Austin Art Home Series 1: The Tilted Home
A Peek Inside an Inspiring South Austin Space
Written by Alexis Moritz
Photographed by Jonathan Garza
for Art & Soul Design's Austin Art Home Series
Fairly inconspicuous on the outside, this South Austin home that belongs to Roland Huettel and Esther Mizrachi is an ever-changing work of art in which installations are created as inspiration strikes. The art installations are not the only thing that make this house unique, it is also characterized by it’s noticeably tilted floor. Roland first purchased the house in 2003 after falling in love with the beautiful yard, which backs up to a creek.
When he first purchased the house Roland’s vision for it was bigger than his budget, “The whole thing became a total remodel that I never planned. . . I wanted to fix a few things and then, eventually, tear it down. I had this elaborate plan in my head of building a compound with several Sukiya-styled pods that connect to each other with breezeways. But it’s very expensive and so first off I just had to have a non-leaky roof over my head.”
Although he didn’t end up building an entire compound, the inspiration of Japanese Architecture in his work is plain to see. The living room features a “Japanese Sitting Area,” his concession on the Sukiya style architecture. He had traditional mats imported from Japan and constructed a frame with plywood. He used a pecan tree that had died in his backyard and some metal to build the light fixture in the corner.
Roland, born and raise in Germany, always had an affinity for the arts. “Art was the only thing I wanted to do,” he says, “I was just scared that I wouldn’t make money that way.” He knew that he wanted to get out of Germany and after high school he learned how to make custom-shoes by hand. From that experience he developed a deep passion for quality workmanship, which he knew would be appreciated in America, so he came here with a bag of tools, ready to make a new life for himself.
“America is a throw-away society, things aren’t repaired but replaced. Everything is new, you don’t fix stuff, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I like fixing things. More and more this house grew on me and I thought, ‘okay, I can fix this’. Little by little I fixed everything, and every time I had to fix something I thought to myself how it was an opportunity to do something a little creative, and artistic, and just have fun doing it. So, that’s how this all came about, and in the end, you have this kind of sloping, beautiful house.”
On his first night in the house Roland slept on the floor in the workshop in the garage. His earliest project was to convert the 600 sq ft garage space into an apartment. He designed a bathroom and kitchen, installed them with a friend’s help, and lived in the garage apartment while renting out the rest of the house for the first few years he owned it. Later on, in 2010 when Esther moved in with her son Jesse, he further updated the garage apartment to include a moving wall; which gave the option to separate the “living room/guest bed area” from Jesse’s bedroom area. The men in Roland’s family were all inventive, creative, engineer types and he took joy in sharing that tradition with Jesse when they built the flexible wall together. It was a sweet bonding experience.
In 2008, after breaking down a wall that separated the kitchen from the living room and dining room and assembling one of his first installations; the stackable metal skeleton around the beam from the counter top, Roland began to work on his living room floor. Designed to be in the exact center of the house is his take on Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” featured originally on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
“As a kid, I would always walk around with my head down and never look up. I was just totally enamored with what was right in front of my feet and so that, I like. I also just wanted to incorporate all the cracks because the cracks in the slab, to me also have a beauty. I filled a lot of the cracks with gold leaf, and that’s just a way of loving the house. I really discovered the process of an artist which is to get real close to your subject and be patient and loving. I think that made me feel more at home.”
He enjoys the somewhat sacrilegious irony of having this piece on the floor. The piece was made almost entirely out of samples from various tile stores. This was one of the earlier major art installations to take place in the house. More recently Esther and Roland collaborated to create a mosaic interpretation of Matisse’s “The Dance” on their kitchen floor.
The master bathroom is Puebla inspired. It features a Talavera sink and shower designed by Roland. He felt it very important to have a shower that featured a lot of light and color so that when he got up in the morning to take a shower it would feel bright and exciting.
A large part of Roland and Esther’s inspiration for the projects in the house come from their love of travel. He says, “One of the beauties is that we love going on vacation and always seeing what it is that we could bring home.”
The table Roland built on the porch was based on a design by artist Donald Judd that’s located in Marfa, TX. A bed on the beach that they enjoyed on a trip to Mexico inspired the idea for the swinging bed, which takes up the other half of the porch. Roland screened in the porch and added a roof a few years ago.
The studio in the backyard is equipped with a bay window, a glass wall (with sliding doors), and is adorned with red and gold Greek Meander. This is a special space for Esther, her own private sanctuary. “Roland can be very noisy sometimes and I like to have quiet. I like to be able to write, to think, and to meditate so I wanted a room of my own. Roland built that for me as a labor of love, it was a gift.”
A light installation is the most recent piece added to the living room. The galaxy inside of a tree trunk invites an intimate encounter. Roland was hiking after a storm and saw a dead tree laying on the ground.
“The trunk was lying in the sun and there was this hole in it that was just perfectly shaped and sun was falling through it. I just fell in love with the hole itself. And then, to make it a micro-universe was just again kind of loving. I really like the back of it with all those nails because it has a certain primitive aspect to it. Marrying the primitive with the grand and superhuman, that’s very intriguing.”
He went back to the woods with a handsaw and strapped a piece of the trunk to his back for a 3-mile hike out.
In the master bedroom, Roland built a bed frame and chest out of red cedar and black steel piping. The contrast between the soft cedar and the hard steel creates a minimalist yet solid aesthetic. He also built the porch and stairs leading down to the studio outside of the bedroom, which proved to be really difficult because of his reluctance to start with a plan or ask advice, “I could save myself a lot of trouble if I just got the tricks and how to do it but somehow I just prefer making my own mistakes. It seems like a wasted effort when I could have just asked somebody to give me the answers but in the process I discover and learn so many things, it feels well worth it.”
“I’m always intrigued by form and function, so first, something needs to work long-term and should be really simple. But then, I want it to look intriguing and inspiring so that’s always a great challenge,” says Roland about his work. “About 20 years ago I had a discussion with a wonderfully eccentric friend and we both decided that we would want to build a church. That always stayed with me. I am very much inspired by spaces and I am very sensitive to the energy of a space. Whenever I enter a new space I’m trying to tune into it and see, does this feel like it’s whole? I’m not religious but churches are sacred spaces and they inspire. That’s always on my mind too.”
Roland likes to create art that’s site specific and unmovable. “My installations are permanent. Of course, they are built into a house with a less than stable foundation so, in the end, it is all temporary.”