It seems that everyone is vying for a bit of exposed brickwork.

Robert Motherwell's New York City loft, 1962.

Pibs. You know who they are and you know who you are. People in Black, or Pibs, as Gail Andersen of Lofts Unlimited calls them. They wear funny glasses and cool shoes, drink double espressos and live in lofts. In the early ’90s, when Andersen and her partner, Ray Kaliski, sold their first lofts in San Francisco, it was the Pibs who were their clientele. Who but the noble, artistic sort would find a safe haven in the bare bones chic of unfinished concrete and soaring ceilings? But as Starbucks brings the urban coffeehouse to Middle America, the loft, the domestic equivalent of the latte, is appealing to a range of people who may even wear floral print. The current real estate market finds the demand for lofts to be steadily increasing, booming, even. No longer confined to New York or San Francisco, loft sales are even brisk in Denver, Miami, and Atlanta.

For those of you who thought that Andy Warhol’s Factory produced soup cans, a loft is a space in an industrial building that is converted to a varying degree into a domestic live/work dwelling. “The idea of the loft is that it is a long span of void, a high ceiling volume lit at both ends like a tunnel,” says Diane Lewis, a New York architect and academic who has been converting industrial spaces into residential lofts since 1981. “It is a pre-existing space that contradicts the domestic function.” Perhaps it is the 1961 picture of Robert Motherwell in his 242 W. 14th Street loft that best represents the duality of the loft aesthetic. The artist stands in the clutter of his studio, paintings stacked against the crusty, old walls, and leans against a paint-splattered easel. He is neatly dressed in a coat, tie, and a pair of window pane-check trousers.

While loft living can trace its roots back to the drafty garrisons of 19th century Parisian artists, its U.S. history begins in the 1950s in what would become New York City’s SoHo district. From Post0War to the ’70s the draw of the loft was large amounts of raw space at rock bottom prices. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and members of the Fluxus group took advantage of the heady combo of cheap and big for action painting and happenings. The residential artist lofts replaced light manufacturing or sweatshops. Amenities such as central heating and bathing facilities were luxuries. Poor conditions made loft living without an A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) Permit illegal in New York City until 1975.

In the mid-’70s developers cashed in on the cachet of a SoHo address. Priced at the NYC market rate, these units attracted non-artist buyers who wanted the Bohemian trappings, the giant rooms, and the blue-collar chic of the converted buildings. As Sharon Zukin writes in her definitive 1982 book, Loft Living, “…there is an aesthetic component to the demand factor, a zeitgeist that finds expression in the inhabiting of old factory spaces and thus identifying in some existential way with an archaic past or an artist style of life.”

Robert Motherwell's New York City loft, 1962.

Robert Motherwell’s New York City loft, 1962.

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Although the original SoHo loft buildings were cast iron and appointed with strange pulleys and freight elevators that were leftovers from the previous use, contemporary lofts express this desire for low-tech by installing restaurant-size Wolf ranges and Sub-Zero refrigerators. In a time when technology is streamlining and packaging away the mechanisms that make things work, items like the peek-a-boo i-Mac or loft domiciles that reveal their function to a certain degree are in high demand. Current loft development seems to parallel this nostalgia for obsolete technologies and a quest for some sort of authentic lifestyle. 

Yet, loft living, in terms of use and function of the space, also offers a veritable connection to the artistic need to live and work at home. However, live/work lofts have bohemian appeal for architects, graphic designers, writers, telecommuting tech-heads, and entrepreneurs also. Kaliski of Lofts Unlimited attributes non-artist desires for loft living to the quality of the domestic and working space. “The live/work loft gives the option of not going into a small, second bedroom to work,” he says. “Sitting there with the eight-foot ceilings is a really depressing environment. The loft environment allows you to sit at a desk in the living room with soaring ceilings and light pouring in through all the glass.”

Converted factories and new loft developments, as opposed to traditional apartments or condominiums, are utopian. They are Modernist in their celebration of the volume of open interior space and, as Zukin notes, many of the early artist lofts had as much square footage as a conventional suburban home. Unlike the typical ranch house, the loft is relatively undivided by walls or partitions. Even now, in ground-up loft developments, there is a resistance to cordon off any rooms other than the bed and bathroom. The standard fare of loft living, tall walls for hanging artwork, non-hierarchical space, a free plan, and large expanse of glass have been working their way into the mainstream, domestic consciousness for the last 25 years. 

Since lofts are so ubiquitous and so desirable in urban centers like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, and there are only so many pre-existing buildings suitable for conversion, a new breed of loft living has emerged—the developer loft. This “lifestyle loft,” as its critics call it, is a hybrid. It is a morphing of two polarities, the condo and the artist loft. The developer and his architect decide the extent to express each part of the hydra. Some create faux interior brickwork and use industrial hardware in their new buildings, while others go straight for the marble countertops and plush carpet. In San Francisco some tenants are required to sign an agreement “authenticating” their artist status, but needless to say, their is precious little paint flung in these studios.

In San Francisco, live/work loft developments is a political sore point. A multitude of developments have sprung up in areas no suited for high-end residential units and have taken the opportunity afforded by zoning to build what many see as hulking monstrosities that are totally insensitive to the areas where they are sited. Foreign objects in districts known for nightlife and light manufacturing, these developments make their neighbors bristle. Tenant complaints over early morning noise were responsible for some businesses’ closures last year. Loft opponents cry “Yuppiefication,” but developers claim that these projects (that house as many as 150 units) provide a much-needed solution to the city’s housing crisis. Nevertheless, community action groups have put enough pressure on developers in San Francisco to slow new construction, thus causing them to move farther afield in order to build.

Cities that do not have dense urban cores have a very different relationship to the same projects that are sparking controversy in the City by the Bay. Atlanta, San Diego, Denver, Miami, Dallas, Austin, and Houston are all welcoming development with open arms. And now even places that are more akin to small towns, with their single-family houses and low rise commercial buildings, are getting in on the act. 

Though Lofts Unlimited has been selling loft real estate for the past ten years, interest outside of San Francisco has been relatively weak until recently. Now, their first development venture outside the city is going up in the California wine country, a good 45 minutes north of San Francisco. The town of Sonoma is best known for its Spanish Mission heritage, designer jack cheese, and proximity to the area’s wineries and tasting rooms. Recently, however, it has seen a rise in development of hotels and banquet facilities are large numbers of San Francisco couples jockey for places to hold wedding receptions amidst the trellises and grapevines. Andersen and Kaliski’s new lofts are a first step in changing Sonoma’s urban condition, and the town is behind them.

Franz Kline's New York City loft, 1961

Franz Kline’s New York City loft, 1961

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

The first loft development in the area, Lofts Unlimited’s project acknowledges the need for a new type of housing in the area. Live/work fills the gap for single owners or couples between a house and a conventional apartment. “Lofts address the in-between,” says Kaliski “There is an individualism to the lofts and it is a cool housing option.” The development is a converted, single-story warehouse building. Units open up to a central courtyard and glass facades meet the street like storefronts. This gives residents the option of exploiting the work component of live/work. 

Andersen imagines wine brokers, graphic designers, or other creative entrepreneurs occupying the high-ceilinged, open plan spaces. Kaliski quickly adds that telecommuters to businesses in Silicon Valley are potential buyers as well as San Franciscans who are looking for a pied-à-terre in the country, or even dot.coms who are looking for a corporate getaway. “The last time we were up at the site three or four geese walked in front of the building on the main road and it made me think ‘I sure miss the peace and quiet,'” says Kaliski.

The flexibility of the interior spaces is important to Lofts Unlimited but what seems to be the most remarkable aspect of this project is that it embraces a building typology flexible enough to be transported from its urban roots to a suburban setting and still maintain a market demand. Lofts Unlimited’s development is only part of a trend. Andersen has even consulted on floor plan layout for developments in San Diego and Miami’s South Beach district. Just imagine the great, hulking cast-iron buildings of SoHo filled with tanned roller-bladers and you’ll notice a strange phenomenon: Lofts are no longer the exclusive domain of people in black. Loft owners may now even wear purple, the dominant color of the Colorado Rockies, since on the web site one development, the Euro Loft is sold by the tagline “Only one block from Coors Field.”

Even the land of peaches and antebellum homes is graciously welcoming the loft concept. Despite being more marketing concept than artsy digs, new loft/condo projects are springing up all over Atlanta’s Midtown. With the new development comes a reworking of the urban fabric. Traditionally, Atlanta is a city of suburban sprawl; it has notorious traffic since the work force commutes from surrounding communities to Downtown. Midtown is attractive to loft buyers because it is close to coffee shops (remember the latte), trendy boutiques, and even an art museum designed by the prodigal son of  Modernism, architect Richard Meier. 

“Young, single professionals who have recently moved to Atlanta from California and New York and are working toward middle management at Merrill Lynch need to be close to midtown and downtown, yet they want to retain the urban atmosphere that they are used to,” says Assaf Newmark, who works at the Condo Store, a loft marketing enterprise. The Condo Store and its partner, the Piedmont Collection, are currently representing 37 loft developments in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs.

In many of these developments, the word “loft” seems to be a new way of phrasing “authentic urban experience.” A marketing brochure for Peachtree Lofts Condominium, which, according to Newmark, is the “truest” to the SoHo loft, sums up this sentiment. “While maintaining the integrity of the original exterior architecture (it is a 1953 office building) the interiors were boldly modified to reflect today’s contemporary attitudes about urban living… The residents of Peachtree Lofts Condominium will realize a highly sought-after urban lifestyle.” (Ironically, when Robert Rauschenberg moved into his SoHo loft in the ’60s he used a hose and a bucket in the backyard to bathe.) The Peachtree Lofts Condominium complex houses a fitness center, a laundry center, and a swimming pool. Details in the units modulate between the rough and refined tastes of loft owners. Ductwork penetrates the gypsum board ceiling only in areas where it would be aesthetically pleasing and then disappears out of sight; crown moldings add a homey touch to the high walls. 

The Lofts @ the Park, another development in the Condo Store quiver, takes the luxury of loft living one step further. “Impressive, open spaces, 12-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, airy balconies, and terraces underscore a home designed to satisfy your upscale lifestyle expectations,” reads the brochure. The Lofts @ the Park is sited across the street from Atlanta’s largest green space, Piedmont Park. Newmark draws parallels between this park and its northeastern counterpart. “There is a shared theme between Central Park and Piedmont Park. Imagine having a loft in New York, but instead of it being in SoHo its balcony looks out over Central Park. 

The equation of “loft” equaling “luxury” is only a bit younger than loft culture itself. It was born in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when lifestyle replaced culture. Realizing that enormous spaces lurked in factory buildings, uptown clients flocked to SoHo. Allen Ginsberg might be content to sit in a giant loft with nothing but a typewriter and hooka, but wealthy loft dwellers need a few more amenities, thus finished hardwood floors, high-speed Internet connections, and gourmet kitchens are all integral to the new loft experience. In fact, a marketing brochure The Lofts, “New York-style” hotel in Columbus Ohio, tells us “that luxury is the little details found somewhere between necessity and extravagance. From linens so rich they seem to caress to Italian leather sofas that beg to be touched, you’ll discover true luxury at The Lofts.”

Located in the 1882 Carr Building, a former plumbing supply company warehouse, The Lofts stands next-door to the standard hotel fare of the Crowne Plaza which manages both hotels, at the edge of Columbus’s Short North Area. The area is having an urban-shopping renaissance with the cafes, galleries and restaurants all feeding the need of the hotel visitor and vice versa. Embracing all that is trendy, urbane, and chic, The Lofts vies for the attention of the sophisticated traveler. Grand windows and concrete beams embody the spaces that the name implies. 

Surprised to find lofts in Drew Carey territory? Brace yourself for Kaufman and Broad Home Corporation, the nation’s largest new home developer. Kaufman and Broad build all across the West and Southwest and have been incorporating loft lifestyle elements into their tract homes since as early as 1994. Addressing the fact that live/work requirements affect even suburbanites, in-house architect, Mike Woodley created the “L’Office,” a combination of loft and office space. “The techno-revolution has hit the home front,” reads the company’s press release.

The L’Office is an alcove equipped with a built-in desk, power outlets and phone and data jacks. Tucked under the cathedral ceiling, it is located on the second floor of the house and is open to and overlooking the main, double-height living space. In the press release, Woodley describes the new home feature. “The L’Office is designed to be used as the home’s command center. It allows people to work in an open space by removing the feeling of being closed in or completely isolated from family activities.” The space, from its central position, makes it possible to occupy the large void in the middle of the floor plan. Spatially this is a radically inventive change for a company who not only built a life-size version of Bart Simpson’s house, but also gave away a year’s supply of Krispy Kreme donuts to anyone who bought a home last February. 

Stripped of all loft decorative accessories and decidedly non-urban, the L’Office as a new room comes close to the essence of what historically defines the loft, the volume of space. Perhaps it is best to quote from the Crate and Barrel catalogue description of their Loft dinnerware. “The bright white, clean forms of our Loft dinnerware bring to mind the open space and funky chic of loft living.”

While Diane Lewis may be hesitant, if not unwilling, to give her blessing to the L’Office or new loft development, it is her definition of the loft as a “palatial void,” that resonates within the conceptual dreams of the other projects. Lewis says of the loft, “Definitely it is a piece of the city, an internal space that has an external size. In a way, it is a double industrial palace, since the cast iron buildings were the palaces the 19th century and there is this great palatial room.”

Even though the new loft developments embrace the decorative aspects of artist loft living, they still follow a model of luxury that came with the influx of cash into grungy industrial spaces. While nostalgia for something authentic in a tech-heavy age may be driving some sales, all the exposed duct-work in America cannot turn condos into artist studios. 

When she is not listening to records in her Oakland flat, Mimi Zeiger is editor and publisher of the architecture zine, “loud paper.”


P. 74: Robert Motherwell’s New York City loft, 1962. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah.

P. 75: The Condo Store’s Lofts @ the Park, Atlanta Georgia, 1999.

P. 76 (left): Franz Kline’s New York City loft, 1961. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah.

P. 76 (right): Kaufman and Broad Home Corporation’s “L’Office”, San Diego, California, 1995.