Life as art | Monocle

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First-time visitors looking for the house of world-renowned fibre artist, Kay Sekimachi, might head to the typical Californian modernist house – it’s the only one that stands out on the otherwise nondescript Berkeley street. It must have happened before and hence she gives careful directions to head for the yellow-fronted duplex, sandwiched between bungalows and two-storey craftsman-style houses. Sekimachi opens the door, all five feet (at the most) of her and, though straight off a plane home from New Mexico – where she opened a show as part of SOFA Santa Fe – she welcomes Monocle into her home and world.

Sekimachi has been living in the house since the 1950s, when she moved in with her late husband, the wood artist Bob Stocksdale. She is one of the living icons of mid-century craftsmanship, a fulcrum around which the California arts and crafts movement turns. Trained by Bauhaus weaver Trude Guermonprez at the California College of the Arts, Sekimachi has lived in the Berkeley area the bulk of her life (barring brief stints in Japan and an American “relocation” programme during the Second World War). She is regarded as a weaver’s weaver – and a fibre artist to be specific. Her work is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Arts & Design and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and her influence on weavers and fibre artists spreads far beyond the work she does on her looms and tables at home.

Built after the turn of the 20th century as a five-room Victorian warren, the house cost just $8,500 (€5,900) when Stocksdale bought it, mostly on the virtues of its basement, which he was able to use as a shop. When Sekimachi moved in, she worked on the ground floor while he based himself one floor below. The arrangement continued until the 1970s, when the couple decided to renovate. A friend had a husband who was an architect. And that’s how Albert Lanier was hired.

The interior Lanier created is nothing like what you’d expect from the outside; the house exemplifies the Frank Gehry-esque trick of inside-never-matching-outside without being precocious, or even precious. Lanier ripped open the five tiny rooms and turned the interior into a three-room house – the result is great living room, bathroom and bedroom areas – divided by geometries of beams with furniture delineating the spaces and their purposes.

This approach was sparked by Sekimachi’s work. “When we did the remodelling, the architect knew I was doing these long tubular hangings,” she says. “That’s why he gutted the house and gave me a balcony.” That balcony overlooks the living room space – which is the full height of the house – and used to be, before the 85-year-old Sekimachi’s knees started giving out, her studio.

“I used to work up there and Bob worked in the basement,” she remembers. “We’d meet in the kitchen for lunch and then head back to work.” Now that Stocksdale has passed away, Sekimachi’s work takes over the entire interior world here, with a jewellery-making station (she started turning her collections of shells and feathers into wearable art in the past few years) near the kitchen, plus a dedicated weaving studio out beyond the back patio. It’s hard to see where work ends and life begins, but that’s the charm.

Her crisp yet natural aesthetic is everywhere: five feathers lie neatly placed on top of a living room chest; carefully-turned shells dot a side shelf; weaving samples cover the roof wood of another shelf; and linen, her favourite fabric, shows up on the sofa. Artwork by contemporaries like Peter Collingwood and a transformative piece by Dominic di Mare hang on the walls as inspiration.

At first glance, the house seems to follow no particular flow at all, but Sekimachi points out the diagonal patterning that emerges from a closer look. The whole house expresses the fundamentals of weaving: the circular form that the craft takes, the rhythm of the warp as it passes through the loom, and the patterns that are only visible only once you step back far enough.

The floorboards are angled, as are the ceiling beams. And so is – once you really look at it – the overhanging balcony, as well as the kitchen counter. And wood is everywhere, in various colours, so that you begin to realise what a difference just a few shades can make. The patterns make you think about how intricate and delicate the weaving process can be, in sensitive artistic hands.

A Japanese chest that was brought over by her father (who died when Sekimachi was 10), anchors the living room; bowls produced by Stocksdale line several of the surfaces throughout the home; and a giant hornet’s nest looms (no pun intended) over a perfectly filled kitchen fruit bowl. Sekimachi’s work is subtle, ethereal and verging on ephemeral. The fact that her home demonstrates the same qualities, after so many years living here, should come as no real surprise.

Because Sekimachi more than lives in this house: with its openness, rhythm and sense of constant discovery and delight, it is clear that every space she inhabits, she continually creates.

A web she weaved 

Kay Sekimachi was born in San Francisco in 1926. She grew up in Berkeley, spent a year at Berkeley High and was then relocated during the Second World War to the Tanforan Assembly Center. It was there that she first took art classes, which she continued at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine under the tutelage of Jack Lenor Larsen.

After coming back to California, she spent her last $150 on a loom and took up weaving. In the 1960s, California galleries started to take notice, individual collectors began buying her work and in the 1980s and ’90s she was recognised by museums as one of the country’s eminent fibre artists.

Her work has encompassed loom weaving, monofilament work and paper sculpture, and continues to push the boundaries of what fibre and thread and fabric can become. Her work has appeared in craft-focused exhibitions, books and biennales all over the world – and it continues to be published, exhibited and lived with.

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