A HANDCRAFTED STERLING SILVER TEA SET, its long rectangular surfaces modern in design, gleams from its perch on a bookshelf in an apartment high above Seattle, the home of the man who designed it.
The simple geometry of the set’s four serving pieces and tray belies the years of effort that went into its creation.
The same is true of another of architect Phillip Jacobson’s projects— much larger in scale than the tea set—the emerald-hued, glass-encased Washington State Convention and Trade Center just a few blocks east of the apartment.
The retired director of design at TRA Architecture and Engineering in Seattle, Jacobson has had a hand in crafting close to 35 years’ worth of Pacific Northwest structures. His influence can be seen in the King County Aquatics Center, the subway stations of the downtown Seattle Metro project, the 1982 renovation of Wegner Hall at Washington State University, and the biological science building at the University of Washington, where he was on the faculty from 1962 until 2000.
But all those projects were long-term endeavors. He found more immediate outlets for his creative urges by designing furniture, light fixtures, jewelry, dishware—and tea sets. “Designers get frustrated when they develop an idea and they don’t see it until six or seven or, in one project, 11 years later,” he says. “These other projects were realized more quickly, a kind of instant gratification.”
Last fall Jacobson’s small pieces were exhibited at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard. The show coincided with the release of Elegant Explorations, a book about the more intimate realm of Jacobson’s design life. In October, we met at the museum to look at some of the architect’s jewelry, fixtures, and furniture, and to talk about how, in creating them, he could play and explore with form and materials.
Jacobson’s father was a carpenter who became head of experimental production at Lockheed and, later, at Boeing. He also either built or extensively remodeled every house in which the Jacobson family lived.
Though building had always been a part of Phillip Jacobson’s life, he hadn’t thought much about design until he spent time in Japan as a serviceman during the post-war occupation. He was awed by the castles and shrines of the country. “It was my first time seeing really formal architecture, of the kind we didn’t have in Seattle.” The long history of the Japanese culture and the drama of the buildings kindled an interest. When he returned home in 1948, Jacobson enrolled at WSU and soon after signed into the architecture program.
This was a time of tremendous Bauhaus influence both at WSU and at schools throughout the country. The German school of architecture, design, and art was home to a movement that blended the fine and applied arts. The result was an approach to architecture and functional design—often of furniture, dishes, and appliances—that emphasized beauty of form. In the 1930s, the Nazis drove many of the influential Bauhaus members out of the country. Architects and designers like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer fled to the United States, where in the ensuing years they played leading roles in the architecture scene.
“I tell people, ‘Once you get into the Bauhaus, it’s hard to find the door out,’” says Jacobson with a wink. “The fact is, once you’re educated in that kind of ethic of design, it’s very difficult to change. You could apply that to me. I still believe very much in that basic kind of approach to design. It has come in and out of favor since I was educated. But it had an indelible influence on me.”
The WSU program was rigorous, and only about a third of the architecture students in Jacobson’s class finished. In his senior year, Jacobson met Effie Galbraith, a fellow student who had just returned from a summer program in Oslo. She urged him to change his plans of going directly to work after graduating. “I think she was trying to get rid of me—you meet this guy and then you suggest that he go to Europe?” he says. “Really, she knew it would be good for me.” Immediately after graduation, Jacobson left Pullman to spend a week exploring Chicago, followed by another week in New York. Then he boarded a boat for England, where, as a Fulbright scholar, he would study urban planning at the University of Liverpool.
The next summer he explored Europe from Norway to southern Italy, visiting the actual structures he had previously viewed only as images projected from black-and-white slides in his WSU classes. The buildings he saw, both ancient and modern, brought history to life for him. “It was the richest year of my life,” says Jacobson.
The year he returned home, he married Effie and went to work for the John Maloney firm in Seattle. His first building was a service structure for Boeing Field. It was a good job, but Jacobson was lured away by the prospects of designing larger projects in more urban settings.
His first major project in Seattle came in 1958, while he was working for TRA: a women’s dorm at the University of Washington. Touches of his design work are on everything in McCarty Hall, down to the combination bookshelf/lights and the knockers on the RAs’ doors.
“That year and a half in Europe, and seeing these modern buildings, many of them in the Nordic countries, gave me the idea that I could do that,” he says. “The urge to design is so strong in architects, you’ll take the opportunities that are available, and you design them as best you can.”
Faced with a lack of suitable and affordable lighting, Jacobson started designing his own. He worked with the Seattle Lighting Fixture Company in the 1950s to create mass-produced metal and welded-acrylic fixtures for schools and churches. By the 1970s he was creating rectangular welded acrylic table lamps. And he’s still designing. Some of his most recent pieces, wall sconces and a pendant dining lamp, were completed in 2003.
Jacobson began thinking about jewelry design while studying in Europe. It is perhaps the venture most removed from creating buildings, but the architect has managed to connect the two through design. In one series of pendants made of white gold, coral, and stone, he explores the primary forms of triangle, circle, and square. He experiments with natural forms, as in the “peas-in-their-pods” clusters of pearls set in yellow gold in an ensemble that includes a necklace, bracelet, and rings. He also plays with man-made forms, using vehicle fins and engine grills as starting points for designing pendants.
Most of these more personal creations went to friends and family.
All the while, Jacobson and the architects at TRA, together with his UW colleagues and students, were shaping and defining architecture for the Pacific Northwest. Projects included the 1970 University of Washington Aerospace Research Lab, the King Tut Exhibit in 1978, the preservation of the Tacoma Union Station, the Seattle Ferry Terminal, SeaTac Airport, even Jacobson’s family home in Laurelhurst, which was lauded by Sunset Magazine in the 1970s for how well it fit into a difficult, narrow site.
It would be hard to say which buildings are his most significant. But among his small projects, his crowning achievement is probably that silver tea set.
Many architects have made tea sets, in part because they enjoy the design challenge of creating something of beauty that has very specific functional issues, says Jacobson. Because of its design and its exclusive use of solid sterling silver, his tea set was particularly complex and expensive. He spent a long time developing the idea, even creating one piece out of illustration board to get a feeling for the shape and scale.
To build it, he turned to a husband-and-wife team who had graduated from art school at the University of Washington. Over two and a half years, the three worked to bring into being what the architect had imagined. The result is a study of r
ectangles in the form of four eight-sided pieces—a coffee pot, a tea pot, a sugar bowl, and a creamer, each covered by a pyramidal lid surmounted by a perfect open cube. The set sits atop a black tray framed in silver. While each piece is beautiful in itself, together they resonate. Grant Hildebrand, one of Jacobson’s UW colleagues, wrote that they seem “an almost surreal metaphor for some scaleless futuristic city or, equally, some yet-undiscovered ancient monument field.”
The project was ultimately a gift to Effie.
The set represents all that Jacobson is about: taking a classic notion or form as a platform for imagining, testing, and exploring. The result, whether it’s as big as a building or as small as a sugar bowl, is something useful and beautiful.