When, in 2004, David Locky first visited his future home – a bungalow in Edmonton’s Highlands neighbourhood – he was mesmerized by the brick on the fireplace. It was as coarse as old-growth tree bark and as iridescent as a mollusc shell. In the right light, you’d see shades of ochre, copper and burnished red.
At the time, Mr. Locky and his wife, Sarah Wilkinson, were graduate students and neither knew much about architecture. (Today, Mr. Locky is a biology professor at MacEwan University and Ms. Wilkinson works in restoration ecology at the University of Alberta.) When the seller explained that the fireplace was made of clinker brick – a rare material in Edmonton – they didn’t know what he meant. But the house had a rustic kind of charm and the $209,000 price was just within their budget. So they bought it. Then they set about researching the house and its design history.
They learned, for instance, that clinkers are castaways. Because the kilns of the 19th century distributed heat unevenly, the bricks closest to the centre often liquefied and fused together. Deeming them unsalable, brickmakers threw them out. By the early 20th century, a salvage culture had emerged, with builders scouring dumps in search of clinker discards, which they separated with mallets. The pieces were dry, heavy and often misshapen. They were called clinkers because, when you banged them together, they’d clink.
They were a favoured material of the arts and crafts movement, a design culture that originated in England and later flourished in North America. Mr. Locky’s home – which he calls the Rose House, in reference to the original owners, William and Lillian Rose – is a relatively pure exemplar of the vernacular arts and crafts style in Alberta. But purity is an inapt word. For arts and crafts designers, perfection was a dubious virtue. This was a humanistic movement. It sought beauty in the rough materials of daily life.
Early arts and crafts adherents – British critics and social reformers such as John Ruskin and William Morris – rebelled against the ornate style of their Victorian contemporaries. They argued that makers should look instead to artisanal medieval traditions, which favoured natural finishes, thick textures and organic forms. They scorned both elite affectations and an industrial culture that mechanized labour, reducing artisans to mere workers. It’s not that they hated ornamentation (arts and crafts isn’t minimalism) but they preferred to keep things simple, since even the most delicately wrought chair is still just a thing you sit on.
By the turn of the century, British arts and crafts culture had given rise to the American Craftsman tradition, which sprung up first in New England and then in states such as California and Oregon, where the movement’s democratic ideals melded with a local pioneer-homesteader aesthetic. You can see evidence of the Craftsman style in virtually every North American city, but it’s most obvious on the Prairies and in the Pacific Northwest. While the old anglophone neighbourhoods of Central Canada have a Victorian character (think: pointed arches and polychromatic bricks), the homes in Edmonton tend to be low and wide rather than tall and sharp, and they’re often clad in fieldstone, rustic siding or wooden shingles.
The Rose House is a traditional California bungalow – a squat, compact structure with a gabled roof and a porch that spans most of the front façade. This design is perhaps the most recognizable Craftsman typology. In the interwar years, builders adapted it to the Canadian climate by adding insulation, basements and storm windows.
The house makes good use of its 1,400 square feet. There’s no antechamber; instead, you enter directly into a fireside living room. The downstairs has a hub-and-spoke formation, whereby each room – the kitchen, the den and the bedroom of the couple’s daughter, Rosemary – branches out from a central landing. “There’s seven doorways in that tiny space,” Mr. Locky says. Upstairs, there’s a gabled master bedroom, which is just tall enough that you can walk upright beneath the ridge.
Remarkably, for a structure that was built in 1924, the place still has its original finishes. The floors are thin-strand maple, the trim is chunky, old-growth Douglas fir and the exterior cladding is a patchwork of overlapping cedar shingles, which bear the markings of the circular saw that cut them. In the seventies, the house had passed from the original owners – the Roses and then their relatives – into the hands of a slumlord, who engaged in a practice you might call preservation-through-neglect. It’s a terrible way to conserve a home, although it can be better than the alternative – at least when the alternative is ripping out the interiors and replacing them with laminate. “For 30 years, nothing was done,” Mr. Locky says. “The original surfaces were unpainted. The floors were covered with carpets, but they were otherwise in great condition.”
In the nineties, the home was acquired by less parsimonious owners, who patched leaks, replaced water-damaged plaster with sheetrock and redid the electricals. When they put the house on the market, they sought a like-minded buyer. “They only let us have it once they’d made sure we weren’t going to knock it down,” Mr. Locky says. “The grilled us about it two or three times.”
Upon taking up residency, Mr. Locky and Ms. Wilkinson applied for (and received) heritage designation for the house, a move that brings both perks and drawbacks. The bad news: It limits what you can do. The good news: It limits what future owners can do, too. “We can’t smash out the windows or put a big addition on it,” Mr. Locky says. “But neither can anyone else.” The house is eligible for municipal and provincial restoration grants. Last summer, the couple invested $44,000 (some of it their own, some of it the government’s) into the exteriors. They installed new hardware on the casement windows, reappointed bricks on the chimney and replaced the roof.
Mr. Locky has been filling the space with arts and crafts treasures. His acquisitions include a quarter-sawn oak table from a convent in Winnipeg; a fumed-oak armchair by Gustav Stickley, an early Craftsman proponent known for sturdy furnishings with exposed joinery; and a set of hand-hammered copper vases from the Roycroft Campus, a fabled and vaguely cultish alternative community from Western New York. (Imagine a medieval-style gild on the shores of Lake Erie.)
Mr. Locky approaches his work in the manner of a collector not an interior decorator. He has no interest in the design dogmas of the Instagram age – the voids, the colour blocks, or the obsessively curated surfaces. His shelves are cluttered with tchotchkes: copper ashtrays engraved with Celtic knotwork, a bookend that’s adorned with a bronze-dipped eucalyptus leaf. There’s little in the home that you’d describe as chic or contemporary.
One senses, though, that Craftsman design was never really chic or contemporary, not even in its heyday. Its proponents took inspiration from the past and they believed that the best items were the ones you actually use, not the ones you keep behind glass. It was a movement dedicated to accessible, domestic pleasures – the kind that don’t always require vast fortunes or sophisticated tastes.
This idea is so essential that virtually every generation rediscovers it. Today, lifestyle guru Marie Kondo tells her fans that the good life can be there’s too. “Discard anything that doesn’t spark joy,” she says. That dictum bears a striking resemblance to words William Morris, the grandfather of arts and crafts, wrote 140 years earlier: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
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