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Handmade Houses: An Interview With Richard Olsen

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I’m a product of parents who lived the life of handmade. Houses, food, gardens… I’m surprised we even had a car growing up and not some recycled Fred Flinstone mobile that promoted good health whilst on the go. Handmade (in all nature) is of immediate interest, and most certainly when it comes to homes. I’m instantly entranced. My love for exteriors/interiors and the brains behind them go far beyond fascination. Best described as an unfounded respect and awe for individuals that stepped outside of the trained parameters, to create unique spaces and structures that were both kind on mind, body, and earth. It’s art, in its truest form… art that one can live within and amongst.

When I stumbled upon Richard Olsen’s book, Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth Friendly Home Design… I was obsessed. I knew I had to contact him, pick the brain a bit, and devour each image my eyes could feast on. Richard spent years looking back to the 1960s and 70s, when handmade and crafted homes began the surge of green ecologically sound design. Many of these places profiled in his book were on the beautiful stretch along the northern California coast line… from Big Sur to Marin and points beyond. His book not only showcases the brilliant visuals of these homes, but illustrates the builders…the owners… and their stories that are so intimately intertwined with the reclaimed and repurposed material they have used.

I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Richard Olsen… from childhood, to his books… to finding a new term for ‘eco chic’… (anyone?). His take on all things both creative and sacred are to be treasured words from the wise.


PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

First things first. Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1969 in NYC and grew up there and, later, in Texas.

richard olsen handmade houses

Blunk House, Inverness, California. 1960. J.B. Blunk, Architectural designer and Builder.
PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

When did you become interested in art? Was it a product of your childhood or something found later…and when did architecture strike a chord?

Art, music, design, and construction have been important in my family for generations. My great-grandfather and my grandfather, each born in Norway, were trained as master carpenters in the Norwegian tradition and were fluent in the use of 19th-century European hand tools. I was fortunate to have been around them enough, one on one, to learn from them at an early age. And my father was a carpenter and musician and painter, and I still have furniture that he miraculously designed and built in the hallway space of our tiny NYC apartment when I was a kid. Without this background, I don’t know that I’d find the handmade house stuff so engaging.

richard olsen handmade houses

Gesner House, Malibu, California. 1970. Harry Gesner, Architect and Builder.
PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

In your book “Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design” you focus solely on green design… can you tell me about the progression from having the idea to then preparing… to hitting the ground for field work… and then writing and finishing the book?

My first book as an author or coauthor was a book with the architectural photographer Julius Shulman called Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea. This was a project I conjured while working as an architecture book editor, as a way of hanging out with and working alongside the great Shulman — and ended up, because of Shulman’s advanced age, doing more than the editor’s job (Shulman was 90 when we started). During this same period, driven by my experience in New York during 9/11, I’d become passionate about back-to-the-land architecture. In 2004, the same year I started working on my second book, Log Houses of the World (2006, Abrams Books), I began casual field research for my 2012 book Handmade Houses. In the making of the log cabins book, Poland-based photographer Radek Kurzaj and I toured about 20 countries in his station wagon, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, and the Slovak Republic, documenting some of the greatest log houses ever built, some dating to the 1300s and still standing! Talk about sustainable architecture… Once that work was completed, by late 2005, I shifted back to Handmade Houses and have been researching eco architecture, particularly those spirited 1960s and 70s counter-cultural developments, ever since.

richard olsen handmade houses

Jacobs House, Inverness, California. 1997. Daniel Liebermann, Architect. Sandy Jacobs, Builder.
PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

What is most inspiring to you about the pioneers of homemade house design during the 60s and 70s?

Most inspiring of all might be the handmade-house pioneer’s bold tendency to settle in remote rural locations where he, his wife or partner, and their close friends could get together and build it themselves, away from convention, away from conveniences, away from building code inspectors. They’d let the “personalization,” the individualism, extend to the architecture itself, the very structure, not just the areas that tend to receive our personal flourishes today: the furniture and the window treatments and the carpets and other soft furnishings.

richard olsen handmade houses

Jacobs House, Inverness, California. 1997. Daniel Liebermann, Architect. Sandy Jacobs, Builder.
PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

Above these homes being visually some of the most incredible feasts for the eyes and imagination, what do you think a beautiful crafted (green) home can give back to its dwellers?

Carl Jung wrote of being able to see himself in his handmade house in Switzerland. And there are examples like California handmade-house pioneers Dean and Louise Pratt, who got their children directly involved in the building of their family home. So now, decades later, although their sons and daughters have moved on and built homes of their own, Dean and Louise can at any time walk past that doorway carving in their kitchen or that portion of the butcher-block floor in the dining room that their son or daughter created and feel his or her spirit and energy, his or her love. Because it’s embedded in the DNA of the building! You don’t get that with a house that’s been prefabricated in a factory.


PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

Does your love for sustainability stop at homes or does it transfer to foods, art, technology… a lifestyle on all accounts?

I’m now working on a new book for Rizzoli about the history of eco architecture in California, a book that goes from the 1920s adhoc barns and shacks of California’s painters, poets, and radical intellectuals to the 21st-century technophiliac-consumer’s smart house, a book I’m calling California Green. But for me, “Green” and “sustainability” are little more than marketing terms now. And “eco chic”? I’m not sure what these words mean. I’m trying to find a replacement. Maybe your readers can help me there. [laughing] For me, by necessity these concepts extend well beyond housing, and honoring them tends to be about buying products that I’ll be able and eager to use over the long term. It’s about buying fewer products but maybe spending more money or more research time to get them, because they’re better made.

richard olsen handmade houses

PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

Among all the homes and people you visited, has there been a single family or person that has stood out to you as extraordinary in this field of DIY home building?

Any serious conversation about DIY home building has to deal with Lloyd Kahn—his influence on that culture. When it comes to counter cultural design and construction, I don’t think anyone’s more “extraordinary” than Kahn. From his own self-built houses to his days in the late 1960s as the editor of the “shelter” section of the Whole Earth Catalog, to his geodesic dome phase, to his 1973 book Shelter, and on through to his recent books, including 2012’s Tiny Homes, Lloyd Kahn has carried this torch. In eco architecture and architect-designed handmade houses, the starting point for me is Sim Van der Ryn. In the DIY home building world, Lloyd Kahn is the towering figure. And maybe even better than all that, in his seventies Lloyd does downhill skateboarding and rides a surf mat!

richard olsen handmade houses

Brook-Kothlow House, Carmel Valley, California. 1978. George Brook-Kothlow, Architect. Pat Jewell, Builder.
PHOTO BY KODIAK GREENWOOD / from Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design (Rizzoli) / Copyright 2013 / All Rights Reserved.

What is the importance for today’s up-and-comers to think outside the box of design capabilities… to use their imaginations beyond tech tools…

Architecture and Design, as a scene, can be rather elitist—alienating to many. If you are getting into it, or even if it’s already among your passions, don’t make the mistake of limiting yourself to merely what you see in the magazines. Keep in mind that what you’re seeing there is an advertising-dictated formula; it’s far from the whole picture. There’s more to “design” than Bauhaus furniture or the Glass House or Prefab Modern. For ideas and inspiration, look at the live/work spaces of the culture’s artists, old and new, established and struggling. There, you’ll often find inventive design solutions, often done wittily with unexpected, low-cost materials. Sometimes, it’s infinitely more rewarding, much more cool, if you throw caution to the wind, put down the handheld device, and take the time to try to dream it up and make it for yourself.

Richard Olsen, a veteran architecture book editor and the former senior architecture editor for Architectural Digest, is the author of Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design, a 2012 ForeWord Reviews finalist for architecture book of the year. Olsen’s next book, California Green: Houses of the Eco Movement, from Handmade to High Tech, is to be published by Rizzoli in 2015.

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jessi -October 30, 2013, 10:32AM

these are so beautiful! its my dream to live in a house like this

Eva -October 30, 2013, 11:01AM


Ashley -October 30, 2013, 2:05PM

Exquisite, yummiest homes, great interview subject and bomb questions. Eyes ears and heart wide open trying to soak this one in!… Must.. drive.. to.. redwoods.. NOW!!
Also wanted to share why I love this so – my proclivity for love of houses and artisan skill such as this was also born from my family – my Dad in the 70’s after moving & working in SF, drew his dream house he wanted to build in the sand (he just recently found and shared the Polaroid he took of that moment with me too) A few years later found him on top of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin, in the first wave of exodus of hippies north across the Golden Gate Bridge to be in nature. He was building that dream house design from scratch with friends made out of rough-cut Redwood and organic materials that flowed with the Redwood Forest, on the land he had bought on top of the mountain (it was easy to do back then) w/views of the peak, and the trees huddled just outside the windows and the mass of Pacific Ocean and fog stretching out in the distance below. The house was full of all these kinds of Northern Calif quirks and big wood beams and unique & cozy round 70’s style rooms, tile, domed ceilings, stone fireplace and the like. Even the requisite 12-person wooden hot tub in the forest, hah! Classic 70’s Northern California style right there! We moved when I was 8, but boy will the spirit and soul of that self imagined and actualized, hand-built home stay with me forever. I’ll take a handmade home with heart over a fancy one any day! x

Lauren -October 30, 2013, 3:06PM

Thank you for this. Truly inspirational.!

Juliette Laura -October 30, 2013, 3:18PM

First of all these houses are absolutely beautiful. Someday I wish to live in one! Second of all, informative and interesting and inspiring interview! Loved it!

xo, Juliette Laura

Alexa Sonken {Invitations for Creatives} -October 30, 2013, 4:00PM

This is just amazing. I’ve seen lots of home images and these are extremely impressive. Such creative and unique ideas.

Corlie -October 31, 2013, 3:03AM

This is absolutely breath taking! Stunning stunning stunning!
Thanks for sharing with us :)
xox Corlie

Lawn and garden products -November 11, 2013, 4:52AM

Stumbled across your page by luck and I need to say that I highly enjoyed reading it. Keep up the quality work!

Busto Draudimas -December 5, 2013, 7:14AM

I give all my respect for the creator of this house. This is more than amazing!

Draudimas internetu -January 1, 2016, 7:11AM

Such an original house, i would like to live here!

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