John Dark inherited more from his mother Loretta than an artistic sensibility. He inherited a love for the best modern architecture that suburbia has to offer. Dark grew up in the Sacramento Valley in a modern home built by Streng Bros. Homes. And when it came time to raise a family of his own, he chose an Eichler model in the East Bay.
For four years Dark has been meticulously restoring his 1959 Eichler in Walnut Creek's Rancho San Miguel development, stripping wallpaper from mahogany plywood and repainting the exterior in its original exterior shade. He's also serving as a good influence on his neighbors, like the newcomers who took one look at their original mahogany walls and thought "white paint." "I told them to hold off, wait six months and then decide," Dark says. Five months later Dark's neighbors were restoring the mahogany.
Dark's commitment to Eichler style harks back to his childhood. He was raised in a semi-custom home of similar design by architect Carter Sparks and constructed by Jim and Bill Streng for his parents in 1976. Loretta Dark still lives in the family home in Woodland, a prosperous Yolo County farming community west of Sacramento. She's turned the home into an Asian fantasyland that's whimsical, soothing, and livable. Her son has brought much of his mother's style to his own home.
Visiting them suggests just how creative a homeowner can get with a modern home like an Eichler or a Streng without compromising architectural integrity. It also suggests how well Asian style works with modern California architecture.
But this is more than a mother-son story. John's uncle and Loretta's brother, Larry Fernandez, helped design Loretta's interior and garden. A well-known interior designer who died 18 years ago at age 38, Fernandez, by way of his artwork, design, and spirit, remains alive both in Loretta's home and her son's. 'Architectural Digest' twice ran features about Fernandez's work, which it praised for its "subtle complication that exists in good Japanese design." "He was a painter," Loretta says of her brother. "A landscape architect. He was an all-purpose, all-around genius, is what I'm telling you." Loretta and Larry grew up in Woodland, and Loretta taught for many years at a nearby elementary school.
Both homes have always functioned as family homes more than artistic statements. Loretta Dark and her former husband raised two boys in their home. John and his wife Stephanie have a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. The homes are both peaceful and contemplative, and serve as places for active living. Loretta says her goal in designing the interior and gardens and sitting room into the garden beyond.
But most remarkable of all is the 'river,' a dry stone-filled waterway up to three feet deep that starts at the entryway and winds its way through the house, disappearing beneath the flooring and reappearing in the backyard garden. Although it's water-less, the river adds a feeling of flow, of something hidden and otherworldly. "The children loved it," Loretta says. "They pretended to go fishing in it. They would climb in it." And no one ever fell in.
Asian artwork, bonsai, ceramics, and modern furniture chosen or created by Fernandez, and his abstract paintings fill the house. He chose many of the materials, including the matte-finished Japanese tile in the kitchen and hallway and black mirrored glass on one dining area wall. Much of the art was collected by Fernandez during his trips to Asia. "I love dragons," Loretta says, "so my brother found this dragon screen for me." Loretta keeps a little shrine to her brother's memory in a drawer of a hanging cabinet Fernandez designed. Loretta's office is also something of a shrine. She does her paperwork on Larry's old desk, a svelte modern rolltop.
It was Fernandez who introduced Loretta to Streng homes in the mid-1970s by taking her to a model. Loretta fell in love with the Streng atrium which, unlike its Eichler counterpart, is not open to the air but is simply a glass-covered, earthen-floored interior section near the entry. "I had never been in a home where you could have living plants growing up from the dirt." Soon Loretta and Fernandez were hunched over a table with the Streng brothers, asking for changes in the floor plan and less space for planting to provide more room for her kids to play. "They were delightful," Loretta recalls of the Strengs. "They were willing to make any changes that were wanted."