Spring 2007/Summer 2007
Designing Wine Country
By Joan Chatfield-Taylor
The Streets of Napa and Sonoma counties are virtually lined with buildings designed by Howard J. Backen, from Cyrus to Meadowood to countless residences. Backen's signature style has influenced architecture around the world. So who is the man who is Wine Country's architect?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I accepted a gift from architect Howard Backen after interviewing him for this story. I couldn’t resist when, as I left his St. Helena office, he handed me a dozen eggs from his daughter's chicken coop.
It could not have been a more appropriate souvenir from a man who says he has loved barns and chicken coops since his childhood in Roseburg, Oregon. Ever since, he has been interpreting America’s rural architecture in his designs for residences, restaurants, hotels, and wineries. "It's simple, it's open to the land, and it's an agricultural building that's consistent with farming grapes," he says.
Backen's signature style has influenced architecture around Napa and Sonoma counties, and around the world. In fact, Architectural Digest named Backen one of its 2006 top 100 interior designers and architects. So who is this man who has earned himself the moniker the architect of Wine Country?
Backen used to be a city fellow, a partner at the thriving San Francisco architectural firm Backen, Arrigoni, and Ross. When he began working with vintner/developer Bill Harlan 11 years ago, he decided to move his family and his business to Napa Valley. In 1996, he formed the firm Backen Gillam with James Gillam, and since then has worked from a simple wooden farmhouse in St. Helena, with his variations on the barn theme popping up all over the area.
Many of Backen's designs are recognizable for their vocabulary of rural details and straightforward, low-tech materials. He likes walls of vertical boards, sometimes painted, sometimes left natural, and floors of rough-hewn stone or wide wooden planks. Roofs are often made of such basic materials as wooden shingles or plain corrugated iron. Increasingly, Backen tries to use recycled materials, both for tradition's sake and for environmental reasons. "When I started in this business, we never questioned where a piece of wood came from," he says. "Now clients are very, very aware and look at every material in terms of its being 'green.' "
In traditional barns, the doors were built wide and high enough to drive a hay-piled wagon through and provided a breezy center. In Backen's modern versions, the layout still provides not only air circulation—an important consideration in Wine Country's hot summers—but also an inviting perspective luring the eye to backyard swimming pools or vineyard views. In the same expansive spirit, Backen often uses floor-to-ceiling pocket doors that slide into walls to expose a whole room to the outside. Barns get much of their strength from an interior framework of sturdy wooden beams; similar beams cross many of Backen's soaring ceilings. His cupolas and wraparound porches further echo the plainspoken buildings of the early West.
For all their humble inspiration, Backen's buildings are surprisingly luxurious and contemporary. From the front, one well-known Napa Valley couple's home seems as modest and unassuming as a covered bridge, giving little hint of the spacious buildings and gardens beyond the central breezeway. There's nothing fancy about the crisp white walls of the Poetry Inn's three spacious rooms, even though this is a super-luxe bed and breakfast. And high-ceilinged Press restaurant in St. Helena is anything but pretentious.
Backen's accessible and friendly designs have also made him one of the most popular architects in Hollywood. He worked with Robert Redford on Sundance for 15 years and is currently designing a spacious farmhouse in Beverly Hills for a media mogul.
Asked what his favorite assignments are, Backen hesitated for a moment before answering, "I love doing houses, but I think I really like doing wineries the best." He was reluctant to say just how many projects he's currently working on, but we understand it's a healthy enough number.
Backen Wine Country
Sonoma Country Inn (in progress)
Cliff Lede Winery
Edgewood Estate Winery
Gallo of Sonoma Winery
Harlan Estate East Winery
The Napa Valley Reserve
Paul Hobbs Winery
Esperanza Hotel, George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, MGM Studios Theme Park, Sundance Institute Community for the Arts