25 April 2010

American Gothic explained and renovated

As many of you know, I was in Chicago last weekend for my industry's big trade show and conference, KBIS. As many of you know too, I was there to do three presentations a day on the subject of Google SketchUp. There were five of us presenting topics related to technology and the kitchen and bath business and we were sponsored by Kraftmaid Cabinetry. Our presentations were considered to be continuing education and we were awarding CEUs, so this was pretty serious business. My fellow presenters were Mark Johnson, the Director of Sales + Marketing for Kraftmaid; Bart Frost, the Manager of Sales Training at Kraftmaid; Eric Schimelpfenig, a designer with his own training company called Sketch This!; Alex Oliver, the CEO of Igloo Studios and me. Thank you fellas, thank you Google and above all thank you Kraftmaid. Last weekend's presentations were a rollicking success by any measure.

I did a sneak peak at one of my presentations before I left called Help Me Grant Wood. Well, it wasn't so much a sneak peek as it was a lot of chest beating because I was worried that I'd painted myself into a corner. I wanted to tell a story first and foremost. I also wanted the technology I was using to support my story, not be my story and I think I did pretty well. Enough people have asked, so I'm going to recreate what I did here. Imagine this as a multimedia extravaganza with flashing lights, roaring crowds and me in a Madonna headset at center stage.

My story starts with Grant Wood's iconic painting, American Gothic.

American Gothic debuted in 1930 when it won a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago. The judges hated it, the critics hated it and it won because a wealthy patron of the Art Insitute loved it. Needless to say, it went on to become one of the world's most iconic images.

The house in the background of that painting is a real house and it still stands in Eldon, Iowa. The woman is Wood's sister Nan and the man is Wood's dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. Dr. McKeeby never dressed up like an Iowa farmer and Nan never dressed up like a farmer's wife. Neither of them stood in front of the house in Eldon. Wood painted studies of all three subjects separately and merged them when he painted what would become American Gothic.

So what does this have to do with kitchen design? Everything and nothing.

Google Earth is another Google project and it's a community-generated 3D map of the world. So if we start in Google Earth, this might make a little more sense. Bear in mind that his is all animated in my presentation.

If I zoom in on the convention center as shown in Google Earth, you can see that it's a 3D model. That model and the rest of the models in Google Earth were rendered in Google SketchUp.

 So let's pop up the street to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Grant Wood's American Gothic still hangs.

And finally, let's zoom down to Eldon, IA. Eldon has no 3D models yet, but that will be fixed soon enough. [Edited to add, as of 4/28/10 The American Gothic House IS on Google Earth now --PA]

OK, back to Chicago now.

I wanted to recreate the house in Grant Wood's painting and I wanted to make it as accurate as possible. I poked around on Google for a couple of weeks and I found the property records for the famous house on the corner of Burton Street in Eldon, IA.

On that property record, I found a measured foot print of the house. It was some significant progress.

I dug around some more and I found a bunch of photos of the house, and it seemed that each one showed me a detail I was missing. I amassed quite a collection of photos.

I even found and old newspaper clipping that showed me the back of the house.

So because I'm working in the amazing SketchUp, I imported that foot print I found as a .jpg, scaled it and then built my house right on top of it. Here's the footprint, in scale and on the ground.

I then imported a bunch of reference images and stacked them at the back of my model. I'd delete them later, but by having my references in front of me while I worked, I could see what I was aiming for at all times.

So with the house drawn and my references hidden away, I ended up with this.

Using the tools in SketchUp and my reference photos, I could calculate the pitch of the roof in the photos, I could recreate the columns on the porch and most amazingly of all, I could recreate that Gothic window.

Keep in mind that I drew all of this from scratch so far and I used only the functions available in the free version of SketchUp. By drawing everything to scale and by recreating the house almost exactly, it's now an acceptable model for Google Earth. My American Gothic house is in the process of being positioned in Google Earth and in about another week, Eldon will get its first 3D building.

OK, so the outside's drawn. Now what? Grant Wood's Dinner for Threshers provides a glimpse of what the American Gothic house would have looked like in its day.

I want to do something different though. This is after all, my story. So I went with something a little more contemporary but still grounded in place.

Knock on the screen door and take a peek.

Here's my interior renovation. I used Kraftmaid  cabinetry in a maple slab door called Avery. The stain color is Honey Spice and Kraftmaid's catalog is available in the 3D Warehouse now. And. It's. Free.

The appliances are by GE Monogram, the furniture is by Thos. Moser, the faucet's from Brizo and all of those components are available to download through Google's 3D Warehouse.

I made the gantry that hangs from the ceiling at the suggestion of Chuck Wheelock from Johnny Grey. He actually suggested a pitchfork but I liked that Gothic window shape so much that I repeated it as a light fixture.

If I zoom up to the ceiling and look down, you can see that the table and chairs are sitting on a braided rug. I made that from a .jpg image I found on the internet. It's now a texture on a three dimensional image instead of a photo. The floor too started out as a photograph of a pile of lumber that I morphed into texture for the floor.

Recreating the American Gothic house and then renovating the interior was a lot of fun and a lot of work. I could not have done it the way I did it with any other rendering program out there. SketchUp's not locked behind a wall of proprietary software. One of the reasons I love it so much is that it's fully integrated with the rest of the internet and I'm limited by my imagination alone.

So with that said, let's make some videos!

All thanks go to Mark Johnson and Susan Prater from Kraftmaid; Bart Frost from Kraftmaid; Alex Oliver, Mike Tadros and Ann Savino from Igloo Studios; Eric Schimelpfenig from Sketch This!; Chris Cronin from Google and as always Peter Saal who got this whole ball rolling last year. You can download your own copy of Google SketchUp here. While you're downloading software, take Google Earth for a spin too.


  1. FANTASTIC! I hope you received the enthusiastic reception you so richly deserved.

  2. Thanks Raina, it was a blast to put together and a lot of fun to combine my disparate loves of art history, technology, architecture, design, math and story telling in one place. The People responded well and my sponsors loved it.

  3. Oh and Raina, wearing a Madonna headset was the biggest thrill of all.

  4. I'm sure that you were a roaring success - Madonna headset or not! Looks wonderful and you obviously put a lot of thought into it :)

  5. Say rock star - Madonna's got nothin' on you! I'd like to see her draw a house! You are amazing Paul. What a wonderful project. It looks/sounds like you had a fabulous time. I recognized the faucet ;-)

  6. Scintilla: Your avatar looks like a tile from the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello. Actually, it looks like a tile from anywhere in your adopted homeland but I'll stick to Ravello. Thanks for the compliment.

    Pam: We had some kind of fun in Chicago, that's for sure. I hope you recognize that faucet!

  7. I love it! What a fabulous project. I don't have a google account but just wanted to comment.

    Elizabeth W

  8. Thanks Elizabeth, Google account or not you are always welcome to come back any time. Especially if you want to compliment me. Hah!

  9. Brilliant. Paul, you are a man for this age. Constantly taking in the new and working it to best advantage. Way cool.

  10. What a fantastic way to bring together the past and the future! Wonderful job!

  11. BTW, after we record the presentation this week you will be able to link to that if "fans" want to experience the entrie presenation. Gotta luv technology.


  12. Nancie: Thanks! Technology's best when it's not about technology, you know?

    Saucy: Can I call you that? Thank you! Coming from a woman who uses the word "corvid" casually that is high praise indeed.

    Bart: Ladies and gentlemen, let's hear a round for my fellow presenter Bart Frost!

    Bart, that's fantastic. I though that our recording session was for your internal use only. Cool cool cool. Please Google Earth powers that be, get my house up on Earth by then. And don't you mean next week Bart? We're doing that on 5/2. Right?

  13. Oh, I am so glad you put this up. I really wanted to know your process. As you know, I'm learning Revit - a program that IS hidden behind a wall of proprietary (and very expensive!) software - but wondering how it compares to SketchUp. I'm sure Revit is good for my employability by others. But at almost $5000, I can't afford it for my own fledgling business. So I'm thinking serious thoughts about how much time I want to put into learning Revit, and whether I'd rather be putting effort into learning SketchUp. So thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your process.

  14. The price tag thing is what SketchUp has going for it more than just about anything else. It is entirely possible to open a business with the free version of that software. Upgrading to Pro costs less than $500 and the difference between the two is the ability to produce full-size construction documents. You can get entirely up to speed in SketchUp through the training videos that are available to everyone through SketchUp's channel on YouTube.

  15. The project turned our great! It's fun designing a space inspired by art and literature, reinterpreting the original. We did this for the Showtime character 'Dexter', and recently on our blog about Alice in Wonderland.
    And I think your choice of the gothic window for the Gantry was probably better than a pitchfork.

  16. Thanks Chuck, that means the world to me.


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