Sunset (1989)

Sunset Style: Magazine or Paradigm of West Coast Culture?

I am told I have a Sunset style. Is there really such a thing? If it means I have a design aesthetic that is authentic to place….. this place called the West Coast……then I am happy to concede.

I am the third generation of a family born and raised in the Bay Area, the dry fall breeze and the smell of mustard flowers in April is in my blood.  I love the outdoors I can sense what the eastern light is going to feel like on that window sill as I draw it. I pull it from deep in my memory.

My work has not been published by Dwell (yet) and like all architects I dream of being featured in Architectural Record or is it Digest? Anyhow, Sunset Magazine has selected my projects to feature 3 times (below) in the past 10 years and once for its book series.

I wanted to know more about this institution, partly to identify where and how my work is being classified and partly because I was curious how a magazine that my grandma loved is still on the coffee table at my clients home, a 29 year old hipster in Silicon Valley.

Somehow Sunset magazine has transcended its pursuit of a genteel lifestyle and a healthy rose garden and done so over the course of 116 years. The magazine was established in 1898.

Did you know that the magazine was named after the popular Sierra Pacific Railroad’s cross country route? Sunset Magazine was established in part to lure homeowners and tourists to the great frontier and to combat our “Wild West” reputation….no sure they succeeded with that yet.

Aaah the West, a limitless frontier even today. When gold was discovered here, how would Sunset have known that 100 years later they would still be covering a region of enchanting beauty and if counted as a nation, the 6th largest economic power on earth?

Scholars from Stanford have studied and documented the century of Sunset Publications as a “means of tracking the growth of the modern West”. Here are a few things I learned while digging into the Magazine’s history.

        • Sunset has never missed a month on the newsstand, despite wars, the Great Depression and the earthquake and fire of 1906 which destroyed their printing press.

Jack London

        • Jack London, John Muir and Georgia O’Keefe contributed literary pieces to the Magazine to push their conservationist views. Sunset was pivotal advocate and public voice for the creation of a National Park system in the West.

          • Throughout its history, Sunset has relentlessly emphasized stewardship to the point of acting as whistle blower. Of particular note was a contentious article about water quality in Lake Tahoe, “How to Understand its Troubles” in 1978 which led to scientific testing and a campaign to clean it up which is still active today.


      • Sunset was the first magazine to publish different issues by regions to address the unique conditions present even with the 13 western states. I find this focus on the micro climate rebellious in this era of a global economy.


    • The Home portion of the magazine has been pivotal in introducing the public to architecture unique to its region such as the Arts and Crafts movement and it has all but defined “The Ranch Style” and currently is doing so with “West Coast Modern”.

Sunset 1957

  • Sunset’s home award program with AIA introduced readers to architectural works by Richard Neutral, Charles Moore and Frank Gehry.

Breeze House

  • Today, Sunset remains relevant with its innovative “idea” house program and emphasis on green technologies. With over 10 Idea Homes built, Sunset is the only magazine today actively experimenting and collaborating with designers, architects, and contractors to implement new innovative technology into the built environment.

So why has Sunset been so successful and how does it continue to epitomize the context of the times here in the West? In his article, “Sunset Magazine and the Phenomenon of the Far West”, Dr. Kevin Starr writes:

“Why? Because Sunset does not proselytize. Sunset, rather, for most of a century has advanced its message through adherence to context and practical, useful facts. Readers do not feel intimidated by Sunset. On the contrary, they feel supported and encouraged in their desire to make their lives as dignified, as purposeful, and as enjoyable as possible.”

So what is Sunset style? It means our patio doors are open 9 months out of the year and the edible garden ends up on the table. How the table is set matters. How the garden gets watered matters. Spaces flow effortlessly, light is abundant and thresholds disappear. It’s the use of materials in new and innovative ways with an eye on budget, resourcefulness and sustainability.

So, yes, it’s ok to say I have Sunset style as it is defined above. That the homes and buildings I design should always live up to this label is my pursuit.



Source and Links:

A bibliography and collection of articles that track the history of the west through the cultural cornerstone of Sunset magazine.

To see three Sunset articles featuring Laraarchitecture:

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