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Simplicity: lives dedicated to focusing on the fundamentals

“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

By trying to answer the questions of where he lived and what he lived for, Henry David Thoreau refused to attune to what the society of his time expected from him and decided to explore reality on his own terms. His musings around Walden as he walked in solitary or with others have resonated ever since and still feel irreverent.

After reading Nature, the essay by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau had decided that his education (at Harvard) had not prepared him for life. He embarked on what others considered a wasteful, idle adult life.

But Thoreau wanted to remain a permanent, free student of life —one worth living. “The end of life is education,” he concluded; by working odd temporary jobs that would provide what he needed to live an entire year in a few weeks, he set to explore the relations between nature and spirituality by building a simple cabin by a nearby lake.

A dream home does not equal a stack of stuff

Today, exposed to abundance and distraction at a much bigger scale, some explore the same questions that Thoreau left open, wondering whether the design of a house could make a difference in the way we live and see the world.

When BJ and Danielle Siegel talked about building their “dream home” in the hills of Sonoma County, they knew the oaks on the surrounding rolling hills —and the views of the valley they had visited on several consecutive weekends while hiking— were the place they had been looking for.

When they bought a lot with a view up a dirt road, BJ Siegel (at that moment, chief architect at Apple) returned with his wife and teenage son Jules to camp in different places. One of those evenings, it was getting late, and they looked instinctively for a place to set their camping tent. They found a stretch of flat land sheltered by oaks on an otherwise steep slope, perched over the valley and protected from the sun and wind. So in a few weeks, they built the first structure of the property: a shed to gather some camping essentials.

We visited the Siegels at their Sonoma home one summer morning in 2018. We knew we wouldn’t find a big gate or an impressive house upon a hill, but something somewhat blending with the golden and earthy colors of the area during the dry months.

The surrounding trees framed the views while sheltering their tent, and the family had set to build light on the same spot amid the oak trees and rocky terrain.

“Sometimes, when people build a house, they want to express all the cool things they can get into a house, and for us it was kind of the opposite,” explained BJ. “We wanted to do as little as possible and make it a comfortable place to live.”

As head of store design for Apple, Siegel had talked about simplicity in meetings attended by Steve Jobs. I thought of Jobs and Jonathan Ive when BJ Siegel explained how he cherished focus —and how easy it is to compromise it.

What we really think about “less is more”

To avoid the need to babysit the project while it was built, BJ came up with the idea of using a prefab house that could be designed remotely and finished at a nearby factory to avoid as many uncertainties in cost, impact, and execution as possible. He worked with Geoffrey Warner, an architect from Minnesota, to create a custom version of Warner’s weeHouse prefab. The result sat light on the land amid the trees in front of us: two casually-placed, simple cuboids with facade walls of sheer windows. Beyond the living area, on the bigger cuboid unit, a balcony cantilevered over the valley.

“I think a lot of people don’t necessarily buy into the idea of less is more. I think a lot of people think more is more. And they add features and they add complexity and they add size and it makes them feel like they’ve actually gotten more and I think it’s much more difficult and much harder to actually get there through doing less. That’s the fun challenge.”

The “less is more” ethos seems to work only in theory: when confronted with convenience, some of us seem to prefer to buy extra, to get the bigger thing just in case, to accumulate existences of non-essential stuff just for the sake of being able to buy it —and of taking advantage of a rebate, or a sale marketed as an opportunity.

BJ Siegel explained to us his concerns about the lack of good affordable housing, especially in places like California. Sometime later, we learned he had left Apple to join a construction startup. When Kirsten edited and posted our interview with the Siegels, one user posted a comment that made us smile. Regarding the architect’s care for simplicity, it said, he must have taken part in the meeting at Apple to get rid of the button in the (then) recently launched iPhone X.

Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lamented the apparent “lack of ambition” in the young Thoreau, the latter decided to explore the essentials of reality from a personal experience that screamed the need for simplification. Emerson had not understood that Thoreau’s was ready to sacrifice his social prestige or the perception others had of him to focus on the essentials:

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence. We have Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still.”

By keeping themselves artificially busy, surrounded by possessions and spaces too big, expensive, or precious to adapt to personal needs and scale, people were pawning their time and losing the opportunity of exploring the possibilities of life. Perception of beauty and awe in the simple things around us, he thought, is not compatible with around-the-clock activity.

If Thoreau’s life project of self-education wasn’t apparently ambitious, by exploring the meaning of a fulfilled life in simplicity and writing about it, he accomplished more than any other “busy” and conventionally successful citizen of his generation.

A list of materials for a cabin

The cabin by Walden Pond he occupied for a little over two years was a model of his simplified approach, providing little more than the necessary shelter to be ready for the morning because “morning brings back the heroic ages.” The awe-friendly setup needed to provide just the basics: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, all mainly provided by nature if one is willing to learn some trades already receding in Thoreau’s Concord. And, having that covered, a quotidian inquiry he called self-education became the main focus:

“That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.”

Seattle architect George Suyama saw in simplicity a path to build the tiny home he had long time envisioned. Life in a Japanese American internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho, left many scars, but his love for simplicity may come from the experience: “My theory is that we had nothing there so I became obsessed with little things.” The camps were no joke:

“They were long shed buildings; I don’t know how many families lived in them, you had one window and a stove area and there were curtains that separated one family from another. Maybe because there was nothing there that I wanted to make everything as simple as I could.”

As an adult, he never experienced difficulties in making things work, no matter how small or devoid of things a space was. George and his wife had been living for five years in a 500-square-foot fishing shack in West Seattle when the opportunity opened to buy the narrow lot next door.

Determined to celebrate simplicity, the Suyamas built an 18-feet-wide home that preserved all the trees on the property. Interested in the flow of spaces, George Suyama designed a structure in which all elements are one color, with the exception of a white box as a core of service elements: kitchen, bathroom, stairs, and bedroom.

Instead of becoming a prisoner of his childhood, George Suyama learned to turn the negativity of internment into the liberation of simplicity, a lesson that lied hidden in the camp for him to grasp. His buildings accomplish a Thoreauvian celebration of every morning. Life affirmation resides everywhere.

By building his cabin in the woods, Thoreau explored the subtleties of seasonal changes by the lakeshore, having only a roof to keep himself dry during the first summer, a time he used to work on the rest of the house store food and fuel for the winter; in autumn, he finally finished the house, plastering the walls and building the fireplace. Winter was a moment of study, meditation, and writing that already announced the possibility of spring, as Nietzsche —a reader of the transcendentalists and, like Thoreau, a convinced believer in the benefits of walking for creative thought— had written in the foreword of The Gay Science, his work on life-affirmation.

In all, it was a plastered ten-by-fifteen foot long with garret and closet, a window on each side, two doors, and a fireplace. The materials cost him a little over 28 dollars:

Boards: $ 8.03-1/2; mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof sides: 4.00
Laths: 1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass: 2.43
One thousand old brick: 4.00
Two casks of lime: 2.40 That was high.
Hair: 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron: 0.15
Nails: 3.90
Hinges and screws: 0.14
Latch: 0.10
Chalk: 0.01
Transportation: 1.40 I carried a good part on my back.
In all: $28.12-1/2

Simplicity in machines vs. simplicity in nature

Thoreau then clarifies his list is missing the timber, the few stones, and sand he claimed around the location “by squatter’s right.” Also, the main cost from the modern perspective, labor, is not accounted for by the author, not only determined to learn in the process but to improve his perception of material wealth and the world surrounding the cabin:

“I intend to build me a house which will surpass any of the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one.”

To Walden’s author, simplicity belonged to a wider plan of self-reliance in practice. While some neighbors at Concord worked all their lives to pay the mortgage on their townhomes so their descendants could claim the house they came from, Thoreau encouraged students to avoid debt and learn on their own while building their own shelter that could last a lifetime “at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.”

He recalled students paid 30 dollars annually for a room slightly bigger than his cabin at Cambridge College, and he would certainly have something to say about the increase of tuition across American universities during the last twenty years, as well as its consequences for students, whose borrowing compromise their immediate future. The living experience, or facing things with one’s senses and experimenting, was as important as theory and speculation.

In nature, simplicity may bring new subtleties every morning. Things from nature are inexhaustible and inspire in us a sense of awe that may have something to do with an old intuition we all would share as part of our collective subconscious, allowing us to spot order and beauty out of apparent randomness and chaos. A machine’s simplicity, Emerson stated, consists of easy comprehension, whereas in nature it’s endless and seems to renovate each time we pay attention.

Some architects try to harmonize both types of simplicity, one natural, and the other rational. They both can express beauty and utility. To Emerson, “we ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes.” A hand worker, a theoretical physicist, and a Renaissance painter would share a similar intuition to recognize objects (intellectual, material) built to last, often sublime in their simplicity.

Daydreaming on our terms

We tend to see things through the lens of our time, and it’s often difficult to spot the difference between important trends and mere zeitgeist noise. The need to create a small place of one’s own already existed before the coronavirus pandemic, as Michael Pollan had explored in A Place of My Own, an adventure into an ingenious activity some manage to keep alive well after growing up that of building a simple cabin for introspection, work, rest, or, as Pollan puts it, “daydream.”

Architect James Cutler grew up in rural Pennsylvania at a time when curious kids learned to fix old engines and machines out of rusty parts sitting in yards. Decades after, he still likes to search for authenticity of materials, space, and place, and lives on an old wooden house he bought and renovated on the forested island of Bainbridge outside Seattle. Cutler, dressed in jeans, bearded and long-haired due to the disruption during the early months of the pandemic, has designed big administrative, business, and residential buildings, including the house of Bill Gates, but he enjoys the challenges that bring him back to the basics of building design and its integration in place and time.

We had some time to talk about our respective endeavors and musings. Cutler had recently traveled to Spain, visiting Andratx, in Mallorca island —where he was finishing a house “for a friend of mine”—and places such as Granada. When discussing his visit to the Alhambra, I asked him his thoughts about the early European intervention in the building, when King Charles V had inserted a Renaissance palace with a circular courtyard inside the complex. “Didn’t like it.” Instead of learning from the palace, the then most powerful monarchy in Europe had preferred to insert their own model, coming from the artistic circles of Raphael and Giulio Romano in Italy, inside the palace of red walls, “as if they would have designed it anywhere else.” A war of vernacular styles and a conception and civilization and the world, indeed.

Such conversation about the meticulous mastery of ornaments and ancient bioclimatic gardens contrasted with the wild vegetation of the Pacific Northwest that we could see beyond the Cutlers’ backyard, perched on a fern-covered cliff with views to a tree-covered bay that hides some unpretentious undistinguishable wooden buildings. Maybe the scenery explains why James Cutler was glad to mention some works in Europe at a smaller, more impermanent scale, such as those by Souto de Moura (I believe) and the wooden church by Peter Zumthor near his home in Switzerland.

Designed important buildings, then built himself a tiny cabin

A tree had recently died at the very center of the yard, which brought some catharsis to the visit. The Cutlers had thought about completely removing the dead tree but ended up keeping its stump when he realized that a little branch had sprouted at its basis: a mere indentation in the stump’s surface drained moisture and rainwater down to the young branch. A dead tree was now a piece of art, and maybe a little more. James Cutler looked at it for a moment; then, his optimism kicked in as he turned to show the “dream bunk cabin” he had co-designed and built by hand with his teenage daughter.

Cutler had also renovated the old house they bought when they first moved to Bainbridge Island, but the bunk cabin condensed what he had learned over the years:

“Everything in this world has a nature – institutions, people, places… There are things that land will accept and other things it will not accept and stay whole. The bottom line of that is I felt that our job once we decided to work with the nature of things was those things take on a will. And our job is to reveal that will, that spirit, and amplify it if we can.”

The cabin needed to be as big as a toolshed, with a big frontal window over the yard and the bay, surrounded by vegetation on the other sides for privacy and an inner, transcendentalist blend with nature Emerson and Thoreau could have understood with no need of bringing context or explaining civilizations (unlike the Renaissance statement of Charles V inside the Alhambra).

James Cutler and her daughter spent eight months building their bunk cabin by hand, from pouring the concrete foundation (in an area known for moisture) to hand-picking and rough sawing the Douglas fir used. The 8-by-10 shed studio is now the architect’s favorite place to work and read, but also where he plays cards with his long-time buddies and where her daughter invites friends over to spend the night. All mechanisms within the cabin are meant to be used and share the ethos Cutler developed from his days tinkering with old engines and furniture growing up in Pennsylvania. Bunks hold weight and get out of the way as easily, a stove keeps the place warm, and the small “living” area can be arranged for work, study, contemplation, or a moment of relaxation with some friends.

Two cabins on Lake Superior’s shore

Staying at the lateral door of his bunk cabin, James Cutler seems closer to being working on a novel than the person who designed Bill Gates’ 66,000-square feet house or the Portland federal building. To him, the little cabin wasn’t less challenging because it was smaller, humbler, and devoid of unnecessary gimmicks.

From the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes, and from father and daughter to father and son: when we contacted architect William Yudchitz to visit the CNC-cut cabin he had built with his son Daniel on their Wisconsin property near Bayfield, a forested area overlooking Lake Superior, I didn’t expect to “see” the landscape I had envisioned in cultural references across the years, such as Scott Fitzgerald’s short references to Gatsby’s origins in the Great Lakes.

Used to move daily when we travel, we didn’t expect William’s hospitality. He insisted on us spending the night with them in their efficient cabin with “kinetic” wooden-clad shutters, while his son stayed in a much smaller, “skinny” cabin with collapsible furniture and moving parts inside resembling rooms, or use spaces.

Both places seemed to be the crystallization of the father-and-son conversation to build them both. Not only Bill and Daniel talked to each other with respect and inquiry, but they seemed to complement each other. Both cabins had been built using interlocking structural panels and could be easily disassembled, and the same principles appeared again in the furniture they had designed for the interior, capable of turning chairs and tables into sofas and beds.

The big cabin, which included two mezzanine beds on the sides atop the areas concentrating services (bathroom on one side, kitchen on the other), has a butterfly roof that captures rainwater and geothermal heating. In contrast, the skinny cabin had a deck on top to enjoy the lake views over the tree canopy. A rainwater catching system on the side allows Daniel to take outdoor showers.

Under a 12th century castle

The skinny lake cabin integrates minimum viable versions of transforming furniture that pack some accomplished industrial-design ingenuity: besides the rainwater shower, a composting toilet, and an outdoor kitchen, there’s a Murphy bed adapted from a $300 kit with hydraulics, as well as several pieces that get out of the way completely when unused: a method to enlarge the privacy of a “kinetic” popup bathroom, a fold-down dining table, and collapsible chairs that hung “shaker-style.”

Our stay with the Yudchitz family opened many conversations, from Catholicism and spirituality in general to a trip they had made to Switzerland, where they made sure to visit Peter Zumthor’s little wooden church in Sumvitg, Graubünden: Saint Benedict Chapel, a monument to simplicity, restraint, and a Thoreau or Emerson-level of transcendentalism.

A mere 400 kilometers separate the Swiss village of Sumvitg from Aschau im Chiemgau, a picturesque Bavarian little town in the district of Rosenheim. Aschau im Chiemgau’s houses are sheltered around a medieval castle atop a boulder and distant Alpine views. Right below the castle, celebrated industrial designer Nils Holger Moormann —another accomplished personality in his field after dropping out of law college and specializing in woodworking— transformed a derelict Bavarian house barn into his company’s headquarters.

Moorman had adapted his weekend (and entire Sunday) to meet us despite the place being closed and his weekend activities several hours away, a gesture we appreciated. There was an industrial designer who decided on whom he would sell his small batch furniture, with friends such as English designer Paul Smith, waiting for us in his self-custom VW campervan, by the side of his —then in closed hours— company.

Adding meaning to the world

Nils Holger Moormann likes simple, memorable, sturdy, reparable stuff. We smiled when he took his keys and tried to scratch the surface of his campervan’s custom furniture to prove his point. It was the beginning of a very particular, extremely-enriching day with Nils, a masterclass of best practices, good taste, ingenuity, a bit of healthy irreverence, and a sense of responsibility.

He produces all his designs 40 kilometers from their rural headquarters, or put in his actual sense of distance, “within a two-hour bike ride.” His furniture is contemporary, but his creative world is forged inside the remains of past centuries. As a result, there’s timelessness and uniqueness in his designs. We finished the visit inside two little wooden cabins with a corner window, Frank Lloyd-Wright-style, wondering when we were coming back and with which excuse.

Only we didn’t need any excuse. Nils Holger Moormann had made sure we felt welcome. When leaving, I would have liked to recall a reference to describe such a day. Days after, cherry picking here and there in the library, I found this by Emerson:

“I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.”

Maybe that was the secret of some people, after all, besides their bigger-than-life talent. A matter of actual, authentic generosity towards the people they decide to commit to.