Tag Archives: Mad Men

Ben Petersen

October 11, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ben Petersen has always been good with his hands. Growing up on the family farm in Exira, Iowa, Petersen spent a lot of time watching his father work with his hands to create beautiful pieces that also served a purpose. “Dad was always making something,” Petersen says with a smile, “but it had to be practical.”

It’s that commitment to quality that inspires the furniture that Petersen makes today. “I built my first stool when I was 12, and for my birthday, my parents gave me a small workshop of my own. I have been making furniture ever since.”

That small workshop in Iowa was the start. He now operates a large co-working space for other creatives, builders, and business owners in Omaha’s North Downtown District. Bench—founded by Petersen in 2012—offers hobbyists and professional makers a collaborative environment, equipment, and space to practice their trade.

Bench feels like a place where the past and present intersect. If you enter through the front door and walk up the narrow stairway, you will notice the exposed brick, the cracks in the concrete floor, and the smell of sawdust. After signing in on an iPad that notifies Petersen of your arrival, you will hear someone walking up an old wooden staircase. You will be greeted by the most impressive beard this side of the Missouri River. The building is also home to Petersen’s TimberSmith Goods.

“Every part of our furniture is functional. We take a great deal of pride in the furniture we create for customers and local businesses.”

-Ben Petersen

TimberSmith Goods grew out of PhilipDesignLab, a custom furniture company that Petersen had established in 2009. TimberSmith Goods consists of a small team of furniture makers and craftsmen who specialize in Danish-inspired, hand-hewn goods. Much of the wood used in their furniture is locally sourced and milled at the family sawmill in Exira, Iowa.

Petersen, Kyle Petersen (custom furniture lead), Adam Findley (project manager), and Matt Williams (shop assistant) use traditional methods and time-tested joinery to make furniture out of hardwoods like cherry, walnut, and oak. Their designs are intended to be handsome, timeless, and practical.

“Every part of our furniture is functional,” Petersen says. “We take a great deal of pride in the furniture we create for customers and local businesses.” Like the Paul Lounge Chair, named after Petersen’s dad. “Dad had a tough time getting out of a chair I created, so I made him the Paul Lounge Chair. It sits higher and was much easier on Dad’s back.”

Or the Draper Sideboard, named after Don Draper of Mad Men. “It reminds me of furniture from that time period—around the mid-20th century. And because I like Mad Men,” Petersen explains.

Petersen and his team’s intense commitment to detail is obvious in each piece. Around town, their work is on display in the form of three gorgeous tables for The Market House Restaurant, and they made cabinets, desks, and credenzas for the KANEKO. But their work doesn’t just stay in Omaha.

TimberSmith’s Etsy page is full of five-star reviews and satisfied customers from all corners of the country who applaud Petersen’s work. Every custom project is an opportunity for Petersen and his team to express their creativity doing something they all love. For Petersen, furniture-making is all he’s ever known. It’s a skill he learned from his dad, who was taught by his dad. At 12, he started with a stool. And now, Petersen has his Bench.

“These last couple years have been a whirlwind,” he says with a laugh. 

Visit timbersmithgoods.com and benchomaha.com for more information.

Encounter

benpetersen1

Mid-Century Modern

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Kristine Gerber

In post-World War II America, a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes and buildings completed in that style made for some distinctive neighborhoods that endure as models of aesthetics and utility and that continue to fascinate owners and onlookers alike.

What became known as Mid-Century Modern is seeing a resurgence in interest today among preservationists and restorers, thanks in part to television shows like Mad Men and their celebration of vintage culture. That interest was never more evident than during a October Mid-Century Modern tour sponsored by Restore Omaha and Omaha 2020 that drew a record 850 participants.

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Sketch drawn by architect Donald Polsky

Restore Omaha President Kristine Gerber says it was the organization’s first tour to focus on an architectural style, and the Indian Hills neighborhood offered “the best collection” of Mid-Century Modern. A 2010 Omaha Historic Building Survey of Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods by Leo A. Daly architects Christina Jansen and Jennifer Honebrink offered a blueprint or map for the tour.

For tour participants, it meant getting inside homes they may have long-admired from afar or been curious to see for themselves the various ways in which these structures bring the outdoors “in.”

Mid-Century Modern homeowners like Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill love their residences. “We both feel we have lived here forever and plan no move now or later,” says Manhart.

Gerber says there’s growing appreciation for the style’s ahead-of-its-time characteristics of flat roofs, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, ample natural light, and green design-construction elements.

There’s motivation, too, in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status for select Mid-Century Modern structures and neighborhoods that qualify.

Mid-Century Modern can be found in other metro neighborhoods besides Indian Hills, but some intentional decisions made it the prime site for it to flower here.

Food manufacturer brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson, along with architect Leo A. Daly, saw potential to develop a modern, upscale suburban neighborhood taking its name from the old Indian Hills Golf Course. Commercial structures, such as Christ the King Church and the Leo A. Daly company headquarters, became shining examples of this modernist-inspired architectural style.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters is a shining model of modernist-inspired architecture.

But it was left up to a pair of edgy young architects, Don Polsky and Stanley J. How, Sr., to design dozens of residential homes in this new development featuring the attributes, values, and principles of Mid-Century Modern. How also designed one of Omaha’s most distinctive luxury apartment buildings, the sleek Swanson Towers, in Indian Hills. The building has since been converted to condominiums.

Together, the Swansons, Daly, How, and Polksy transformed the “built Omaha.”

“They were young tigers and weren’t necessarily rooted in doing the same old thing, and I think they saw an opportunity to do some things that were really unique and new,” says Stan How, president of Stanley J. How Architects, the company his late father founded. He says his father was “a cutting-edge guy.”

Polsky apprenticed with superstar modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and borrowed concepts from his mentor and others for the work he did in Omaha. He says Mid-Century Modern’s appeal all these years later makes sense because its forward-thinking approaches and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity, and efficient use of space are what many homebuyers look for today.

“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light, and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, and we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the sight,” Polsky says. Passive solar features and energy-efficient systems were rarities then.

Stan How says his father began practicing architecture for Leo A. Daly right as the modernist movement caught on. “He started his career at a perfect time to absorb all these new things going on. When he went out on his own, he had some clients who had the guts, he’d always say, to explore some of these ideas and let him toy around with that.” Mike Ford became a key early client.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

“Mike was a young guy who wanted to do something really new, so my dad floated out the contemporary style or what we now call Mid-Century Modern, and Mike loved it. But he also didn’t want to be the only one on the street with a house like that, so he bought four lots and said, ‘Let’s do four spec houses,’ and that’s what they did.”

One of those Stanley How-designed homes, built in 1963, was later purchased by Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill. Homebuyers like Ford were the exception, however, not the rule, as Mid-Century found relatively few takers.

“We’re a pretty conservative [town], Omaha. It’s not Los Angeles. I thought you’d just show a few things and they’d be beating a path to your door, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Polsky. “There’s still a limited supply of buyers for this type of architecture but you do what you can, you carry the torch.”

Polsky marveled though at the huge turnout to see his homes and those of his old colleague, Stanley How, Sr. “It’s amazing how many people showed up,” he says.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk, circa 1979.

Stan How says designs by his father and Polsky are the antithesis of the overblown, oversized McMansions many homeowners reject today. “I think people are coming back to simplicity.” Indeed, Mark Manhart says, “the clean lines and classic simplicity” of his home are major attraction points for he and his wife and the many inquirers who call on them.

The only regret How has is that his father wasn’t around to see all the love his homes are getting today. “He would have absolutely reveled in it. He would have loved it.”

The March 1-2 Restore Omaha Conference will once again offer a strong lineup of expert preservation and restoration presenters, says Gerber, who promises a dynamic host site that gives attendees an insider’s glimpse at some landmark. For more information, visit restoreomaha.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

A Tale of Two Homeowners

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jokingly referred to by its owners as a closet with a house around it, Dr. Linda and Travis Sing’s window-walled home is a study in what’s left in the open…and what can be stashed away.

This reveal/conceal dichotomy plays out from the first moment inside the foyer. To the left is the Sing’s bright living room and dining area with its floor-to-ceiling fenestration that allows the room to capture and somehow magnify even the most elusive beam of light.

Windows to the backyard line the galley kitchen wall.

Windows to the backyard line the galley kitchen wall.

Straight ahead is a corridor flanked by closets, tall and long and limitless.

To the right is another airy room, but this one features a desk that can be hidden…in fact, the very same desk that once belonged to the architect and original owner of the home, Don Polsky.

Peekaboo shoji screen pocket doors separate the two rooms. Polsky, who once worked in the design studio of famed “California-style” architect, Richard Neutra, was a man of his time. And his time was all about clever storage solutions and walls that seemed to float.

Simple geometric lines are found around the house, from a bookshelf in the office to the spare bedroom.

Simple geometric lines are found around the house, from a bookshelf in the office to the spare bedroom.

But the Sings’ home is more than the sum of its partitions. It’s an actual home, built for an actual family. First Polsky’s, now the Sings. The couple serve off their buffet made with original marble from Clarkson Hospital. They store their kitchen items in St. Charles cabinets, such a Mid-Century staple that Frank Lloyd Wright used them at Falling Water and Mies van der Rohe installed them at Farnsworth House. Linda does her makeup in a vanity that lifts up from a room-length credenza…just like a scene from Mad Men. Only when she’s finished prepping her look, Linda typically rushes off to her job as a radiologist, not lunch with the girls.

“Of course, we have to be respectful with anything we do to the house,” Linda says of the updates they’ve made, including replacing all the carpet and renovating a bathroom. “But we can’t live in a museum.”

The master suite features floor-to-ceiling sliding panels for closet doors.

The master suite features floor-to-ceiling sliding panels for closet doors.

It’s a sentiment with which Polsky seems to resoundingly agree. When the couple fell in love with the house and decided to buy, Linda and Travis looked him up (there had been one owner in between). The three became fast friends. The architect even attended the home closing and told stories: here was the flower wallpaper his daughter put up in the ‘70s…there, in the back, is Beverly, the tree. The Sings keep an Omaha World-Herald article from that era, featuring a photo of Polsky’s wife and daughter staged in the very familiar-looking living room.

One of Polsky’s enduring legacies is the enormous map of the world in the main corridor, an homage to his days stationed in the Atlas Mountains with the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s remarkably well-preserved thanks to Travis who, as a historian, endeavors to be archivally sound about gluing any fraying bits down.

A wallpaper map of the world, installed by Polsky, lines the main hall.

A wallpaper map of the world, installed by Polsky, lines the main hall.

“When we have get-togethers, the hall gets jammed because everyone’s looking at the map,” Travis laughs. “Everyone comments on how things have changed, where they’ve been, where they want to go.”

On a facing wall is an original pencil drawing of the home that Polsky gave the Sings last summer.  Those few simple lines on paper offer the same comment about the home.