My Father, My Teacher

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Life has a way sometimes of reminding you that you are not in control. On Monday I was merrily celebrating the rebirth of DnA. Two days later, one of the…

Daddy thought it was very amusing to pose his baby daughter, me, with a book by renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson.

Life has a way sometimes of reminding you that you are not in control. On Monday I was merrily celebrating the rebirth of DnA. Two days later, one of the dearest and most influential people in my life, my father, was dead, of a stroke at the young old age of 73.

I would not typically share such personal news except that my father, Bruce Anderton, nicknamed Sam, had a lot to do with sewing the seed, in more ways than one, that would lead to DnA.

So I thought I’d tell you a little bit about him and how his entire life was one long love affair with design, art and architecture (besides being an acerbically funny man who was knowledgeable and opinionated about an infinite number of topics – at times to a maddening degree.)

Daddy was born to a plumber in Northampton, a Midlands town in England, at the start of the Second World War. As a child he wanted to be a soccer player but he later moved in the direction of art. He studied painting and then got a job furnishing sets for the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden.

After meeting my mother — at a party — and marrying, they left London, ending up in Bath, the Georgian city made eternal by Jane Austen, but then in a somewhat rundown state, with all the grand terraces and crescents blackened by coal fire smoke and sites still bombed out by the war.

There they bought their first house, a five story Georgian row house, for the ridiculous price of around three thousand pounds. And thus ensued a life of buying and selling historic houses — first in Bath and later in France — and renovating them, not as scrupulously purist restorations, but in a mix of old and Mod and pop. Much as he loved neoclassical buildings he also loved Le Corbusier and Rietveld and Mondrian and Art Deco and the colors and shapes of 1960s Pop Art.

So – to the extent the stringent local bylaws would allow – he would take down interior walls and create open plan spaces and build split-levels into lofty rooms and fill them with contemporary furniture mixed up with finds at the local auction house and oft-changing, colorful walls.

I should add that he only bought and sold one house at a time – the one we lived in – so we grew up in a perpetual state of “pardon my dust,” moving every two years and often helping hang wallpaper, paint plaster friezes and seal wood floors, or following him around town on quests for finds; many was the time he embarrassed us by climbing into other people’s dumpsters.

The auction house was one of my dad’s favorite places in the world; that’s where he found set pieces for the Opera House and it is where he was still ferreting around for hidden treasures up until very recently. Occasionally he’d make amazing finds, like a cache of photographs by Eugene Atget he discovered buried in a box in a French country auction house (later in life, he became a self-taught dealer in late 19th and early 20th century photographs).

He could get so lost rummaging around in auction rooms he could forget other priorities; when I was six months old he took me for a walk in the pram, dropped in to the local auction house, and returned home on his own later, to my horrified mother demanding to know, where’s Frances? Luckily, noone wanted to buy me.

His passion for architecture also meant we never had a regular English childhood holiday, such as two weeks by the sea in Cornwall, or camping in Wales, which my sisters and I yearned for. No, our holidays typically involved being frog-marched around French chateaux, Bavarian castles and, once, taking a seasickness-inducing ferry ride across the North Sea to Sweden where he took us to visit the (then) first and only Ikea.

Inside this vast emporium he bought me, at age 8 or so, a pair of Swedish clogs and a furry synthetic dog that we named Ikea, and four canvas and metal chairs that he made us squeeze into our little car. I still remember how astounded he was that the chairs – made in Sweden – cost little more than four cups of coffee, whose beans were then imported with high tariffs.

Daddy was also a dandy and liked to buy his wife and daughters striking clothes. On one of our cultural vacations in France he bought me some high-heeled, lace-up, brown suede shoes and my sister a pair with stripey rubber, platform heels, that looked like licorice allsorts. My mother, who preferred practicality over frippery, insisted we children wouldn’t be able to run around in them in the school yard. She was right of course, but I learned then that shoes matter, especially French ones.

Of the many refreshing attitudes he held was ecumenicism in his design tastes and zero patience for jargon-filled, academic pretension. Because he had no formal education in architecture, as I did, he had not gone through the brainwashing that teaches you that architecture begins at the Bauhaus and that anything that does not represent a stage in the continuum of Modernism is not valid.  He simply loved good buildings and furniture and décor and art, whatever era, whatever style.

Sadly for me, he never fell in love with Los Angeles, though he introduced me to David Hockney’s paintings of swimming pools that helped fuel my fascination for it. This was mainly because he didn’t drive so he felt trapped here, unable to walk the full spread of a place as he usually did on arrival in a new city, checking out the buildings.

But he respected my passion for LA, and for my life at KCRW — because he believed above all that the point of living was to focus on things that interested you, even to the exclusion of practical things like a regular salary. Just a few days ago he was excitedly talking about some photographic treasures he had found. He knew far more about design, art and architecture than I ever will, but I hope I carry forward his spirit in my DnA.

By Frances Anderton

RIP Sam Anderton (1940 – 2013)