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Paradise with Packing Crates
Diane Dorrans Saeks | Photo: Joe Fletcher | June 4, 2012
A consummate salvage artist and furniture maker designs a St. Helena homestead with improvisational flair.
To hear Napa Valley artist and designer Daniel Hale describe it, he spent most of his boyhood in the ’70s on the banks of Chesapeake Bay “making cool stuff from bits of old wood.” The truth is, he never stopped.
Hale’s new house—shared with his wife, Christine, and their three children on an oak-shaded hill southwest of St. Helena—is packed with the improvisational and the exuberant. Homemade furniture and sculptures crop up in every room. The family sleep on beds Daniel crafted from redwood planks; they relax on a handsome sofa made from three large wooden packing crates that formerly held marble floor tiles shipped from Turkey. There are quirky painted chairs that feel like members of the family, a poetry-inscribed table (an homage to Edna St. Vincent Millay) in the dining room, and several playful wooden polyhedral chandeliers in a bathroom and hallway, all of them happy inventions made onsite by the owner. “When I see a pile of rusted vine supports being discarded,” Hale says wistfully, “I imagine a sculpture. I see beauty in old things.”
The Hales have lived on this dramatic half acre of land overlooking the 1864 Beckstoffer Las Piedras estate, one of the oldest working vineyards in the valley, for six years. While their new home was being constructed—first in Hale’s mind, then in reality—the family lived in an adjoining 80-year-old house refashioned from an old barn. It took five years for the 2,200-square-foot house next door to become habitable, and once it had, Hale went all out, drawing inspiration from his idyllic childhood spent building tree houses, forts, and sculptures. Those formative passions turned out to be the perfect prelude to his adult life—which he has spent designing elegantly roughshod houses for clients in the Napa Valley and handcrafting gallery-bound artwork and furniture using salvaged wood and metal.
As it happens, Hale’s earthy-modernist style is ideal for a locale that’s equal parts rustic and urbane. “My go-to aesthetic is quiet and monochromatic,” he says. “For our house, my biggest idea was to create lots of outdoor space, to be able to sit on a porch and watch the light changing across the valley, living in harmony with nature.”
This idea expresses itself over and over again in the Hale household. Exposed mill-cut Douglas fir beams and planks were used indoors and out, and almost every room opens to a broad veranda—or, in the case of the turret-like tower where Dan and Christine sometimes sleep, a missing wall. Plain wood floors offer a tranquil background for Hale’s Brancusi-esque sculptures. Along the kitchen’s north wall is a two-part stacked cabinet made out of antique window frames, which Hale rescued from a Victorian cottage next to his parents’ house near Annapolis. “We heard the crash of impending demolition and ran out to save the windows,” he says. “The old wavy glass is still in the mullions. We didn’t paint the frames.”
The Hales think of their house as having a dual personality, at once private and intimate but also open to the world. “It’s calm and peaceful when we’re at home alone, and we love it when everyone is gathered around the table, tasting new wines, and music is playing, kids are dancing,” Daniel says. Guests spill out onto the verandas and the stars are bright over the sleeping porch on the tower. “The house envelops us,” he says. “It breathes.”