Decorative Painter Willem Racke Uses Solid Wood, Steel and Glass to Transform His Warehouse Home

Solid wood, steel and glass transform a trompe l’oeil artist’s warehouse home.

WILLEM RACKÉ ARRIVED in the U.S. after studying graphic design in New Zealand and soon got hired as a decorative painter before eventually starting his own San Francisco studio in 1989.

In the intervening decades he has completed acres of delicate faux finishes, and he has gilded walls, ceilings and floors for private clients, theaters and museums all over the Bay Area. So the sturdy, board-formed concrete surfaces at his 3,000-square-foot, two-story loft in San Francisco’s SoMa district, a home he shares with husband Alberto Trejo and their two Rhodesian ridgeback dogs, come as a big surprise.

Willem Racke San Francisco home
A vintage wood die mold mirror is a nod to the board-formed concrete building’s industrial past. The new steel-and-wood staircase was designed by architect Luke Ogrydziak to be as thin-lined as possible, with open risers, and railings of metal mesh.

“My personal taste is for simpler surfaces than what my firm can do,” Racké says. “I wanted to maintain the feeling of a raw urban space.”

There was no need to fake that. Although a developer had previously tinkered with the 1924 former coffee-roasting factory, turning it into a mundane live-work space with partitioned cubicles, its industrial bones and soaring 13.5-foot-high ceilings were intact.

Willem Racke San Francisco home
Viewed from the ground-floor bedroom, which has a foldaway front wall, the staircase seems skeletal. A new light well allows an atrium garden.

Wood and wallboard walls for rooms and closets, rudimentary bathrooms and a Home Depot kitchen had been added. A single steep wood staircase went up to the second floor, where two rectangular holes had been clumsily cut into the wood floor, directly below large industrial skylights, to bring light down into the first floor.

After buying the place in 2012, Racké pondered the changes he wanted. Retrieving the lost floor space and, because the building lacked a yard, adding a rooftop garden on the sunny roof became his priorities.

Willem Racke San Francisco home
Right: In the den, Racké’s salon-style art gallery includes Cuban art, with a photograph of dancer Adrian Fernandez Milanes. Next to a midcentury Floating Cube chair by Milo Baughman sits a Lumina Multi X Light by Yaacov Kaufman.

That required a new stairway and structural planning for which Racké, a self-described frustrated architect, felt ill equipped. He reached out to Luke Ogrydziak, a principal at the award-winning Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects, who had been an interiors photographer during the 1990s when the two first met.

They have remained friends, and Ogrydziak quickly understood that Racké wanted to stay away from fancy architecture, undo most of the developer’s mistakes, “and yet bring natural light deep into the space,” Ogrydziak says.

Willem Racke San Francisco home
Between the stairwell and kitchen is a guest room encased in wood, with translucent clerestory windows; against the railings, a green Murano glass lamp sits between a pair of Antonio Citterio–designed chairs from Flexform.

They gutted interior walls, replaced the single-pane steel windows with insulated ones, closed up the holes in the second floor and demolished the floating kitchen island in the center of the space. They also added a new skylight for a light well/atrium Racké wanted; it allows a tiny indoor garden, adjacent to the compact master suite that hugs the south wall in the rear.

“When people enter rooms, they animate them, and yet stairs, where you’d see the most movement, are usually hidden within a stairwell,” Ogrydziak says. “So we thought a new staircase needed to be revealed.”

It became the principal and most dramatic design feature, and because of its design and scale, it can be admired from virtually any angle.Ogrydziak’s pair of stacked metal and wood stairs — one between the two floors and the other to the roof — is spotlit by skylights overhead. The stairs appear skeletal because they have no risers and their floating wood treads are like vertebrae attached to a central welded steel spine. Each length has a landing in the middle that makes the climb less steep, and the railings are made of gossamer webbed-steel netting that allows “natural light to cascade down to the ground floor,” the architect says.

Willem Racke San Francisco home
An L-shaped corner kitchen wraps around the bedroom. Above its marbled-clad counter hangs a yellow painting by Nicole Hayden. An existing skylight lights up the dining area where vintage chairs from Almond and Co. surround a custom walnut table; the painting is by Sparky Campanella.

This secondary light well’s landings also act as platforms for viewing art made by friends that hangs salon-style against the west wall dividing the first-floor media/family room from the garage.

“From the landings, you also get a sense of the entire three-story-high volume of the loft. It has a kind of Roman nobility that you only get to see in existing industrial spaces like these,” Ogrydziak says.

To keep the public areas on the second floor open-plan as well, a guest suite is enclosed in a wood-clad cube in back, situated directly above the master suite. It has no windows, but light cascades down into the small room from one of the original skylights, and a band of translucent clerestory windows lets some of that light leak into the new kitchen, right next to the guest room, in the southwest corner. For more natural light in this galley kitchen that has no upper cabinets, “we could have made the whole guest room of translucent glass, but we had to economize,” Ogrydziak says.

Racké has made trompe l’oeil his stock-in-trade, but he does “appreciate consistent fields of real materials and natural patterns,” Ogrydziak observes. Accordingly, a marble-wrapped service counter between the kitchen and dining space is without a typical cantilevered shelf for dining so it seems monolithic; in the bathrooms, there are solid marble slab shower walls and floors; and the rest of the loft has genuine reclaimed oak floors, with a textured finish.

Willem Racke San Francisco home
A new sky-lit bulkhead above the stairwell allows access from the living area to a roof garden designed by Katherine Webster that, like its furniture from Room & Board, is evergreen.

Still, there are several faux surfaces you don’t immediately see: subtle Venetian plaster veneers in the bathrooms, custom-finished oak wood paneling wrapping the bedroom cube on the second floor, and trompe l’oeil finishes that transform stainless-steel stair parts into forged iron.

“There is some trickery up on the roof too,” the architect says. For the roof deck, accessed through a new skylit and glazed bulkhead, new structural parts and steel planters are painted with drip stains, to simulate weathering.

Willem Racke San Francisco home

In the roof garden, by landscape architect Katherine Webster, there is also a grid of real ipe wood pavers from Beronio Lumber, along with beds of river rock. Webster designed some strategically placed screens of both translucent white acrylic and corrugated galvanized steel, to ward off west and north winds, without obstructing views, facing east.

Under a shade canopy designed by Racké, Susan Chastain, who made diaphanous linen drapes for the interiors, also made lime green cushions for outdoor furniture that prompted Webster to plant lime green succulents in the beds around an outdoor kitchen.

It all took five years to complete, but Racké loves to see the loft at different times of day quite literally in a new light.

Willem Racke San Francisco home
Under an existing skylight (also visible in the garden) is the compact guest suite encased in wood faux-finished by Willem Racké Studios; its translucent clerestory windows leak precious daylight into the kitchen. The black and white photograph is by Patrick Viersen Brown.

“Everything seemed so much darker before we got started,” he says.

“We kept the rooms small so we could celebrate the untouched concrete wall surfaces,” the sleight-of-hand artist adds. “What we didn’t expect was this genuinely breathtaking, luminous space.”

This articles originally appeared in Spaces Magazine’s July 2016 issue as The Real Deal.