Words and styling Amanda Talbot
Photography Richard Powers
Once a model of 1950s suburban bliss, Joseph Eichler houses are now sought after as the height of modern California cool.
When driving along the suburban streets of San Rafael, San Francisco, where Iris In’t Hout and Michael Sainato live, house after house calls to mind the idyllic era portrayed in the 1950s television shows so many of us grew up with. In this quiet area, many iconic residential buildings by Joseph Eichler, the king of West Coast Modernism, rest comfortably in the Californian sun, capturing in architecture the spirit of ‘Californian Dreamin’.
“When I was a child, my perception of America came from all those ‘50s TV shows. Now I feel like I have stepped into that world – for me it’s the ultimate in Californian living,” says In’t Hout, who grew up in Holland. Sainato, a native to America, and In’t Hout met in Germany while they were both working for multi-chain clothing brand Esprit. When Sainato decided to move back to America the pair had to resort to letter writing and phone calls. It didn’t take long for love (and a few expensive phone bills) to draw In’t Hout to the States. In their Eichler house, Sainato, now a successful art director in California, and In’t Hout, who runs her own children’s wear company, Extra Small, have found the perfect backdrop to display their 20th century tastes.
“It’s like walking back in time,” says Sainato. For the couple, buying an Eichler home was not just about purchasing a shell for them to live in – they were buying into the history of it. “The longer we live here, the more we want to find out about it and the more we appreciate it.”
This historic yet understated suburban house played an important part in American history. Eichler chose to use the building, as his display house, showing San Francisco families an optimistic, middle-class, mid-century vision of the good life with its easy indoor–outdoor flow, oversized garden, open-plan living and modern, cheap materials.
Today, Sainato and In’t Hout’s home, with its mahogany walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and spring-fresh décor, gloriously celebrates bringing the outside in. When walking into the house from the street visitors walk straight into a glass atrium bathed in light, with a view of the whole house and the backyard beyond. “It really did feel like a time warp the first time we walked in,” says In’t Hout. “[Eichler’s houses] are very simple, modern design homes, filled with natural daylight giving off an amazing energy. In the winter, with the fireplace burning and the pouring rain hitting the windows in the atrium, it’s really cosy.”
Before owning this light-filled oasis the couple’s last home was dark, damp and had no garden. “We rented our last home for 10 years,” says Sainato. “It was situated in the Knoll Valley forest so we got hardly any light into the house. The neighborhood we lived in was nice and we made a lot of great friends in the area but we outgrew it. Iris wanted to start her own company and work from home so it was time to find a new home that we owned.”
Even while living in their previous home Sainato and In’t Hout were passionate collectors of 20th century design. The pair has long enjoyed trawling flea markets and second-hand shops for vintage design. “When the furniture removalists moved our furniture into our new home they thought we had bought their furniture purposefully for this house. They placed the furniture without any guidance and it’s pretty much where we have it now,” laughs Sainato.
While searching for their new home, Sainato and In’t Hout often dreamed of finding a home by Eichler but his designs come on the market infrequently, and even then have often suffered an aesthetic battering over the years. “It took some time for us to save and find our dream home – the nostalgic houses are not cheap and are hard to find. We spent our weekends over two years looking for one. We couldn’t believe our luck with this house being so untouched,” recounts Sainato. In fact, the house was in such good condition that the couple’s only undertaking was to replace the peeling beige linoleum floor with a similar vinyl tile, choosing a speckled white to counterbalance the abundance of dark mahogany used through the house.
The ‘50s dream home is much like a glass box, flowing easily from the large open plan living and dining through to the master bedroom. The second bedroom has been turned into a his-and-hers office. “It’s wonderful sitting at my desk, looking out into the atrium and having the light pour in. I love the open-air lifestyle… perhaps due to my upbringing in Holland,” says In’t Hout.
Throughout the the house the creative pair have added vivid splashes of colour. Blue, green and orange pop out and add a fun charm to the home. “We are both creative and love colour,” explains Sainato. “It’s important to have colour in the house with the mahogany and glass walls because the space could feel dull otherwise.”
People lucky enough to have been raised in California could easily overlook Eichler houses, or take them for granted. But people like Sainato and In’t Hout are smart enough to recognize them as the iconic designs they are. “It felt right the minute we walked into this house and we knew, ‘This is where we belong.’ It has brought along really great people who have educated us about the space. I tell people we are caretakers. It’s a real find to get something that is still in its original state and is well maintained. It’s like we have been handed the responsibility to keep it the way we found it,” enthuses Sainato. Here at Urbis, we think they’re doing a great job so far.