Petra Fallaux sorts through a stack of fabric swatches and contemplates the quilt she is piecing together on the wall. It's a polychrome chess game of angles within squares, perhaps recalling the textiles of Anni Albers or certain paintings by Paul Klee.
Fallaux's studio allows plenty of room to map out a queen-size piece on the wall, to step back and contemplate it in the pleasant flood of daylight; to use the sewing machine here or to sit and consult art magazines at the desk and bookshelves there.
Looking at the front of the building, though, you would never know such a room existed. The space is part of a three-story addition to the back of the Douglas Avenue house where Fallaux lives with her husband, Paul Rosenblatt, and their two children. Seen from the backyard, the new section is much like early LeCorbusier, a pristine box with an emphasis on volume and light. But the front of the Squirrel Hill house -- a 1917 structure in populist yellow brick tightly placed between similar neighbors -- is all Bob O'Connor.
The addition, just complete after a year in construction, is an architectural analogue for the family's changing lifestyle. Fallaux and Rosenblatt have lived here since 1994, but in addition to their growing children, their expanding interests put new demands on the space. Particularly motivating was a new passion of Fallaux's: quilting. As a self-described life-long sewer, Fallaux took her first classes in the craft a few years ago. "Another world opened," she recalls.
Fallaux, for many years curator of contemporary galleries at Carnegie Mellon University, is now creative director at Springboard Design, where Rosenblatt is principal architect. The firm has produced acclaimed art galleries, exhibition designs and residences. The new project they envisioned seemed to require qualities of each, but its final configuration emerged only gradually. It needed to be a full-fledged studio, suitable for executing a now-steady stream of commissioned quilts.
"Originally, I was going to have a studio in a separate structure," explains Fallaux. Rosenblatt even produced drawings for such a building. But that would have kept her undesirably separated from her children, Lukas, 11 and Ella, 10. "It needed to be connected to the house," she realized.
They determined that the best place for the studio would be the second floor, so the master bedroom would have to move to the third floor. With those spaces assigned, putting an extended living and dining space on the first floor only seemed logical. Fallaux recalls, "At one point, Paul said, 'We just need to chop off the back and build a box.'"
They did so, thus changing the character of all of the spaces. The rooms that were becoming a bit too cozy before the addition take on new life as part of a composition with it. Sight lines connect these old spaces to the new, giving welcome access to more daylight.
Also, the small-to-large change in scale becomes a sequence rather than a disjunction, helpfully unified by new pine floors with a nicely chalky translucent stain. That material works with the waning arts-and-crafts sensibility of the front of the house as well as with the gallery-like, but still domestic feel of the living room, down three steps from the entry level, with access to the back porch and yard. The living/gallery space is home to what Rosenblatt, himself an artist, describes as a small but growing collection of artworks.
The combination of house and addition brings into Squirrel Hill some typically Pittsburgh qualities not usually found in the largely residential neighborhood. Rosenblatt says, "It fuses the industrial-loft archetype with the traditional Pittsburgh masonry house." Fallaux is delighted with the synthesis. "It sings. It clicks. It fits," she effuses.
Both of them give credit to contractor C.W. Struthers for a process and result that have left them eager to do additional similar projects. There may not be much room left in their own yard, but already, neighbors have visited and inquired about designs for similarly modern additions to traditional structures on long and narrow Squirrel Hill lots. "It doesn't cost as much as buying a bigger house," Rosenblatt observes.
Like quilting, though, the project has made the patching together of contrasting pieces into a lively new art form.