Learn Original Eichler Exterior Design to Plan Your Paint Job

Original Eichler
A Highlands Eichler in its original shade of brown. Courtesy of Melissa Wilson.

The first time Melissa Wilson went to paint her San Mateo Highlands Eichler, in 2008, she found the experience excruciating. It wasn't because it was physically difficult or technically complicated. Rather, the former colorist and architectural consultant told me, she found herself at a loss for what an original Eichler might look like.

It's an issue many homeowners probably don't even think about until there's a deadline for their project and they have to start working on specifics. But, as Wilson explained, the original design conventions are in danger of becoming lost to history.

"The original homeowners are dying, so there's not going to be the common memory of the beginnings of Eichler communities and how they looked originally. That has motivated me to preserve the history, and to research and come up with guidelines that people can use for how their house is going to look," Wilson told me.

Wilson used her own experience as a teachable moment, seeking out original owners and Eichler employees, such as realtor Catherine Munson, and perusing original photos in books such as Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream. The Eichler Network has also covered Eichler painting conventions in 'Hues that Say You,' a previous article by Tanja Kern.

With her findings assembled into a series of easy, relatable conventions, Wilson has begun offering classes in original Eichler exterior design, covering everything from paint to landscaping to door handles to windows, and much more.

For example, Wilson says, original Eichlers used primarily dark colors, such as the deep brown in the house pictured. "The other idea is that a darker color recedes the house and suggests the natural palette. So your front yard looks larger, and you have a palette that picks up your surroundings," Wilson says.

"And the other thing is that [Joe] Eichler originally gave each homeowner an option of three different colors. But he himself was constraining the options. So they were within his idea of how one house would look next to the next house." Find those original hues beginning on page five of our previous article.

Other conventions include not painting trim a different color than the rest of the house, or understanding the interplay between the straight lines of the architecture and the round shapes that punctuate it, such as the globe lights and the large escutcheons.

Today, it would be unrealistic and unwarranted to restrict residents' options, but Wilson says that at least conveying the knowledge of how the originals looked can help those working in a contemporary style to make accurate callbacks to the past. 

"The idea of that is that every time a person takes the class and makes what I'll call 'better' decisions, that house will inspire four or five neighbors to make better decisions as well," she says. By purposefully passing on those original design notions, Wilson is helping Eichler owners understand how their present design decisions fit into the historical context.

So how do you learn the ropes? Wilson offers several classes a year, including one Tuesday March 4 in the gym at the Highlands Recreation District. The class goes from 6:30 to 9 p.m. and costs $30 for San Mateo Highlands residents and $35 for non-residents. Reserve your spot right here.