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Brutalist Style in Motown

20 Nov

Shane Pliska lives in a glass house. He wakes at dawn and spends hours gazing out of his windows at a forest and a pond. Snapping turtles lay eggs on his yard, and fawns sleep right below his deck. But this isn’t Walden Pond. It’s a suburban cul-de-sac in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

“It’s changed my life,” says Mr. Pliska, 38, president of a family-owned plant and interior-landscaping company. “It gives me clarity of mind.”

The house, which was built in 1956, wasn’t for sale. So he asked a real-estate agent to keep a close watch. When the home was listed—and marketed as a teardown—Mr. Pliska immediately offered $5,000 over the asking price and bought it in 2012 for $230,000.

The home, a 1,890-square-foot glass-and-wood rectangular box on 1.3 acres, was designed by Edwin William de Cossy, a former instructor at Yale University who had studied under Paul Rudolph, known for his Brutalist style. The cost of construction at the time: $30,000.

To better understand the architect’s vision, Mr. Pliska traveled by train to Connecticut to meet Mr. de Cossy, who was wearing a tie and white racing gloves when he picked him up at the New Canaan train station in a vintage black Mercedes. Over lunch, Mr. de Cossy explained that the style of the house was partly influenced by his work on modern homes in Florida in the 1950s and partly by the time he’d spent hanging out with Philip Johnson at his Glass House in New Canaan. “It’s a dream site,” says Mr. de Cossy, 89, adding that he built it originally for his brother-in-law, Leo Calhoun, who owned a Ford dealership outside Detroit.

Mr. Pliska lived in the house without changing anything for about two years. Then one stormy night, he heard a loud boom and felt shaking as a giant oak tree punctured his flat roof. The redwood roof beams saved the house from complete collapse.


 A modern Italian Scavalini kitchen inside Shane Pliska’s home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
PHOTOS: BRIAN KELLY PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
 Mr. Pliska bought the 1,890-square-foot glass-and-wood rectangular box on 1.3 acres in 2012 for $230,000.
“It was in a pretty sad state,” says Roman Bonislawski, the co-owner of Birmingham, Mich.-based architectural firm Ron & Roman who led the $300,000 renovation, which took two years to complete. The project includes new windows, replacing the cork flooring with slate in the living-room conversation pit, redoing the bathrooms and bumping out the master bedroom to add a small balcony. Mr. Pliska picked a modern Italian Scavalini kitchen (paying a discounted $35,000 because it was a floor model) with reflective avocado-green glass cabinets and put in new decks made of composite materials in front and out back.

What didn’t change was Mr. de Cossy’s fundamental design. The house is raised on a pedestal with redwood beams that cantilever out from below on all four sides and on top to hold up the roof, giving it a floating illusion. All the rooms are visible from the exterior except the bathrooms, one of which is enclosed by the kitchen wall and the other by the fireplace chimney.

The younger Mr. Pliska oversaw the building of a new glass-enclosed headquarters with a plant-adorned courtyard that doubles as a wedding-venue business. “He really changed things,” says Larry Pliska, 72, who still works there.

Shane Pliska’s neighborhood has also changed: It was once a laboratory for modern design, inspired by the nearby art academy Cranbrook, which owns the Eliel Saarinen Art Deco-style Saarinen House. Now, existing houses are torn down to make way for large new structures that Mr. Pliska calls “Barbie castles.”

Still, some Midcentury Modern homeowners there have tried to preserve an element of the past, gathering regularly for cocktails to admire each other’s architecture and discuss design. Neighbor Nancy Lockhart says one thing about Mr. Pliska’s house remains unchanged: A feral tabby cat cared for by the former owner, an artist named Fern Tate, still sleeps under the house and roams the neighborhood. They take turns feeding the cat, which they named Fern.

In the early 1950s, fresh out of the army with no college education, Edwin William de Cossy started designing modern homes in St. Petersburg, Fla. His work caught the eye of Paul Rudolph, who became one of the central figures of postwar American architecture, and the two began collaborating.

Mr. de Cossy earned a degree in architecture from Yale University in 1957, where he later became an instructor. As a principal with Douglas Orr, de Cossy, Winder & Associates, Mr. de Cossy designed a number of significant buildings, including the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven.

Mr. de Cossy’s career lagged until 1975, when he resurfaced as a builder of wooden sailboats. He had a comeback five years ago, designing several homes, and is now retired, currently building a 20-foot cruising sailboat with his daughter in North Branford, Conn.

 

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Treasured Shopping

1 Nov

This website is truly a jewel — www.usejewel.com

It’s an e-commerce site where you shop for luxury goods and receive cash back. Detroiter Andrew Landau is the website founder. The offices are based in Detroit, but the shopping spans the globe. Jewel partners with 350 brands from high-end department stores to indie labels. Some of the partners include: Neiman Marcus, Barney’s New York, Lululemon, Tumi, Tory Burch, Charlotte Tilbury.

The blogger the luxe strategist, explains the process simply here:

  1. Make sure you’re on the Jewel website and signed in.
  2. Find the store you want to shop at, then click the blue ‘Shop Now’ button. This will kick you over to the actually retailer site now.
  3. Complete your purchase in one session, and make sure you’re not paying with points or gift cards (these will not qualify for cash back, as I learned).
  4. Within 72 hours, your shopping trip and cash back amount should appear in Jewel.

Your check arrives quarterly.

Landau, a former Google employee, is a bona fide entrepreneur as he founded Chalkfly.com and sold it in 2014. This site is his latest venture.

Landau knows his customer base. “Every one, no matter what their wealth is, wants a good deal.”

Julia, the Ambassador

17 Oct

Julia Louis-Dreyfus wears the perfect tee. It’s not because it was designed by Wes Gordon of Carolina Herrera — although that’s a plus. It’s because 100 percent of this $35 T-shirt goes to charity.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the 2018 Saks Fifth Avenue Key to the Cure Ambassador, where this shirt is sold.

“I’m a breast cancer survivor so that is a huge part of my involvement with Saks’ Key To The Cure,” stated KTTC Ambassador Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “And, I’m absolutely thrilled that the AiRS Foundation is the beneficiary of the sales of the limited edition Key To The Cure t-shirt. Every penny from the t-shirt sales benefits the foundation, which helps women who are unable to afford breast reconstruction surgery post-mastectomy.”

I had to order this t-shirt at my local Saks store. The website said it was sold out, but there is a wait list. Note: It runs very small!

 

Memorable Memoirs

7 Oct

These two timely, immigrant stories transported me to countries I will never visit –Yeman and North Korea. The stories are compelling, suspenseful and inspiring.

Hyeonseo Lee grows up in North Korea revering the leader.
When she becomes a teenager, she sees that others are hungry and senses something is wrong. She walks across a frozen river to China. There she finds a new world and a new life on the run. Her identity needs to change often in order to be safe.

Mohammed Al Samawi is a devout Muslim in Yemen, but he becomes curious about other faiths when he reads the Bible. He connects on social media with Christians and Jews. He then receives death threats for communicating with the enemy. He escapes with the help of his new interfaith friends.

 

Summer Sizzling Novels

2 Aug

If you liked Gone Girl, you will like these summer picks. All are fast-paced novels, with more twists and turns than State Route 1 down the coast in California.

If you were not a fan of Gone Girl, with an unreliable narrator, you probably will not like most of these.

So, my favorite is The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. Yes, it’s confusing with the narrators, but stick with it for the multiple surprises at the end. I guarantee you will not figure out the ending!

Another psychological thriller is The Wife by Alafair Burke. Again, another marriage mistake. Who is the con artist? It will keep you flipping the pages.

 

Then, there is the Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. It reminds me of the Hitchcock classic movie, Rear Window. Yes, someone sees a murder being committed.

Finally, there is The President is Missing. How can you go wrong with the dynamic duo of James Patterson and Bill Clinton? Forget the politics and read a thriller!

What are your beach reads this summer?

Heavenly Fashions

27 May

You neither have to be religious nor Catholic to enjoy the exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” (now through Oct. 8.) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You just have to love fashion and art!

Fashion and the Catholic church intertwine in this expansive exhibit. “Heavenly Bodies” features the fashions of many well-known designers who were raised Catholic, but are not necessarily religious. Some of the designers include: Dior, Lacroix, Lagerfeld, Galliano, Givenchy and Saint Laurent. All the designs were influenced by the church. There is one room devoted to garments on loan from the Vatican.

The vestment, top left, is from the Vatican, while top right is by John Galliano.  Both designs in the bottom half are by Christian Lacroix.

It’s a brilliant mix of fashion. In fact it’s quite enchanting and heavenly.

Happy Socks!

25 Apr

 

Photo: Paul Morse, AP

 

 

Detroit’s Architectural Legacy

4 Apr

We, Motowners, recognize the beauty of Detroit’s architecture. Now, others are finally acknowledging. The New York Times article, “Detroit’s Looking Up” by John Dorman, highlights the grand buildings from the Fisher Building to the First National Bank Building. The article delves into the famed architect Albert Kahn. Be sure to check out the NY Times story here.

But, there is so much more. Frank Lloyd Wright, Yamaski and Saarinen have a large footprint in the city.

As a former magazine editor in Detroit, I had the opportunity to work with the late Balthazar Korab. His architectural photography is outstanding. Here is his photo of the fountains at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Michigan Modern, by Brian Conway and James Haefner is a new book eleased last month and features a Frank Lloyd home located in Detroit. On the cover is the General Motors Tech Center designed by Eero Saarinen.

 

 

Doesn’t Everyone Have a Crazy Aunt or Uncle?

8 Mar

 

Well, meet The Mighty Franks, a memoir by Michael Frank. With wit and charm Frank weaves the tale of his storybook Hollywood family. They are all a bit wacky and mostly loving at times.  His parents, aunts and uncles are all siblings, while the grandmothers live together.  Everyone lives close by, and it’s an eccentric enclave. The family dynamics are compelling, comical and hurtful, which is why there is a possibility of a TV mini-series. Without giving away the plot, let’s just say the special aunt goes overboard.

I had the opportunity to meet with the author on his recent book tour. He is a charming as the book. He tells me his next book is fiction. I’m looking forward to more zany characters.

Superhero Alert! It’s a Dad with MS

22 Feb

Max Melamed, age 13, wrote and illustrated the book Who is El Pitlum Rossicles? He wrote the book as part of his Bar Mitzvah project. (When Jewish children are 13, they often choose or are required to complete a social action project to make the world a better place.)  The story of “grit and perservance” is about a superhero who has Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The superhero is actually the father in the story, who is underestimated by the family because of his disease. He helped everyone in the town, and no one suspected him because of his condition.

It’s a personal story for Max because his father does have MS. Another reason Max wrote the book was to inspire others who might have a family member with this disease. Profits from the book go to help find a cure for MS. Max will personally send a copy of his book to anyone who donates $18 or more to the National MS Society.  For more information about Max’s book click here.

As Max states, “If your mom or dad has MS, don’t stress because they can be heroes and you can help too!”

The title of the book is an anagram. What do you think it spells?

 

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