Quirky Berkeley: The many passions of Leonard Pitt

Leonard Pitt "structure." Photo: John Storey
Leonard Pitt “structure.” Photo: John Storey

Elaborate wooden “structures” float from the ceiling in Leonard Pitt’s Grant Street home. They are one of the several passions that define his life — along with Detroit, Paris, chocolate, theater, Balinese masks, and Balinese dance.

Leonard Pitt (1959). Photo courtesy of Leonard Pitt.
Leonard Pitt (1959). Photo: courtesy Leonard Pitt

Pitt grew up in Detroit. After high school, he went to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, where he studied as a commercial artist. He returned to Detroit after graduation, went to work as a commercial artist, and didn’t like it. In 1962 he sailed to Paris on the Queen Elizabeth — a great move. He left Detroit, but not completely. He loves Detroit, visits often, leads walks and talks about his birth city.

He lived in Paris until 1970, doing what a young man did in Paris.

Pitt holding a photo of Etienne Decroux. Photo: John Storey
Pitt holding a photo of Etienne Decroux. Photo: John Storey

He studied mime with the great master Étienne Decroux.


An early structure. Photo: John Storey.
An early panel. Photo: John Storey.

He lived frugally, intoxicated with Paris and life. He sold sketches. And he started making structures to sell. This was his first design – bamboo and Japanese paper. It was time-consuming.

Leonard Pitt with structure. Photo courtesy of Leonard Pitt.
Leonard Pitt with structure. Photo: courtesy Leonard Pitt

Experimenting, he made cubes and then pyramids, or tetrahedrons.

Quirky Berkeley in Berkeley Calif, on December 30th, 2015.
Leonard Pitt. Photo: John Storey

The epiphany was – if he bisected one angle on one side, he could stack the tetrahedrons and make complex structures. He sold a few panels in Paris, but the structures were too fragile. He kept making them. They float throughout his home.

Structure in Leonard Pitt's home. Photo: John Storey
Structure in Leonard Pitt’s home. Photo: John Storey

In 1970, Pitt left Paris and came to Berkeley. Paris has continued to inform his life.

Paris pulps. Photo: John Storey
Paris pulps. Photo: John Storey

Pitt has written about Paris, leads walks in Paris and collects Parisian postcards and posters and pulp paperbacks with “Paris” in the title.

Berkeley has been home since 1970, but not without trips.

Leonard Pitt and Ida Bagus Anom. Photo courtesy of Leonard Pitt.
Leonard Pitt and Ida Bagus Anom. Photo: courtesy Leonard Pitt.

In 1973 he went to Bali and studied mask-making and Balinese dance with I Nyoman Kakui. Five years later he returned to Bali and studied mask-making with Ida Bagus Anom.

Masks. Photo: Leonard Pitt
Masks. Photo: Leonard Pitt
Masks in Leonard Pitt's home. Photo: John Storey
Masks in Leonard Pitt’s home. Photo: John Storey

Masks, Balinese and otherwise, leer from his walls. He carved the upper two.

In 1996, Pitt designed and Ron Bogley built a fairytale cottage behind the house.

Back cottage. Photo: John Storey
Back cottage. Photo: John Storey

Inside, the timbers are 100-year-old salvaged lumber.

Back cottage interior. Photo: John Storey
Back cottage interior. Photo: John Storey

Pitt is the president of the Berkeley Chocolate Club. They meet here.  How perfect!

Back cottage interior. Photo: John Storey
Back cottage interior. Photo: John Storey

The bookcase on the right serves as the door to the bathroom. Very quirky!

Pitt has led, and is leading, an exceptionally creative and interesting life. He is a regular at the French Hotel, one of many only-in-Berkeley passionate geniuses of a certain age who call the French Hotel their home away from home.

Leonard Pitt puppet. Photo: John Storey
Leonard Pitt puppet. Photo: John Storey

Pitt’s latest book was published in February — My Brain on Fire: Paris and Other Obsessions. Other obsessions indeed.

I  look at the points on Pitt’s compass – Detroit, Paris, and Berkeley – and think. We talked about the three cities, all of which he loves. When he was  young man, Paris and Berkeley were accessible to the young, the struggling, the creative. Now, not so much. Now we have Detroit. Pitt says without hesitation – “If I were 50 years younger, Detroit is where I would go.” Emphasis on “50 years younger.” Berkeley is home and will stay home.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.

For a fuller version of this post, see Quirky Berkeley.

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