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Inside the Homes of California’s Cultural Icons

A new book of photography opens up the houses—and the daybeds—of notables such as Alice Waters.


Leslie Williamson caught Alice Waters in a rare moment of repose inside her Berkeley bungalow.

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At the residence of artists Madeleine Fitzpatrick and Evan Shively in Marshall, the dining room walls are covered in silver Mylar.

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Inside the Carmel cabin of poet Robinson Jeffers, which he built in 1919 using granite rocks hauled up from the beach below.

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Williamson spent a week sleeping at the former home of Sea Ranch architect Charles Moore.

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The longtime home of the Fassett family, which is tucked behind their family business, Nepenthe, in Big Sur.

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The Berkeley home of textile artist Kay Sekimachi is filled with works both complete and in progress.

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Moore’s condo is a prime example of the aesthetic he created for the Sea Ranch community.

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At the tail end of the dot-com boom in the early 2000s, Leslie Williamson was making a solid living as a professional photographer. She was being commissioned by tech companies to shoot new gadgets and by multinational corporations to help liven up their annual reports. And she was miserable. “I was just burned out, and I didn’t like the jobs I was getting,” she says. Every time she took another lackluster gig, she’d gripe to a friend that she would rather have worked at a bookstore. So when her friend saw a Help Wanted sign in the window of William Stout Architectural Books in North Beach, she called Williamson’s bluff.

Williamson ended up working there for a year and a half, a breather from photography that gave her plenty of time to devour tomes on her favorite designers. Eventually she came up with an idea that inspired her to start snapping pictures again: photographing the personal residences of her design heroes. “They had influenced the way we live now,” Williamson says. “But I really wanted to know: What did they create for themselves?”

She answered that question with Handcrafted Modern (Rizzoli, 2010), a wildly successful (with over 30,000 copies sold, it’s currently in its 11th printing) coffee-table book that offered an intimate look inside the homes of mid-century design icons such as the Eameses, Walter Gropius, and Eva Zeisel. She hasn’t stopped shooting since. The third title in her Design Pilgrimage series, Interior Portraits, released in late February, shines a spotlight on her home state of California and on the living spaces of a broader class of creatives than just designers. Among many others, there’s the Berkeley bungalow of chef Alice Waters, the rustic Carmel cabin of the late poet Robinson Jeffers, and the Sausalito fishing shack formerly inhabited by Heath Ceramics owners Cathy Bailey and Robin Petravic. “I have deliberately sought out a very select group of people whose homes are, in essence, the embodiment of who they are and what they do: It’s home as a portrait of self,” Williamson writes in the book’s introduction.

Having spent nearly a decade on her “pilgrimage,” visiting and shooting more than 100 homes, Williamson has honed a methodology that is more art than science, a stark contrast to her early days as a camera for hire. She always shoots solo. She never brings in lighting or styles the home before she begins taking pictures. And she doesn’t record conversations with the subjects or even take notes. “If the homeowner is alive, it’s about the experience of me interacting with them,” she says. “And when the house is preserved, there is a kind of communing with the soul of what’s there.”

As for how she decides what to point her lens at, that too is more art than science. “A lot of times, I end up taking multiple pictures of certain areas, and when I ask about it, it always ends up being this area that is full of meaning in some way,” she says. “I just follow my instincts.”

Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco

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