The hip, latter-day Zen style of exposed beams and pipes found in trendy boutiques and Asian restaurants actually has its roots in mass-produced houses ordered for workers by giant corporations. The transition from common to high art came by way of an architect working to transform peoples’ conceptions of artistic worth.

Barton Myers turned the industrial factory elements of exposed beams, electrical wiring, concrete walls and huge pipes and transformed them into a playful architectural style for private homes. The three homes that are the subject of this new exhibit at the University Art Museum showcases Myers’ original approach to creating a unique living space.

Myers’ own self-designed Montecito residence brings together his industrial architectural style and the natural surroundings of his home. Although Myers uses decidedly unnatural materials for the house – such as concrete, fiberglass, and steel – he maintains a seamless connection with the natural world around the house. This is accomplished through the huge windows on either side of the main residence that allow a 360-degree view of the gardens, and through the landscaping design itself. Myers’ personal touch in the garden is apparent in the choice of sparse shrubs and angular grasses that reflect the clean-edged designs within the house.

Although the Montecito residence is his most current project in the exhibit, the older houses are equally interesting in how they show the evolution of his design style. The “Lawrence Wolf Residence,” built between 1972-74, has many of the same elements as the Montecito house with its huge windows, exposed pipes, beams and rafters and plentiful use of steel. His previous home in Toronto is also showcased in the exhibit. It gives an example of Myers’ growing comfort with the distinction (or lack thereof) between home and garden and how the architect has streamlined and pared down his designs over time, leading to the sleek designs in his own home today.

The show highlights the different stages of the design process. There are architectural blueprints, rough crayon sketches, 3-D representations and photographs of the completed projects. As Myers became more free-spirited in the execution of his design ideas, his depictions of these ideas also became more interesting.

Myers’ ideas became well known in the late ’60s when he designed 77 mass-produced, prefabricated houses in Canada for the workers of a large steel company. This explains the reliance on steel as a material both inside and out; but Myers apparently felt an affinity for the material as he uses it in abundance in all his designs. The much-aligned, prefabricated “style” of modern suburbia here finds a creative, beautiful counterpart.

“Barton Myers: Three Steel Houses” runs through June 17 at the University Art Museum. If you don’t make it to the show, feel free to explore the Daily Nexus office, where plenty of Myers’ fine ideas are displayed, including exposed pipes and electrical wiring, in all their Zen-like glory.