Financial Times, May 27, 2006
There’s nothing understated
about the home this California
artist shares with her children
and architect husband,
says Tracey Taylor
When artist Deborah Oropallo used to drive past the austere building she now calls home, she saw in her mind’s eye a huge, inviting studio with maybe a bed at the back, but nothing more.
Sixteen years later, the 4,000 sq ft former machine shop in a light- industrial area of West Berkeley, California, is not only a workspace but also a family residence accommodating Oropallo, her architect husband Michael Goldin and their two children, Leo and Gina.
With its vast spaces, eclectic art works and outsize fixtures, it is hardly a typical living space. But closer scrutiny reveals that much thought has been given to the routines and rituals of daily life. And it is not a home masquerading as an exhibition space. Every painting, every photograph has been created by friends or relatives and each one tells a story. Memory and family play a significant role in Oropallo’s work and it’s no surprise that the same themes echo through her house.
I visit on an overcast day in April. Built in the 1960s, the grey building is distinctive for wraparound glass-brick windows that follow its curved contours. It is one of many former factories and warehouses in this part of Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. Walk one block west and you reach the choppy waters. Hugging it are the tracks on which giant Pacific Union freight trains make their ponderous way upstate emitting their characteristic mournful whistle.
Step into the house and the first thing you see is the tail wing of a “Shooting Star” T33 aeroplane hung on the hallway’s back wall. Attached to it are dog tags that belonged to Oropallo’s father who was a pilot in the second world war. Through a doorway to the right is a long study, which leads into the artist’s beautiful, light-filled studio. The rest of the house is living space: a huge, open-plan kitchen and eating area, a bathroom, and bedrooms, two of which, on an upper mezzanine, make use of the building’s 15ft ceilings.
Oropallo points to the advantage of starting with a great big box. “One of the beauties of having a space like this is that it is easy to create new rooms or add elements on a whim,” she says. Thus, after several years of her using the shop only for work, when she and Goldin realised the house where they had been living was too small for their growing family, they simply went to the studio, got out sledgehammer and broke through a dividing wall.
Form followed function. They carved out a slender gap in the wall between their bedroom and the children’s sleeping area on the upstairs level so they could reach them easily at night when they were younger. Similarly, a tall window was inserted between the kitchen and Oropallo’s studio so that the children could see her at work while staying protected from the toxic fumes of her paints.
Many of the images in Oropallo’s work, which is in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, use doll furniture and miniature toys as their starting point; she says they prompt her to contemplate her own childhood. Thus, she paid careful attention to her own children’s bedrooms. “I thought, this is going to be their memory,” she says.
For each, she chose a work of art. Leo’s, a large image of a cowboy by Jason Byers, wasn’t an immediate hit; the children found the stark, imposing figure towering over them frightening so it was put away. But a trip to the rodeo piqued their interest in the wild west and it was reinstalled.
Much of the furniture in the house – including storage units, gym lockers and shelves – have been sourced from commercial catalogues and many are fitted with wheels and casters. “I like the versatility of being able to use something to store paints and then put it in a bedroom when it’s needed there,” Oropallo says. Some pieces, such as the sleek desk in the study and the large tables in the studio are designed by Goldin and manufactured by his furniture design company Swerve.
Other areas of the house have his stamp on them, too. “Michael . . . had worked as a cook and [his] family has always been passionate about cooking . . . [so] when he moved in . . . [he] asked me where the pastry counter was,” Oropallo says. “I told him I never made pastries. I just don’t cook. He said we had to have one – and a freezer for all the home-made stocks and Bolognese sauces he would make.”
So the kitchen became Goldin’s domain. You only have to look at the scale of the space and its components to understand why Oropallo teases him for having a “size disorder”. The double catering range, bought at a culinary institute, is so vast they had to move Leo’s bedroom into another part of the house to make room for it. A pair of vintage laundry sinks equipped with medical-style, foot-pedal-operated taps (a nod to Goldin’s father, a retired doctor) abuts a hulking, poured-concrete countertop. A massive baking table reminds Oropallo of her father’s second career as a baker, while a robust butcher’s block was found at a French kitchen antiques dealer in San Francisco.
The dining table, which easily and often sits 12, was also Goldin’s idea. “For him life is an enormous table with people coming and staying, and sharing food,” Oropallo says. The light fixture over the table is by Amsterdam’s Droog Design. On the wall behind it is “Yellow Liner”, a Richard Misrach photograph of the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. Across the room are pair of photographs by Goldin’s mother Joann, one featuring a decapitated chicken’s head.
It is not just Oropallo’s home that has undergone change with the arrival of children. Her art has evolved. After 20 years of painting she began, six years ago, to focus on photography-based pieces. A current exhibition of her work at the Boise Art Museum in Idaho (which runs until June 18) includes enlarged computer montages of manipulated images – including figurines, glossy leaves and pillows – mounted on to canvas and coated with layers of matte acrylic. “Painting involves long stretches of time, whereas with my current art I can work in increments – such as when the children are at school or asleep,” she explains. She also admits to hitting something of a wall with painting and thinks the new medium has opened up new possibilities and a fresh perspective.
The next progression may be into a new home. Oropallo and Goldin are planning to build it on a plot of land across the road, adjacent to his architectural practice and design studio. And this one will be designed for the next stage in the family’s life, with space for parents and teenagers to keep their distance, for instance, and an autonomous apartment to welcome relatives. Goldin, a keen hunter, also wants a walk-in refrigerator so he can hang the meat he brings home from their ranch in Mendocino. And he is even designing a customised living space for the the family’s pet birds, two cockatoos and a parakeet – a long interior room with an integrated drain and hose, a tree and enough space for them to take flight.