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Photos via Patricia Chang
Whenever Thomas Harder sees something interesting on the side of the road, he pulls over. Sometimes it's a birch log (fated to become the base of his dining room table); sometimes it's a trove of metal fence signs (ideal fodder for mixed-media collages); sometimes it's the exploded husk of truck tire with a menacing shape (currently awaiting further instructions on a table in his backyard). Harder, a furniture maker and artist, lives with his wife, Nola Burger, a book designer, in West Berkeley. The two both live and work out of a 1,000-square-foot Victorian built in 1896, a feat of organization made possible by the ample storage pieces Harder custom-builds—desks, cabinets, multiple tansus—and by their recent conversion of the attic into a cozy bedroom accessed by a set of captain's stairs.
The house is carved into the typical Victorian grid of four rooms—"10 by 12 feet was a dimension they liked," says Harder—and what were originally two compact ground-floor bedrooms now serve as Harder's and Burger's offices. Between Harder's handmade furnishings and the couple's collection of local art, "we could outfit a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot house with furniture and artwork," says Harder. "We have to rotate. A year will go by and we'll say, 'We haven't pulled anything off the wall.'"
Harder and Burger collaborated on the design of the wall unit (right), which combines cedar, aluminum, and ash.
The Victorian's predictable dimensions also mean that furniture custom-sized for one room can work just as well as another, which allows the couple to flip around the layout if need be. Burger and Harder collaborated on the large wall unit now in their living room—a combination bookshelf and storage cabinet mounted to the wall with a quarter-inch-thick aluminum plate. "It holds, what, one ton of books?" says Burger. "A small elephant or something." The sliding panels are ash stenciled with a supergraphic Burger devised based on birch bark Harder brought back from a trip to Vermont.
For the quantity of custom pieces in the household, there's nothing remotely staged about it. Even rough edges blend in. In other people's hands, a birch-log table base or a hunk of redwood serving as a coffee table would be the most noticeable things in the room. But we wandered all over the house before picking out the tree limbs in the furniture. That's perhaps because every piece of wood, no matter how decorous in its own right, is above all there to serve a purpose. "Everything in here has become part of how we live," says Burger, pointing to the aforementioned coffee table. They had found it leaning up against the wall in Harder's stepfather's garage. "It was completely gray and dusty," says Harder. "Then I realized it was a piece of really old redwood, probably cut 50 or more years ago from one of the big old trees." Harder planed it down and brought it back to life.
In the dining room, a trio of Harder's blenders (background).
If Harder and Burger have a cache of furniture and art fit to decorate four more houses, Harder also has enough antique blenders to fill a dozen midcentury wedding registries. He bought his first vintage blender about 30 years ago at a flea market, thinking it would do double duty as a poor man's coffee grinder. "It was a really bad coffee grinder," says Harder, who at the time was an industrial design student at San Jose State. "I realized blenders were an area where industrial designers were given really nice work. These were really built to last, and they could put money into the design." Harder won't buy anything made after the mid-60s—he draws the line at the introduction of the multispeed setting—and his collection spans from to an aerodynamic-looking red and white specimen in bakelite to a black-and-white model that's also in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Five of Harder's vintage blenders have been immortalized in encaustic portraits by New Jersey artist Peter Dallison.
A friend, a New Jersey-based artist named Peter Dallison, was also taken with Harder's blender collection. He had set up an easel one summer in the Oakland Hills and began painting portraits of people's houses. In the off season, when it rains, Dallison switches to encaustics. "He wanted to know if he could do some portraits of my blenders," recalls Harder. Dallison created a whole series. Five of the paintings are lined up on the wall unit in the living room like a series of lovingly executed family portraits.