Few states were as important to modern American furniture craftsmanship and design as Michigan. William Powers and Ebenezer Ball began making chairs in Grand Rapids around 1849, followed by iconic names such as the Stickley Brothers, Widdicomb, Steelcase, Sligh, and Herman Miller. Detroit’s legendary Pewabic Pottery opened in 1903. Teachers and alumni associated with the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills include midcentury modernism’s heaviest hitters: Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, and Charles Eames, among others.
Designer Leslie Jones called upon that magnificent history when plotting the interiors for a lakeside Michigan home, which her empty-nester clients built so they could enjoy friends and family, including their three children, who are in their 20s and return often with gaggles of company. “There’s such a rich history here of midcentury design and crafts,” says Jones. But her own work had to function in concert with the heavily wooded surroundings and pick up “on the vernacular materials of the area,” she says.
In fact, the outdoors were the starting point for everything. “I wanted you to be able to walk outside into the fresh air from every room,” says the wife. Chicago-based architect Steven Rugo understood completely. “Each space has its own articulation,” he explains, “as if they are a collection of small pavilions, all walking toward the light.” This created, he says, “multiple courtyards so you get two or three exposures from every room.”
For materials, Rugo drew inspiration from, among others, Eliel Saarinen, who designed Cranbrook’s campus (“all that masonry,” he says) and another Midwesterner, Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as Michigan’s tradition of skilled woodworking. “We made references to all of them but didn’t take them literally.”
Colorado moss rock walls, naturally embellished with lichen, rise like an old foundation from the forest floor. “It’s a ledge stone that was laid with no mortar, chiseled and ground on-site to fit,” says general contractor Andy Vander Male, who, with his son Nathan, built the structures. “It’s one of the first things people are mesmerized by. You can honestly look at it for hours.” Of course, woods—black walnut, anigre and American sycamore millwork; ceilings of Australian and Southern cypress—also get their star turn. And glass is everywhere.
The furniture emphasizes unornamented silhouettes in comfortable neutrals, with accents of blues, greens and browns derived from the forested lake views. Jones also mixed materials—bronze lamps, woven furniture, leathers—to evoke a sensual tactility. She commissioned New York-based master weaver Gregory Newham to create subtly graphic rugs that add still more handcrafted texture.
All of it, observes the clients’ art consultant BJ Topol of Topol Childs Art Advisory, also in New York, creates a subtle backdrop for art that revels in “painterly abstraction, whether postwar 1960s Joan Mitchell or a contemporary Cecily Brown.” Topol and partner Kay Childs also paid special attention to “how the pieces worked with the outdoors.”
Jones notes that the art was another important reason for avoiding patterned fabric and fussy finishes. “We didn’t want to compete with those pieces, which wouldn’t work well with an intricate damask, for example.” Relying on textures for interest meant that the interiors’ pure lines and neutral palette could serve to frame the real masterpiece: nature itself.
In fact, says landscape architect Douglas Hoerr, “there were existing trees and flora on the site, but planting was extensive.” Adds the wife, “I love trees, so we removed only the ones we needed to.” Hoerr concentrated then on creating “a four-season response” to the home’s ample fenestration so there would be visual interest year-round. That meant supplementing the predominance of oaks and maples with American redbud trees, rhododendrons, pines, and Norway spruces—“plants that looked like they’d been growing naturally in the woodland.”
The house perfectly embodies the setting, as well as the state’s rich history of craftsmanship and early manufacturing. Or, as Rugo puts it, “Visually, we evolved something that was already there and moved beyond it.”