Handcrafted Modern Europe: At Home with Midcentury Designers


 I am a huge fan of Leslie Williamson’s book Handcrafted Modern: At Home With Mid-Century Designers full of inspiring images of the homes of American mid-century designers luminaries like Charles and Ray Eames, Eva Zeisel, George Nakashima, and Harry Bertoia. Her next project focuses on Europe and the homes of some of my absolute design heroes like Finn Juhl and Alvar Aalto.

On Thursday night (3/7), Leslie is giving a lecture and sneak peak preview of her project at the new Heath Ceramics store in San Francisco at 7:30 pm in efforts to raise funds through her Kickstarter page. Since I can’t be there, I chatted with Leslie about her project thus far and her plans for shooting this summer.


 Finn Juhl’s house in Denmark

Tell us a bit about your current book project Handcrafted Modern Europe (working title).

It is basically a continuation of the project I began in 2006, Handcrafted Modern, where I photographed architects’ and designers’ homes. The book came out in fall of 2010. When I began, I made a dream list that included homes located throughout the world and I keep adding to it. So this second book will be a collection of some of the European architects and designers from that list. Alvar Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, Gae Aulenti – there are some big names and some names that will be discoveries for some people.

What has been the most inspiring part of this project thus far?

I have dreamed of visiting some these homes for 10 years or more. So this work is the most inspiring thing I can imagine doing. Everything about this is fantastic! Spending time with the designers themselves is always an experience I cherish. There is nothing better than having someone showing you around their own home that they designed and built and have been living in for 50 years. Having the immediacy of being able to ask questions while I am shooting is such a wonderful luxury. But I have to be careful because sometimes we get carried away chatting!

Tell us a bit about your experience shooting in Europe this summer. It sounds like a dream assignment.

It is probably the biggest thing I have ever done in my life so far! It was amazing. Although I had a great support system of friends and hosts along the way, I traveled alone for the 4 months that I was in Europe. I did 2 trips, each about 2 months long. The second trip was the intense one -10 countries in 2 months -but I really loved it! For some houses, I would just fly in, shoot the house and fly out. Alvar Aalto’s House in Helsinki was like that. Other countries and cities I had a bit more time in. I spent a little more time in Copenhagen and Antwerp. How long I stayed depended mainly on whether I had a host or not. Hotels broke my budget.

I had definite shoot dates for some places, but a lot of the time it would be Monday and I would have a loose idea where I was going on Friday. And houses would come out of the woodwork the whole time. People would hear about the project and would tell me about a house and if it looked right, I would try and get there. I think that this type of traveling has changed me on a fundamental level.

Where do you feel most productive?

When I am shooting. Being in the process of discovering a person and place and making images is the sweet spot in all of this.

What are some of the challenges producing this book in Europe that you didn’t encounter here with your first book Handcraft Modern?

Well, the main challenge in these projects is always money. I did my first book over 5 years and shot it all on my own dime and credit but I spread the expenses out. This book happened on a much tighter timeline and the travel was just so expensive. Even with careful, frugal travel I ran through my advance about 1/2 way through the second trip last summer. So I am raising the remainder I need through a Kickstarter campaign. It is crucial to finish this book.

Language barriers were actually not that much of a problem, but in Italy and the Czech Republic, I was frustrated because I had so many questions that I wanted to ask the home owner and we didn’t have a common language. I only had interpreters for part of the time in those two places. So when the interpreter left, there was just a lot of smiling and nodding and pointing. I am sure it was rather comical to watch.

What designers or materials are you particularly inspired by right now?

I am really liking the Danish design company HAY. I’ve been watching them for awhile now.  I really wish I had met with them when I was in Copenhagen. I bought a leather and wood fly swatter by them that I think is the such a perfect object! It is my favorite in my fly swatter collection right now! (yes, I have a fly swatter collection!)

As for materials, I am always attracted to natural materials – leather, wood, metals that patina and show a personality. I am really consistent in that. But I find myself obsessed with this pale pink color that is completely out of character for me. Pale pink and copper. That color combo is so good!

What is your favorite thing about where you live?

My favorite thing about anyplace is the people. Great people and friends make for a rich life.

And in San Francisco, I would have to say the produce and food. I am not really a great cook or anything, but our raw ingredients are just so good here, that you don’t have to be. I missed a lot of my favorite fruits and veggies because I was traveling last year so I am doubly excited for this spring and summer! Although I did discover Swedish strawberries on my travels and they are amazing!’

Thanks Leslie!


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