra or Henry Hoover, or designers like George Nelson, it is evident that their work is tied together by this common thread. And it makes sense. During the post-war era, when commercialism was booming and the country was recovering from war-time austerity, modernists were not only introduced to an abundance of new, highly developed materials. They also had to consider affordability and restraint in their work and designs to appeal to the growing middle class. Because of this, it was typical of the time to see military materials incorporated into domestic products. There was a lot of it, and it was affordable. 


We recently saw an example of this in a client’s home. Our clients chose to use a George Nelson “Saucer” Bubble Lamp to hang over their dining room table. The lamps rich history made it a perfect fit with the history of their own home, which was originally designed by architect Henry Hoover. This house, which was updated to better fit the client’s needs (for the full story, see our blog post Sculpted to the Land: Restoring a Henry Hoover Masterpiece), is also a typical example of the design intrinsic to the post-war era.  The home features the use of raw aluminum, a material that was popularized after World War II. As a nod to the original design, our clients decided to use raw aluminum for all of the updated finishes. Like Nelson’s Bubble Lamp, this home represents a 20th century design movement that still speaks to today.


Photo Sources: (Left), Studio Pepe for Spotti; (Right) 


George Nelson is known as one of the founding fathers of American Modernism. His Bubble Lamp, originally designed in 1947, was inspired by a Swedish hanging lamp made of hand sewn silk that he thought would be perfect for his office space. “The Swedish design was done in a silk covering that was very difficult to make; they had to cut gores and sew them onto a wire frame. But I wanted one badly.” wrote Nelson in his book, On Design, published in 1979 ( Enamored by the style, but dissuaded by the steep cost, he set out to create his own. After seeing a photo in the New York Times of a Liberty Ship being “mothballed” with netting and then sprayed with a self-webbing plastic created for military use, Nelson tracked down the manufacturer and the original George Nelson Bubble Lamp was born. What Nelson created was a beautiful sculpture with a true function-to illuminate the spaces one occupies.


One of the wonderful things about Nelson’s work, as well as that of other architects, landscape, and furniture designers of his era, is the timeless simplicity of his designs. It’s an aesthetic that never goes out of style. Elegant, understated, whimsical and fun, there is something about Nelson’s design that really brings a space—whether traditional or contemporary—to life.


Text by Alejandra Bennett, Studio Manager
Flavin Architects


Image 1, hand drawn elevation and cross section


For an architect, there is almost nothing more thrilling than the rush experienced when seeing what was once a 2 dimensional sketch become a tangible, built space. The only thing to top this is seeing our client’s excitement as their home emerges from the drawing table. The first drawings our firm makes are traditional, hand-drawn architectural plans, as shown above (Image 1). With years of schooling, an architect is trained to easily visualize the dimensions of a space even when presented in a 2D format; this typically doesn’t come as second nature to most clients. We make sure the client gets the most out of the process by turning the initial sketches into hand drawn perspective sketches (Image 2). Those sketches give a good idea of the home and once the general outline is agreed upon, we model the home with a 3D program called Sketchup. With the use of Sketchup we can lead the client on a virtual 3D tour of their home while thoroughly and clearly conveying our own thought process and intentions for the project. 


Image 2, hand drawn perspective


Sketchup continually proves to be a useful tool for our clients to understand and visualize the spaces, both interior and exterior, of the home that is being designed for them. In this particular rendering, shown below, we illustrate how natural light will enter the space in a way that would be difficult to capture through hand drawn perspective. As the viewer, you truly have a sense of the open spaces and the lightness created by the use of glass and the pitched ceiling. In addition, it allows us to further highlight the dimensions of the space by placing furniture into the 3D image. With Sketchup, we have an interactive platform where the client can familiarize themselves with the spatial conditions and better understand the complexity of the design. Of course, this is just one of the many steps in getting from the drawing table to the finished product, but it’s an invaluable tool for making sure the client can envision, interact, and take part in the creation of what will eventually be their home. 


Image 3, interior sketchup rendering


Text by Alejandra Bennett, Studio Manager
Flavin Architects


We're often asked why, with abundant opportunities to design new houses, we take on renovation projects. To us, the answer is simple: we learn so much from mid-century modern homes. They allow us to continue to improve our own skill set and grow as designers.  


Recently, we had clients who asked for our help in restoring one of architect Henry Hoover’s greatest projects in Weston, MA. The home, built in 1958 for Kenneth and Polly Germeshausen, was designed relatively late in his career after he had absorbed many influences, including mid-century California design and style. In this house, he took a softer approach than he had with earlier houses. This can be seen in the gable roof and extensive use of California redwood and Douglas fir with a natural finish both inside and out. This is a wonderful contrast to his earlier work and that of other modernists, like Walter Gropius, whose houses can feel cold and harsh. He also paid careful attention to orienting the large window to catch the winter sun, with generous overhangs to keep the bright summer sun out.


Aside from the usual wear and tear that comes with time, this house also had some major imperfections that needed to be addressed. Fortunately, our clients had lived in the house long enough to appreciate its unique beauty. They saw the importance of preserving the original aesthetics while acknowledging the need for some updates to fit the home to their needs and make it a more comfortable space to live in. The floor of the original house was poured concrete slab on grade with no vapor barrier or insulation below. This made the house not only expensive to heat, but even when the indoor heating system was turned on, the radiant cold from the floors made the house uncomfortable. Ready to take on the challenge, we only saw one way to solve this problem:  remove the existing tile floor and associated mortar bed and put down rigid insulation, new radiant heat, and stone floor. At the recommendation of our client, we topped the concrete floors with 12” x 24” mottled purple and green slate from Vermont Structural Slate, which beautifully complements the warm tones of the wood and the green tile installed in the dining room 6 years prior, but also radiates the heat from the floor slabs. The bathrooms needed work too, and what could be better than poured concrete counters, chosen by the client and sourced from Stone Soup Concrete in Easthampton, MA, complemented with authentic mid-century tile? The tiles, created by the Heath Ceramics Company (founded in the 1950’s), have a beautifully crafted appearance. Each tile is hand glazed, giving each a slight variation. The unique quality of these ceramic pieces gave the home a very personal touch. In addition, all of the original window frames for the house were original custom made Douglas fir, with aluminum casement sash. It was also the client’s idea to work with raw aluminum for all of the finishes in order to stay with, and respect, the materials used in the original design of the home. Raw aluminum became popular after WWII, as designers took advantage of the wartime aircraft industry's need to convert to the consumer market. The aluminum windows, along with cabinet and door hardware, share the same raw aluminum finish. The windows were sent to be dipped in solvent to remove 50 years of grime and the original unfinished aluminum pulls were used for the cabinets and closet doors. All interior woodwork was stripped and then an oil-rubbed finish was applied to bring out the natural warmth of the wood.


Mission accomplished! A gem of a house is beautifully restored, with updated finishes that respect the original design. The client’s great taste, dedication to the process and appreciation of the original materials, design, and aesthetic make this home a truly beautiful and personal space. To live in the house now is so comfortable with the winter sun shining in; it is truly "architecture of the well tuned environment."


Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects




For those of us who are fans of mid-century design, we are fortunate to live at a time when home owners not only respect this style, but actively look to it for inspiration for their own spaces. Recently we had clients who, new to the area from France, spent several months searching for a mid-century home in Andover, a suburb just north of Boston. They were lucky to find this house designed in 1952 by architect William Hajjar. Hajjar, who received his masters degree in architecture from MIT and later became professor of architecture at Penn State University, was known primarily for his contemporary architectural vision that challenged the conservative style that dominated the State College community during the 1950’s and 1960’s. During his tenure at Penn State, he designed over 30 contemporary houses and buildings in the area, completely transforming the landscape from traditional to modern ranch-style homes primarily seen out West. His design aesthetic can be linked to that of Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright.


The original house designed by Hajjar in Andover stays true to his style. He liked to site his homes into hill sides with the garage discretely tucked under the house and into the hill slope. Another signature design move is to locate an entry hidden from the street at mid level. In this particular home, a curved path leads up to a door that is tucked away on the side of the house. It is clear that he loved for his homes to connect to the natural landscape. He extended the beautifully laid concrete block walls beyond the boundary of the house and into the landscape to hold back the sloping land and form outdoor patios and stairs. He also knew how to design a durable building. Almost 70 years after the original house was built, the concrete block retaining walls have not buckled under the harsh New England winters.


Our design challenge: How do you add a second floor to this classic single story ranch without overwhelming the original Hajjar design? We respected the foundation of the original house by extruding the volume of the living and dining rooms to create a second floor. The original chimney, built of honed blue-stone, became the armature for the new stair to reach the second floor master bathroom suite. We also extended Hajjar’s curtain wall façade from the first floor to the new second floor. The strongly graphic black and white color scheme was incorporated into the addition; the second floor is clad in charcoal vertical siding and appears to float over the white concrete block of the first floor.


A note for Frank Lloyd Wright aficionados: While not many of us associate the modest "Ranch" house with Wright, he designed his first "Usonian" house for Herbert and Katherine Jacobs (a house commonly known as Jacobs 1) in 1936. This was a highly innovative house with its one story layout, low slope roof, concrete slab on grade, and large windows overlooking the rear yard, all features not only later incorporated in the typical Ranch house, but also apparent in William Hajjar’s designs. 


Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects


Robert Coolidge practiced architecture in Connecticut, but he came up north to Lincoln, MA in 1955 to design the Tabor Hill home for his friend Polly Brown. Recently, we were fortunate enough to have a client who loved the bones of this house, and with a deft touch we embarked on designing the renovation of the primary spaces of this gem. What the client needed was a transformation that would fit their family’s needs. In particular, the tiny galley kitchen would not work for this couple and their two young children. Our approach was to channel Coolidge’s design instincts and create a renovation that both respected the integrity of the house and produced the kind of spaces he might have designed if he’d had access to the modern materials that we have today. Our first move in achieving this was to minimize the separation between the kitchen and dining room by making the upper cabinets appear to “float” free by not touching the beam above or the counter below. With this we achieved an uninterrupted view through the cabinets, so that someone at the kitchen sink would be able to enjoy the view out onto the Cambridge Reservoir. The original house included indirect lighting, and we built on that idea, adding indirect lighting to the kitchen work areas.


Coolidge received his master’s degree from Harvard in the 1940’s and later taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, so he likely would not have been surprised to find the small town of Lincoln to be a hot bed of modern house design. In fact, almost all of the 1952 Tabor Hill Road subdivision’s 12 house lots were built out with modern homes, including 6 by the renowned local modernist Henry Hoover. Walter Gropius, a contemporary of Coolidge and Hoover and the founder of the German Bauhaus, came to teach at Harvard in 1937 and built a modern house masterpiece for his family in Lincoln in 1938. This house has been widely credited as being the first modern house in New England, but in reality, the construction of Henry Hoover’s own home in Lincoln began in 1937, a year before Gropius broke ground.


Gropius and Coolidge overlapped at Harvard, so he certainly would have been familiar with Gropius’ work. Similar to Gropius’ style, Coolidge adapted some traditional New England building materials in his designs, including wood clapboard siding, rustic fieldstone walls and slate flooring. Coolidge was also inspired by Hoover’s sensitive approach to the site. One can see this with the Tabor Hill home, where Coolidge masterfully incorporated the naturally steep south facing hill to create a retaining wall that extends effortlessly from the terraced patios to form a separation between the lower living room and the kitchen/dining area. In addition, he avoided the mistake of many early modern houses, where the architect’s love of windows made the houses difficult to heat in winter and insufferably hot in summer. The Tabor Hill home is carefully oriented to capture the warmth of the winter sun, with generous overhangs to protect from the summer’s heat.


Averse to defining his work within the confines of “Modernism,” Coolidge preferred to refer to his work as “Contemporary." I believe he was right in doing so. Coolidge’s work moves beyond the strict doctrines of modern design, where rigid geometry and flat roofs prevail. The central concept of the Tabor Hill home is a symmetrical gabled roof, with prominent beams for support. This recalls the “Ranch” house style widely seen in the 1950’s. It’s possible that he was influenced by design trends on the West Coast at the time, including the builder Joseph Eichler’s gabled homes in California.


It’s also safe to say that Robert Coolidge continues to inspire architectural design to this day. 


Text by Colin Flavin, AIA

Flavin Architects


Brian Hemingway’s architecture is deeply rooted in the West Coast environment, where thickly forested mountains slope steeply to the ocean. From this he has distilled a refined palette of materials: Douglas fir timbers and stone. A residential architect from Vancouver, Brian’s homes have remarkably few walls, with glass infilling between the timber post and beam frames, allowing a minimum of artifice separating the inside from nature. Wooden post and beam design is central to his work, but these are no rustic log cabins, but highly refined, temple-like structures, with precise beams resting on perfectly square 12” posts of exquisitely finished douglas fir.


I had the good fortune of working with Brian during a four-year period while we collaborated on the design of a house in New England. Our client had discovered his work, featured on the cover of Robb Report, and asked us to work together, Brian Hemingway as the Design Architect and my firm, Flavin Architects, as the Architect of Record. He has been a generous mentor to me, showing by example how the spiritual realm can be brought into design. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright thought of Louis Sullivan as his “Lieber Meister” (Dear Master in German), I think of Brian the same way. Perhaps my fondest recollection was sitting in Brian’s West Vancouver studio, where he and his precise German émigré draftsman Fred, gave me drawing assignments to learn their distinctive approach to detailing wood structures that carries through from the exposed timber framing to the filigree detailing of custom light fixtures. I also suspect they wanted to learn if I were up to the task.


Brian’s work reflects his other great interest, comparative religion. He thinks of his homes as symbols of life’s journey. From the front gate, we are on a path leaving the daily mundane world behind and experiencing a series of layers that Brian describes as almost like chakras. Placed along the entry path of many of his homes is a shallow pebble bottom pool that laps at the building and represents the emergence of life. The interior of the home is organized around a great chimney along with kitchen and living areas that represent the heart of the home. Deepest inside are quiet contemplative layers of the home, including bedrooms and study. The final layer, Nirvana, cannot be reached inside the home, but is found in nature beyond as the waves lapping on the shore or the sun setting over distant islands.


These words may sound a bit intellectually vague, but the reality of his work is anything but.  He works methodically, starting with plan layouts that adhere strictly to a module or grid, often in two or three foot increments, instilling a rigor to the work. He describes the repetition of the module, for example locating all columns in multiples of the two foot dimension, as kind of the bass rhythm that that provides structure for later decisions. This rhythm whereby large and small design decisions are united brings a harmony to Brian’s houses that resonates as a feeling of well-being.


Text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects


Modern design can be expensive. The large open spaces, floor to ceiling windows and high end finishes typical of modern design all contribute to modern designs being more expensive than conventional designs. Here are our guidelines for keeping costs under control:


Size Matters 

Design for daily use, and don't let the exceptional once-a-year gathering drive the design. Let uses overlap, combining the kitchen, dining and living rooms for example, to create open flowing space. On the other hand, too small does not always save cost: A bathroom with the same fixtures and finishes is not half as expensive when made half the size; in fact it may be more expensive as it is too small, it is more difficult for workers to install the finishes. High ceilings can add great style and proportion, but also add to the homes volume. Going from an 8 foot to a 10 foot ceiling adds 25% to the wall and window area and requires additional structural support to make the house stable. Avoid large open spaces; they are expensive to build and heat. Consider using maximum room sizes of 16 feet so standard framing materials can be used.



Avoid redundant rooms, such as en-suite bathrooms. Have one guest bath to share for every two or three bedrooms. Halls add space so instead have rooms flow from one to another.


Windows and doors

Glazed openings, windows and doors are more expensive than solid walls. Prioritize windows facing south, and limit windows facing north. Construction costs are limited in the beginning and energy is saved through the whole lifecycle of the house. Keep windows to 25% of the wall area. A good value are windows made of wood and clad in painted aluminum on the exterior as supplied from one of several reputable manufacturers.


Degree of difficulty

Consult with local builders during design and understand their go-to finishes and construction techniques. Approaches that are unique to the builder take more time. Precision, trim, such as recessed baseboard and trim can be elegant but cost a premium.

Flat roofs with internal roof drains are expensive. It is better to gently slope the roof to one side with conventional downspouts.



There has been tremendous innovation in porcelain tile. It is both economical and highly durable. Keep it natural: flooring is beautiful in its natural state. Avoid costly custom stains.


Building Systems

The most economical heating and cooling is to have a standard furnace with ducted air distribution. Wood frame construction is industry standard and is far and away the most economical, as opposed to masonry or steel. Wood framing is also highly adaptable to accommodating electrical, plumbing and other basic services.


Text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

Sculpture by Richard Serra                                                                                              Pavilion by Jonathan Muecke


It was great to grab some sun and see the 10th annual Design Miami show, sister to the more famous Art Basel that runs concurrently each year. The first thing to catch my eye was the temporary entry pavilion to the design show, designed by emerging Minneapolis designer Jonathan Muecke.  Muecke takes a light hearted interpretation on the steel arcs of sculptor Richard Serra. Where Serra’s arcs are monumental and often somber challenging our perception of space, Muecke’s work takes a less confrontational direction. Two arcs form a clear portal for the entry to the pavilion. The primary colors of blue and yellow on the outside of the arcs are playful and light against the sunny Miami sky. Inside the portal, complementary colors of red and green are a soothing back drop to bench seating.


The show balances commercial furniture showrooms stocked with custom furnishings, with design lectures, this year focusing on the affordability crisis in housing. The juxtaposition of these topics shows the fault lines in the profession, providing designs for the affluent while trying to accommodate the needs of the community at large.


Jacques Lacoste showroom at Design Miami 


Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.

Aldo Leopold, A County Almanac


                                                                                                                                                    Mark Mills, Architect


As an aspiring architect in the 1970’s on the Monterey Peninsula, I had the opportunity to meet Mark Mills and see his drawings. I was expecting rendered perspectives in the style of RM Schindler or Richard Neutra, both of whom also formerly worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. Not a chance. Mills’ pencil drawings were of pure organic forms, small in size and almost engraved into the paper from re-working and testing out ideas. These were not a typical architect’s renderings to impress a client.


Wright often wrote of the beauty of natural forms. Mills’ work embodies these forms. Mark Mills and Paulo Soleri were friends while apprenticing together at Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship.  When they left Taliesin, they joined forces to design a house in the Arizona desert. They only worked together on one house, but its distinctive dome geometry connects back to Wright’s idea of using shells as inspiration. When Mills moved to the rugged California coast, his work became even more organic, using his engineering background to craft innovative house structures of concrete and wood in ways Wright never would have dreamed.


The Fan Shell house pictured above is built of five vaults radiating from a center, not unlike the Shell sign it is rumored the client asked Mills to adapt to a house design. The concrete vaults create a unified shape that seems to float over and connect the five spaces defined by the shell. The vaulted roof nestles into the site, making a modest profile against the sand dunes. Inside the house, the vaults have a dramatic effect, where the spring point of the vaults is barely high enough to pass under. One can’t help but contrast Mills work with that of Frank Gehry’s exuberant forms. Gehry starts with whimsical shapes and then has engineers devise a (hidden) structural system of steel to support it. Mills takes a very different approach, where the structural system is an integral part of the form. For the Fan Shell house, the shell shape is a structural concrete vault. There is no hidden structural support. What you see (and experience) is what you get.


                                                                                                                                                                    Mark Mills, Architect

Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects



Modernism week through the eyes of a New England architect.


Donald Wexler-Camino Norte House


Attending Modernism Week earlier this year was a humbling experience for a New England architect. If the February sunshine were not enough to make me green with envy, block after block of beautifully maintained mid-century modern homes did the trick. It wasn’t only the benevolent climate of Southern California that allowed modern design to thrive. A number of factors came together in Southern California to bring modernism to such a peak.


Neutra and Schindler, Two giants of 20th century modernism emigrated from Austria in the early part of that century and both started out in Southern California working with Frank Lloyd Wright, but their brand of cutting edge design came into conflict with Wright’s more romantic vision. They went their separate ways and Neutra went to build his acclaimed Kauffman Desert House in Palm Springs in 1946.


There was a friendly competition between the half dozen modernists working in Palm Springs. While developing their individual styles, they pushed one another to better and more innovative designs, often taking inspiration from the regions burgeoning aerospace industry. The Palm Springs Architect Donald Wexler, who designed the house illustrated above, embodies the Palm Springs modernist spirit. The strict geometry with planes of painted masonry and wood siding provide a neutral canvas for the zen-like desert gardens of exposed bedrock, raked gravel and native shrubs. The planes of glass almost totally disappear, giving the forms of the home a pavilion-like simplicity.


Local builders excelled at this new vernacular of flat roofs, slender steel columns and aluminum window sashes. Builders often custom made these components before manufactured versions were developed, allowing whole neighborhoods of modern houses to be built relatively inexpensively.




Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects