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You Don't Have to Just Be at Your Desk When Working from Home

By Dwell @dwell
Screen-printing home studio

Verda Alexander and her son, Apolo, collaborate on a project in their first-floor studio.

Project  Orpilla / Alexander Residence Architect  David Boone

What if your home office was “either/or” instead of “and/or”? Picture it, the work-from-homer’s ultimate fantasy: You nine-to-five it in the studio, no distractions, the place to yourself; home feels a mile away. Come closing bell, you seal it off and head back to cozy household comforts, bad workaday vibes safely entombed behind you. Imagine the clarity! The balance! This is the impossible dream: a home office as close as the next room, but a world apart.

That search for a work-from-home Cibola might end in Orinda, California, in the hills east of Berkeley, at the house of Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander. It seems too perfect: two pods split by a sky bridge, one for working, one for sleeping, plus a dedicated studio. But its reality is as complex as its vision is simple. Can you really divide your life into just two categories, leisure and toil? And if you could, would you?

The late architect David Boone, famous for his office buildings, designed Orpilla and Alexander’s home for himself in 1972. The house hunches into the hill, perched on metal I-beams and concrete piers, nestled into a hillside with views of Mount Diablo. It’s about 2,800 square feet and consists of two identical slant-roofed boxes: an office, kitchen, and living room (in Boone’s day a bit of corporate entertaining certainly counted as billable hours) in one; bedrooms in the other with a studio below.

Outdoor view of multi-leveled home

Orpilla pecks, Apolo pedals.

The reality is less glossy. We grow into our homes, and the result is that both house and human change—the relationship is symbiotic. We disobey floor plans. With each basket of laundry left in the hall, Boone’s Spartan separation makes less and less sense. So Orpilla and Alexander didn’t think much of putting a dining table in what was once Boone’s office, next to the kitchen. Or handling paperwork in a spare bedroom. Or stashing exercise machines in the wine cellar, which also houses Alexander’s silk screens, below the bedrooms.

That wasn’t quite what Boone had in mind. The architect, who died last November, was one to bring his work home with him, and he designed a system of dedicated spaces in his house to accommodate that overflow. His firm’s (McCue Boone Tomsick) corporate work included the offices of the industrial titans of his day like Chevron, NASA, and IBM and came to define the California high-tech, high-design of the 1960s and 1970s. MBT’s campus for IBM in particular epitomized Silicon Valley chic; its buildings are big, glassy, industrial-modern, hidden in the valley’s rolling greenery—temples to serious work; the office as laboratory. Unsurprisingly, Boone’s house so perfectly reflected the same values that MBT used images of it in their marketing brochures.

Today, Orpilla and Alexander’s practice, Studio O+A, treads similar ground, designing offices for the online elite: Yelp, PayPal, Facebook, and others. But unlike the shining corporate beacons of the past, Web 2.0’s workplace seems to be listing more toward the living room than the boardroom. Yelp’s office is designed like a Haight Street Victorian’s great room, stocked with vintage furniture. Facebook’s,  in an unassuming, remodeled Palo Alto chemistry lab, is full of snack bars, Guitar Hero practice rooms, and even a DJ booth—the office as rec room. Forget healthy separation: These offices are designed for programmers who eat, sleep, and play precisely where they put in their overtime.

Modern living room with redwood ceiling and chairs by Knoll and Vitra

In the living room, local artwork and an elegant redwood ceiling watch over a side chair by Warren Platner for Knoll and an Easy Edges side chair by Frank Gehry for Vitra.

Orpilla and Alexander know what that’s like. Their home was designed to be half business, and as if that weren’t enough, they continue to blur those boundaries by working in an office that feels like a home. Their actual offsite workspace—the two-floor San Francisco headquarters of O+A—is a jumble of homey comforts and design-studio chic. Upstairs is a maze of rooms and side rooms, connected by half walls and indoor windows and filled with piles of Orpilla’s stuff scavenged from the junk shop next door. “We could’ve torn it all out, made it superslick,” Orpilla says. “But the character of the building was more interesting to us. It’s like a house.”

In fact, the San Francisco space got so comfortable, Alexander had trouble getting anything done. So she moved her art studio into the Orinda house from its former home in one of the O+A office’s side rooms. “I like the separation,” she says. At home, she can seal herself off from the world and focus on her art. That was the idea, at least.

But on a typical day, getting to her worktable means stepping over her son Apolo’s cardboard-box fort spread out on her studio floor. Each end of the sky bridge has its own furnace and it’s possible to spend a whole day in one part or the other. Sometimes Alexander tries, shuffling from her bedroom to the studio downstairs. But Apolo breaks the rules. His toys are everywhere. He’s outgrown the desk in his room and has taken over the rest of the house. Orpilla and Alexander have to find solace where they can, and that means crossing the dividing line  themselves—their office is in a spare bedroom next to Apolo’s, where they pay bills while keeping an eye on their chickens in the backyard.

Outdoor view of bedroom pod and living room

Alexander walks from the bedroom pod into the living room under her freeway-inspired sculpture, titled Run A Way.

If they followed Boone’s plan, Orpilla says, “we’d run the risk of having it feel like two houses.” As Orpilla sweeps a toy car off the back of the couch, Alexander elaborates on the incompatibility of their lifestyle with the rigid, closed plan Boone had for the place. “This place is an architect’s idea of a house,” she says.

That intended rigor of function is perfectly expressed in the architectural details. Often used because it’s so forgiving, the wood here achieves
an almost clinical severity: Every line is perfect. When Orpilla and Alexander moved in six years ago, the house was painted all white. Way too stark, they thought, so they opted for a deep reddish brown, accented by bright Eichler-orange doors. But the chromatic makeover came with a strong reverence for some of the home’s original details, including a molded fiberglass shower and frameless doorjambs. Orpilla seems especially enthused and has clearly become a kind of lay MBT historian: “This Schlage hardware, this is something they did in the IBM building, and then Boone put it in his house. The towel rack is a wooden handrail. I just love it!”

A wall of closets in the bedroom pod keeps the place neat—they even hide the washing machine. “I call it the monk’s house,” Alexander says, basking in the clarity. Standing in the garage—also lined with closets—Orpilla is less romantic about Boone’s motives: “How else did a modernist keep it neat? You need a place to put all your shit.”

Outdoor deck with furniture by Richard Schultz

Those hammers and saws built a home for the family’s chickens, watched over by Apolo among outdoor furniture by Richard Schultz.

But, as they say, there’s nothing more useless than an unloaded cabinet. And as artwork, toys, and drawings and spreadsheets brought back from the city office crowd each other for space in hallways and stairwells, as life bleeds into work, that modernist clarity fades. Ironically, though, the house’s design—which Orpilla considers “rigid”—has fallen in line with the more flexible lives and work of its inhabitants. “We like it this way,” Alexander says. “It feels more open.”

Over a lunch of eggs from the hardworking fowl out back, Orpilla talks about building what he calls their “3 x 6 Case Study Coop.” Plain chicken wire was too boring, so he riffed on Boone and used wood, carting home Douglas fir strips in his car. “It’s fantastic,” he says proudly, but it was also, technically speaking, a chore, yard work. But if you can design a chicken coop—or a house—with the same rigor as an office building, and enjoy doing it, does it still technically count as work? Though Boone may have had a clear answer, it’s hard to tell which side of that line Orpilla and Alexander fall on.

After they first moved in, the couple learned of an expansion Boone considered that included a third node cantilevered over the small stream out back, with a new master bedroom and a hot tub. “Kind of a pleasure pod,” Orpilla says. These days, it hardly seems necessary. Two messy halves, the one seeping into the other, are enough.

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