Family Homestead; A Tradition of Crafting Functional and Decorative Objects Turns a Vacation Cabin into an Ever-Evolving Work of Art

By Barthelemy, Kelly | Sunset, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Family Homestead; A Tradition of Crafting Functional and Decorative Objects Turns a Vacation Cabin into an Ever-Evolving Work of Art


Barthelemy, Kelly, Sunset


Three generations of the Pfeiffer family stand in front of their cherished cabin. From left to right, back row: Eric and Melissa Pfeiffer. Middle row: Gene, Joann, and Keegan Pfeiffer, and son-in-law Justin Burton. Front row: Son-in-law Walter Craven, wife Lisa, and their daughter, Parker, along with Luke and Jenny Pfeiffer. OPPOSITE Every room in the cabin is filled with one-of-a-kind handmade objects, like the " chandelier" of local pine with tin shades over the dining table.

A MOUNTAIN GETAWAY conjures up images of a place to relax and unwind, full of long, slow days spent doing a lot of nothing. But near Yosemite National Park, the 35-year-old vacation compound built by the Pfeiffers--a close-knit family of artists and craftspeople--is a different kind of retreat. It's more like a creative workshop that feeds the imaginative spirit of three talented generations of occupants.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Eric Pfeiffer, an Oakland-based product designer (read the March 2005 profile "New Wave Designer" on Sunset.com) and owner of 10 Grain design studio, was 2 years old when his father and maternal grandfather built the cabin in 1971. He and his sisters--Lisa, a painter, and Jenny, a photographer--spent their summers here exploring and developing their creative chops. "My grandfather had a big influence on us," Eric says. "He taught us just to make something out of what we have."

Evidence of that is everywhere in the cabin: beautifully crafted doors, rough-hewn log benches around the firepit, a handmade quilt on every bed. Each project comes with a story and vivid memories of its creation. "When I look back at my youth, the best times I had were here, making things with my father and grandfather," Eric says.

Time spent at the cabin helped Eric form the basis for much of his professional design. "The direct relationship of form and function has definitely influenced my thinking--have an idea, see the potential in the raw material, then make it in the simplest way" he says. In the kitchen, three rows of hand-carved wooden pegs hold a giant collection of coffee mugs; in the hallway and stairwell, family photos are clustered in whittled twig frames. Outside, a winding pathway of planks forms the route to each of three tent cabins (built by Eric and his wife, Melissa, over the course of one summer) and the shared outdoor bathhouse (built by Eric's father). It's all like useful sculpture: rational, straightforward, and beautiful. As Eric puts it, "The way things get made here--messy, dirty, and unfinished--is the purest design process of all."

Resourceful beginnings

Eric's father, Gene, owner of an electrical contracting business (and now an avid paraglider), has been vacationing in this part of the California Sierra since he was 6 weeks old. He purchased this land from his own father in 1966, then collaborated with his father-in-law, George Bianchi, a bridge builder, to design the cabin.

The two men had the external structure built in 1971, then did all the interior finish work themselves, including laying floors, putting up walls, and building the stairs to the sleeping loft. Gene says they "sort of camped in the house that whole winter, with tin-can lids covering knotholes in the floor," making do with a temporary kitchen and an outhouse. After learning "water witching" from an uncle, Gene and his brother drilled a well that produces enough water to serve their cabin and two others nearby. In the spring of 1972, they put in the permanent kitchen and bathroom, and the cabin was officially open for use.

George made the kitchen cabinets from wood scraps left over from the construction of the frame. Gene built a lot of the furniture, including most beds, the dining room table, and a cupboard that now houses a treasure trove of quilting remnants. …

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