The Donald and Helen Olsen Residence cuts quite a striking figure amongst the more popular stylings of Bay Area Modernism. As the name suggests, this mid-century home was built by the architect Donald Olsen to serve as residence for him and his wife Helen, while he was a member of the architecture faculty at UC Berkeley.
Born in 1919, Olsen studied under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius while Gropius was teaching at Harvard. With his own residence you can see the heavy mark of the International Style which the Bauhaus School dis so much to initiate.
True to the Bauhaus influence, the central space of the house is open plan and raised off the ground by a series of slender pilotis. Likewise, the furnishing is decidedly early modernist in tone. This is perhaps best captured by a set of leather chairs in the style of Le Corbusier’s LC2 set of sofas and chairs.
Yet unlike most houses built in the International Style is that this one feels distinctly cosy and bright. It helps that there is such an abundance of windows, but it also has something to do with the fact that the house clearly looks lived in. This is best represented by elements such as the corridor wall entirely occupied by framed pictures of other modernist houses.
There is also a lot of potted plant life dotted around the house, providing a nice visual cue to the environment outside, which is thoroughly green and covered in trees whichever direction you look.
There are also a few quirky touches that would surely have caused a few raised eyebrows among the more dedicated followers of the Bauhaus variety of modern architecture.
One of our favourites is the set of grill windows in what served as the studio for Olsen’s wife, who was a painter. Getting wider as they go higher, the thin strips achieve the useful effect of providing lots of light and the kind of privacy and lack of distraction that a painter really needs.
These subtle twists on the typically rather cold International Style really make this a special residence. Taking this into account, it’s no surprise that this mid-century modern house ended up on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places, as well as being acknowledged as a City of Berkeley Historic Landmark.
It is also no surprise that the Olsen family were the only owners of the house until it came onto the market this year. That’s quite a responsibility for the new owners, we hope they continue to keep it as vibrant as the Olsen’s did.
Photo by Mark Haddawy