Puzzle Master

Thom Faulders assembles a wraparound jigsaw ceiling of unique panel pieces.

When Bay Area architect Thom Faulders was hired to renovate and enlarge a faux French house in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood in 2004, he received only one directive. “He said he needed walls, walls, walls for the artwork,” Faulders says of client Jeff Dauber, a Silicon Valley technologist with a sizable art collection. “Given that, I thought I’d take over the ceiling.”

Faulders set out to create a perceptually adventurous pattern that appears to shift within fixed space. To make the most of the budget, he constructed it using only modest materials. The result is a contoured ceiling composed of hundreds of individual MDF panels that wrap the walls and surface. CNC milling made it financially and technically viable to custom cut each unique hourglass-like piece.

Visually, Deform House is part biomorphic Modernism, part high-tech bachelor pad, and part giant jigsaw puzzle. The panels are used in the home’s third-floor addition, which contains a large gallery/entertaining space, a bathroom with custom-designed fixtures, and a bedroom, where they extend down the windowed back wall to become a tactile element as well as a visual one. They also wrap into skylights and extend outdoors onto the front balcony, making the design visible from the street.

Deform House is just the latest in a series of projects in which Faulders has explored ways of breaking down the rigidity of built geometric forms. After receiving the SFMOMA Experimental Design Award in 2001 he built a malleable cave of suspended rubber squares. “As a challenge to traditional architecture, Particle Reflex—a large-scale installation made of vibrant monochromatic urethane rubber panels and fasteners—replaces our assumption that walls are unyielding fixed barriers with the notion that space can be defined by interactive and reactive surfaces,” reads the curatorial text. His entryway to San Francisco’s Wattis Institute galleries—an uneven mesh grid of metal that suggests an Op Art Bridget Riley painting rendered three-dimensionally—appears to undulate when you walk past.

Appropriate for the client’s interest in art, Faulders’s process—using a geometric formula to produce infinite variations of gently curving lines and shapes—recalls the proscribed parameters that conceptual artist Sol LeWitt uses to instruct the teams of assistants who render the compositional lines for his wall drawings. Berkeley-based architects Studio Under Manufacture (SUM) worked with Faulders to translate the design files for milling. After being cut, each unit was installed a single piece at a time and the grooves were meticulously hand-painted a matching matte white, a process that took three weeks to complete.

“It creates ongoing patterns in real time,” Faulders says of the completed project. “It constantly refreshes itself as something to look at.” Dauber is particularly thrilled with the results. “It’s like the ceiling is a part of my art collection,” he enthuses. “It’s my Thom Faulders.”

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