Rooms Without Walls

Stephen Bauer and the philosophy of the tea house.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by T Christian Gapen

With its simple design and numerous options for customization, a tea house “becomes a template or a canvas for other activity,” says Bauer lounging poolside in Meiners Oaks.

How did East-West TeaHouse begin?
Our tea houses were originally designed by Tony Gwilliam, an English architect and designer (now in his 80s) who was a longtime colleague of Buckminster Fuller. Tony worked for many years in Bali, and these [tea house] structures are all over the place. When he came to Ojai in the 1990s, he wanted to make something that reminded him of Bali. He started Tony’s T House. Fuller’s notions of “doing more with less” — these principles and values informed Tony’s work and practices, and continue to inform our work at East-West TeaHouse. I started working with Tony in 2006, and eventually took over as Tony’s attentions shifted to new projects in Bali.

You have a background in film and theater. How do tea houses fit into that scheme?
I like to make things — no matter the field of inquiry: a deep-dish pizza, a tea house, a story, a tango. One of the aspects [I like about theater] is this notion that it’s incomplete. It invites us to lean forward. . . . As a writer in theater or film, you’re not dictating the performance. You’re creating an invitation for an actor to create a character, inviting the director to realize a vision, inviting designers to describe the scenes. And ultimately all of it is raw material for the audience to complete it. A tea house has that same quality; it invites us to make something of it.

Tell us a little bit about the tea houses you offer.
The tea house is a simple object made from lumber, hardware and fabric. It’s a standalone platform with a canopy cover — it’s not far off from a picnic table with an umbrella. But it’s a unique sort of blended object, like a combination of a sculpture, a lawn ornament and a giant piece of lawn furniture. It’s meant to rest lightly on the earth, typically using flagstones or pavers. And it becomes a template or a canvas for other activity: where people place it, how they use it, how they begin to personalize it. So every one is unique.

[They can also] change to the changing needs of the environment. An example is the kotatsu table, which is a panel that’s an integrated part of the deck. It lifts up and legs fold up from below to form a table surface. It has all the functionality of furniture, but we haven’t added a lot to it. Screen and fabric walls can roll up, to be open like a pavilion. You can turn it into a lanai. And all that happens in a matter of minutes! Its purpose is how we use it — how a tea house expresses itself emerges organically from how we engage the tea house.

What are some of the ways your clients engage with their tea houses?
It can be a showpiece or a focal point. But people frequently use it as a room without walls. It’s a place to move outside and into the garden. People will take meals there, or do yoga. Clients have used them as outdoor bedrooms and art studios. Our tea rooms, which can be designed with screens and walls, have been used as offices, playhouses and guest bedrooms. One client in Ojai has a small house with a large backyard — her tea house has tripled her usable space and become an anchor point for engaging her yard. A tea house is an invitation to process, a path or approach, both metaphorically and literally. We often come to a tea house by making a kind of journey, stepping away from daily life and entering the garden.

Tea houses are of course associated with the Japanese tea ceremony. Are there aspects of that tradition that come into play at East-West TeaHouse?
Wabi-sabi is the Japanese aesthetic that helps inform our tea houses. . . . Wabi refers to the natural, asymmetric and spiritual. Its original meaning indicated quiet or sober refinement . . . the beauty of simple things. . . . Sabi is the rustic patina, the perspective or understanding, the wisdom that comes with age. . . . This is an acknowledgement of the underlying processes, the ongoing flow of time and life. . . . Many tea houses go through different phases, cycles, stages, generations. Brand-new, mature, older, weathered, updated, refreshed. Tea houses evolve as families, gardens and circumstances grow and change. Those are qualities to notice, embrace and celebrate.

From this perspective, a tea house is more than just an object in your yard.
I think that’s the way art works. We’re looking for something that will evolve a response. A tea house is a record of all these gestures: choice of wood, staining it, sanding it. The tea house is a record that responds to its environment. There’s an illusion of this being fixed. But part of the aesthetic of the tea house — and other art — is to understand that it’s a journey that we are on. The tea house has a human scale, in terms of its size, but it’s part of a much longer cycle. 

East-West TeaHouse

The wide model with fabric walls and “Moon Windows” essentially becomes an open-air cabin.


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