By Lou Fancher
Visitors with the leg power to cycle up the twisting incline of the canyon road leading to Eric Pfeiffer’s 2,000-squarefoot home in Montclair don’t need to dismount at the front door: There’s nothing precious about the furniture and product designer’s attitude toward his family abode.
“The kids used to ride mountain bikes straight through the house,” Pfeiffer says.
He and his wife, Melissa, might even take a spin themselves through the living room and onto the surrounding decks with their sons, 16-year-old Keegan and Luke, 13.
Pfeiffer is the coauthor of Bent Ply: The Art of Plywood Furniture, which indicates his philosophy that useful and beautiful objects can be made with simple materials. He’s also the founder of Oakland’s Pfeiffer Lab, whose clients over the years have included Design Within Reach, Google, Target, and Williams-Sonoma. The everyday products from the lab follow a design ethos built upon simplicity, sustainability, and a casual West Coast sensibility—much like the Pfeiffer home.
In the house, designed and built in 1956 by the late Sonoma County architect Paul Hamilton, family and functionality are everything. Distinguishing features such as cinder blocks, radiant-heated concrete floors, built-in mahogany cabinetry, and walls dominated by glass celebrate a rugged, nature-loving lifestyle.
A ceiling made of fir two-by-fours slopes dramatically, literally spearing itself through walls and windows to extend beyond the home’s exterior. The physical outline is like a finger, pointing to views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge—or closer in, to the umbrella of oak trees covering a lawn that plunges precipitously.
In the Pfeiffers’ entryway, a modular table made of blocks of natural cork from Portugal serves as impromptu seating for boot removal—or a lightweight sculpture easily rearranged to express personal choice. A Pfeiffer-designed tilt box with trapezoidal dividers aligns oversized books, and is the perfect place to set a soft plastic cup Pfeiffer designed for the tech company Evernote that holds a smartphone, pens, and keys.
In some ways, the entry point is symbolic of the entire home: The floor’s chestnut patina glows richly with increased age and use; every nook is put to an ultimate purpose, like the crannies on a boat; and floor-to-ceiling glass windows afford a view of bamboo trees lining a rocky pathway that winds to join the home’s numerous decks.
“I look up from reading a book or eating a meal, and it’s like being outside,” he says.
Pfeiffer says that when he and Melissa walked through the front door in 1999, just weeks after completing the renovation of their Potrero Hill Victorian, they knew they had to have the home.
“We stumbled on this place on a whim,” he says. “After 15 years, there’s nothing I would drastically change.”
Pfeiffer’s favorite feature is the sliding glass wall in the dining/living room.
“The places I love are the High Sierras, the desert, the ocean,” Pfeiffer says. “Vast open spaces captured in your home are an inspiration from nature.” The kitchen—one of the few rooms Pfeiffer has renovated—introduces modernity. It combines stainless steel appliances and countertops; blue, white, and pale green laminate-finished cabinetry built by Berkeley’s Georg Goldberg; and original mahogany cabinets.
“Anything natural wood–we weren’t going to paint,” Pfeiffer says.
In the den, built-in bookshelves, an iconic Eames lounge chair, and a ubiquitous window create a cozy, tree house–like atmosphere. Cabinetry in the three bedrooms eliminates the need for dressers or desks. Pointing out scratched surfaces like a prizefighter shows scars to prove his cred, Pfeiffer pulls open a drawer, searching for an inscription. He chooses to leave intact even the home’s hidden graffiti, savoring a graphic connection to a previous owner.
Art on the few windowless walls is photographic or abstract, including paintings by his sister.
“We have a lot of art but not a lot of wall space,” Pfeiffer says, “[so] if something comes in, it’s connected to us as a family.”
The furniture in the Pfeiffer home also holds family history—like the classic fiberglass Eames dining chair, which dates back to his grandfather-in-law.
With purpose and beauty paramount, sustainable materials coalesce in outdoor furniture that Pfeiffer designed for Minnesota-based Loll Designs. Fabricated using 100-percent recycled plastic milk bottles, the cherry-red chair and black rocker and tables are lightweight, with slotted handles for easy portability.
Tablet holders, coasters, and other products he’s developing in the Pfeiffer Lab often appear simultaneously in his home. “It’s like our test lab. If we’re making something, we’re going to use it and see how it works for us,” he says.
A studio in a separate building on the property serves as a model shop and workspace for the Pfeiffer Lab. “Making essential things” and building are practically a family trait, Pfeiffer says.
“The most sustainable thing we can do is make something no one ever wants to throw away.”