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Inside a Berkeley Family’s Surreal Home-Office Complex

Three buildings. One block. No rules.


John McNeil’s office is decked in subversive curtains by the Scottish duo Timorous Beasties. The steel wall, left, bears a custom-made glass whiteboard that rolls up to reveal a television.

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Brainstorming sessions often take place in the monochrome reception area at the entrance of the Annex.

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The warehouse-like Annex is divided into zones to serve multiple uses, from a performance space to a pop-up gallery. Its 18-foot steel delivery door opens directly onto the street.

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The Annex, here serving as a screening room. When not in use, the chairs are stowed behind the doors on either side.

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Katy Grannan’s portraits on display in the Annex, which can function as a photo studio and gallery.

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Architect Douglas Burnham calls this open office area the Factory, where a collaborative workspace is bordered by glass garage doors. Envelope A+D custom-designed the desks.

Photo: Mariko Reed

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The kitchen at John McNeil Studio features marble-topped steel cabinets. The large-scale drawing is by artist and curator David Wilson.

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Contrasting sections of wood and gray paint emphasize the house’s volume. “Katy and John really wanted a warm home,” says Burnham, “but they wanted it to be unusual.”

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A continuous strip of gray paint runs from the front door to the garden in back.

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The all-white kids’ bathroom is accented by a fluorescent yellow shower curtain— originally a welding curtain.

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A chrome corner shelf displays the couple’s beauty and grooming products. “It creates a little art moment,” says Burnham.

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An office with a steel wall, antler-crowned seating, and artfully violent curtains. A puzzle-like annex of seamless doors and hidden rooms, all fronted by an 18-foot steel slammer. A revamped Victorian with its wooden bones exposed, sliced down the middle by a slash of gray paint. It’s all, improbably, situated on the same block of West Berkeley. And it’s all the weird, whimsical vision of art director John McNeil and photographer Katy Grannan. 

“They don’t want normal stuff,” explains architect Douglas Burnham, founder of Envelope A+D, who designed the couple’s live-work-party world. “They take an art approach to living.” Luckily, Burnham has always taken an art approach to designing.

The couple tasked him with creating three distinct spaces for them over the course of three years: an office for John McNeil Studio, McNeil’s seven-year-old creative marketing company; a multipurpose annex for the agency’s events and projects; and a retrofitted home for them and their three kids, aged 9, 12, and 14.

This was not Burnham’s first project for the family, whom he’s known for nearly 10 years. In fact, Envelope A+D designed Grannan’s most recent exhibit at Salon 94 in New York, as well as the couple’s previous home, a pristine midcentury building in the Berkeley Hills. “They ended up coming back to us and saying, ‘We don’t feel comfortable here, actually,’” jokes Burnham. “‘Could you design us something that’s a little…cooler?’” This time, the architect took an entirely different tack.

Although the three spaces are each distinct, they share a design sensibility. “Katy and John didn’t want the ordinary thing or the brand-new thing,” says Burnham. “They want their spaces to be lovely and tactile and not trying too hard.” The result—from office to annex to home—is a darkly playful amalgamation of Grannan’s, McNeil’s, and Burnham’s artistic visions. The creative process was one that McNeil understands well: “Being a good client means opening yourself up to surprise.”

1. The Annex
Duration of project: 1 year, 10 months
Completed: June 2013
Square footage: 3,350
Past life: Wine crush facility

It all started with what Burnham calls a “beautiful white box.” McNeil purchased this cavernous industrial building—formerly a wine production facility—to serve a multitude of creative uses: as a reception area, a photo studio, a lecture space, a gallery, a screening room, and a staging set. “It’s a radically flexible space,” says Burnham. 

The warehouse is divided into multiple zones via a series of pivoting walls. Beyond the all-black reception area, the white room can look deceptively empty. Discreet doors lining either wall hide storage space for couches, folding chairs, photography equipment, and lighting. Behind this area, hidden by another movable wall, is a workspace for the studio’s motion graphics team. “The building is designed as a whole series of architectural valves or switches that you can turn on and off,” says Burnham.

The unifying element is the impressive entryway: a custom-made, 18-foot steel delivery door that opens directly onto the street. “The entire Annex is this marvel of really interesting design,” says McNeil. 

2. The Office

Duration of project: 2 years, 8 months
Completed: October 2012
Square footage: 3,800
Past life: Originally built by A’s baseball star Reggie Jackson, post-retirement

Down the block, the couple acquired the former home of a Berkeley artist (and, prior to that, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson) to house John McNeil Studio. For McNeil’s own office, Burnham sought to overthrow workplace conventions. The goal: “How do you create the new power office?” he says.

He took inspiration from the disturbingly alluring prints of Timorous Beasties, a Scottish wallpaper and fabric company. The brand is best known for taking proper British wallpaper patterns—toile, nature scenes—and tweaking the imagery to make it unusual and twisted. In this case, Burnham chose a print of lizards being strangled by vines. “It looks genteel from a distance,” he says, “then you get closer, and it’s like, ‘These people are sick.’” McNeil, a fellow fan of the company, was immediately on board. “There’s kind of a beauty to it, a brutality to it,” he says.

The architects covered one wall of the office in steel so McNeil can display art and bits of inspiration with magnets. The glass whiteboard rolls across the wall, covering the television when it’s not in use. There’s seating for 15, including an antler-topped stool by fashion designer Rick Owens. “At first blush, the room seems imposing,” says McNeil, “but it’s actually the ultimate hangout space. 

The entry is framed by an ornate carved Southeast Asian wedding door, a remnant from the building’s past. “We liked the symbolism of it,” says McNeil. “The strange non sequitur of walking through a wedding door into an office seemed fitting.” 

3. The Home
Duration of project: 2 years, 8 months
Completed: April 2014
Square footage: 1,750
Past life: Residence

The couple’s home, an old Victorian beside the office, underwent the biggest transformation. “It was Victorian in decoration only,” says McNeil. “There was nothing grand about it.” The ceilings were low, the rooms were claustrophobic and oddly shaped, and the natural light was minimal. “It was a shabby building that had almost no soul,” agrees Burnham.

It wasn’t until the Envelope A+D designers poked their heads into the hidden attic space that they breathed a sigh of relief: The home’s original bones—grand Douglas fir beams—were majestic. Burnham and his team knocked out the ceiling, exposing the gable overhead. Grannan and McNeil’s 12-year-old son took over the lofted bedroom created on the second story, accessed through a steep, narrow staircase.

The rest of the fir flooring and walls was similarly exposed, providing a stark contrast with the bands of matte gray paint running across the walls and floorboards. “At some points, it feels like a surreal stage set or an optical illusion,” says Burnham. A strip of gray runs diagonally from the front door and through the house, leading the way outdoors to a wild garden in back.

Though the home’s material palette is muted, there are eye-popping interior design elements throughout, from a sleek, chrome corner shelf bearing the couple’s “notions and potions,” as McNeil calls them, to the fluorescent-yellow welding curtain circling the tub in the otherwise all-white kids’ bathroom. “The problem with traditional architecture is it can be very cold and unforgiving and not fun to live in,” says McNeil. “Douglas knows how to balance the right level of geometry, minimalism, and weirdness with warmth.”

Originally published in the July issue of
San Francisco

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