Joseph Kowalski was born in St. Louis where he lived until age 10, when the Kowalski family moved to San Diego. Joe told his mother at age 14 he wanted to design houses and was selling his ceramic work by age 20. Joe graduated from Point Loma High School and took classes in Cal Berkeley's architecture program. Upon returning to San Diego, Joe continued with additional coursework at San Diego State College where he met Caroline. Following their graduation in 1946, the two were married.
Joe worked in partnership with his father in the lumber business (1946-48) to earn enough money and knowledge of building materials before striking out on his own. In 1948, Joe and Caroline attended the Chouinard Institute in Los Angeles.
The Kowalski family moved to Del Mar in 1950. Starting his career as a building designer, Kowalski used the extra office space at his PCH location to open up the Interior Exterior shop in June, 1953. In 1953, he built his first residence, "Serpents Wing" (on Serpentine) for his family. In 1956, Kowalski #2 was completed and the family moved to Rancho Santa Fe where Joe lived until his passing in 2005.
According to Joe's widow, Caroline, Mr. Kowalski built approximately fifty homes in the San Diego and Del Mar areas and another 50-60 in Rancho Santa Fe.
Joe Kowalski was the subject of a profile "Kowalski" in the July 1953 issue of San Diego & Point Magazine. In the same issue is a full page ad for his retail furnishings and design outlet J.E. Kowalski Interior-Exterior-Shop (1140 Highway 101). His tag line was "Coordinated Residence Design and Interior Decoration".
From San Diego & Point July, 1953:
Kowalski: An imaginative young Del Mar designer is getting some mouth-watering assignments
At the ripe old age of 27, an uncommonly talented Del Mar designer-decorator is getting some of the choicest architectural plums in San Diego this year. In the few years he has been designing homes professionally, Joseph E. Kowalski, a rangy Gary Cooper type with a thick shock of brown hair and beetling brow, has drawn the plans for some of the most exciting contemporary houses in the county, including his own Serpent’s Wing in Del Mar… and the mammoth 9000 square foot showplace home of industrialist Bill Jack in Rancho Santa Fe, the largest home built in San Diego county in many years.
And though Kowalski has yet to take the step of going through the final state boards for his architect’s license, it appears certain he will get the residence commission of 1953, an out-of-this-world modern for the Walton MacConnells, a La Jolla pair famous for their passionate predisposition for the New Architecture… On his boards too are drawings for one of those spectacular cliff-hanging contemporaries, which soon will be built by contractor Howard Steinwinter in La Jolla.
Last month designer Kowalski took another typically bold and unstereotyped step. Frustrated for several years by having his functional designs cluttered up by heavyweight, dust-catching furnishings and fussy gimcracks of another age, he opened his own decorating shop in Del Mar. His object was to show his clients the kind of modern furnishings that go with his residential designs: easy-to-clean, easy-to-move, honest and good-to-look-at. Also, he felt that interior decoration planning should take place at the time the home is being drawn and built, not after it is completed. ‘Even if they don’t buy from us,” Kowalski says, “maybe we can direct their thoughts to the right type.”
His attractive and delightfully charming wife Caroline, who works with her husband in the interior end of his design enterprise, thoroughly agrees. “Joe has a furniture frustration,” she explins. “He thinks people tend to overfurnish. When he walks into people’s homes, I can feel him saying under his breath ‘What have you got you’d like to throw out’.” To get more space in his homes, and get rid of some of the furniture, Kowalski likes to alter inexpensive stock furniture and build it right into the house.
Kowalski has wanted to be a designer-artist of some sort from the time he was 14. He designed his first home when he was in high school and was making professional ceramics before he was 20. He went through the University of California school of architecture and took additional courses at San Diego State, where he met his wife. “He whistled at me in the hall,” Caroline recalls, “and I think I must have responded.” They were married in 1946 after graduation from State.
To launch himself in the design business without the usual painful economic struggle, Kowalski decided to pile up enough wherewithal in the lumber business first. In this, in partnership with his father, he was admirably successful. Besides making money, he also laid the foundation for his chosen career in that he learned everything there was to know about building materials – their textures, their strengths, and their costs. “He’s got an enormous respect for the right building material in the right place,” Caroline says. “And he likes to use them as they are in their natural state and to contrast different textured woods.”
The Kowalski’s knowledge of interior design is not only natural, it’s educated. In 1948 they took time out from the lumber business to enter Chouinard Institute in Los Angeles, one of the finest art and design schools in the nation. “It’s really a contemporary work school,” Kowalski says, “You go out in the field and try the theories you’ve been working out in the classroom.”
One of his first assignments after he had launched himself in designing professionally was the beautiful and dramatic Serpent’s Wing, high on… and built for himself. It’s a rambling home built in the shape of a half moon enclosing a patio which has a sizeable fish pond, many garden levels, and an abundance of pine trees. Because the living room walls are of glass from floor to ceiling, the Kowalskis and their guests can look right through their house from the patio to a superb panorama of ocean and canyon. And when they’re seated in the living room, the patio becomes part of the living room, especially at night when the patio lights are…appear and the gorgeous colors and feeling of the garden become a visual part of the living area.
Kowalski’s penchant for fitting furnishings to home and adapting stock built furniture into custom-fitting pieces (at big savings) is well exemplified in the Serpent’s Wing dining area, which is one step up from the living room. It has a custom-designed buffet of birch hung on a curving wall of grapestakes, producing one of the notable Kowalski texture contrasts. The dining table is also especially designed for this room, in the unusual manner of following the shape of the room. The dining area, incidentally, is the only room in the house with any plaster – it’s on the ceiling. All the rest are of natural exposed beams.
The kitchen has a breakfast bar, which doubles after hours as a cocktail bar, and a huge window which overlooks the sea, about as pleasant a prospect while doing the dishes as a housewife could wish. Kowalksi is particularly fond of his bathroom, an oversize affair with vividly original and expensive wall paper, a healthy four-foot by four shower stall, shelf space for 200 towels and foot-controlled water service.
The Bill Jack home in Rancho Santa Fe was one of Kowalski’s earliest and more spectacular commissions. Though it is 9000 square feet, it has only two bedrooms, both huge. The other rooms are of immense proportions too, including a bathroom in which the tub resembles a lush Roman bath. After the Jack assignment, the commissions came thick and fast and included a spacious and unusual contemporary for the Elmer Smalls in Point Loma, a ranch home for Harold La Fleur in Point Loma, a sprawling ranch-style for Harry Lush in Rancho Santa Fe, and an oceanfront residence for the U.D. Nowlins in Solana Beach.
But easily the most challenging commission he has yet been assigned is the MacConnell home in La Jolla. “It’s an architect’s dream,” he says. Kowalski’s plans are something to drool over; a two-story entertaining area for large parties with floor to ceiling glass walls, a sunken formal living room for small get-togethers, a boy’s personal playroom, a mammoth master bedroom with adjoining dining terrace built over the dining and kitchen areas, and a patio wall which runs right through the house and becomes the dining room wall.
Obviously, the Kowalski team is headed for big things. Subjected to analysis, the reason is pretty plain. Joe Kowalski is one of those rarities in the design field: a remarkably gifted and sensitive artist who is also a solidly practical and sensible man.
Partial List of San Diego Projects
Hughes, Howard Residence
Jack, Bill Residence (ca. 1953)
Kowalski, Joseph E. ‘Serpent’s Wing’ Residence
Kowalski, Joseph Residence #2 (ca. 1956)
Kowalski Interior Exterior Shop (ca. 1950)
La Fleur, Harold Residence
Lush, Harry Residence
MacConnell, Walton J. Residence (ca. 1954-55)
Nowlin, U.D. Residence
Parry, Bill & Brooks Residence (1953)
Small, Elmer Residence (ca. 1953)
Straza, George T. Residence (1970)
Taylor, Howard F. Residence (1954)