When New York-based designer Michael Simon speaks of his work, the conversation inevitably shifts to music. Having studied composition before turning to interiors, he loves explaining how Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony utilizes just four notes that carry the listener through a series of sensations from beginning to end. He employs that same concept when designing a home. “I confine myself to a handful of two-dimensional and three-dimensional ideas that are realized in the form of textiles, carpets, furnishings, objects and a myriad of other components,” says Simon. For the transformation of a home outside Phoenix, the designer brought a composer’s sensibility by repeating elements that he defined as stone, plaid and corrugation throughout.
Perched high on the side of a mountain, the house offers a breathtaking panorama of the valley beyond. Wanting to push the envelope, Simon, along with architect Lou Werner III and project manager Jason Walsh, encouraged the homeowners to forgo the home’s original southwest elements in favor of a more modern aesthetic. “The clients have a tremendous eye for detail, and they encouraged us to find ways to reinvent things and create art within this architecture,” says Werner. In addition, the team also refurbished an existing casita—situated along a path behind the house—which includes a bedroom, sitting area, bathroom and private patio to accommodate overnight guests.
To better retain the original footprint, builder Greg Hunt and his team gutted all of the public spaces and reconfigured most of the private rooms by removing walls and designing a more efficient floor plan. For Hunt, the biggest challenge was the site itself. “The driveway is 800 feet long and very steep,” he says. “We even had scaffolding three stories high in some places. Everything had to be very carefully set up.”
Selecting six types of limestone set in horizontal bands on both the exterior and interior walls was central to the design process. Walsh, who worked with Simon on the landscape design, devised a specific plan for each piece in advance. “I drew elevations of each surface with the type of stone labeled on the drawing and the placement of each one for every surface,” says Walsh. “The drawings served as a specific map of which stone to place where.” adds Simon, “there had to be enough stones so they would each have a different character, but they were also tonally very closely calibrated to one another to make sense with the palette, as well.”
To complement the stone, Simon chose colors for the interiors that ranged from putty to mushroom to shrimp. Comparing these color selections to a musical arrangement, he explains that a note has no meaning until it’s juxtaposed with another note, and the same holds true with color. “I have very specific ideas about how to make colors sing,” he says. “In the living room, for instance, the salmon hue in the armchairs is the high note.”
The textural variety of the stone served as a springboard for the six different qualities of glass of the églomisé encasing the freestanding chimney that separates the living and family rooms. Designed by Simon and executed by New York City artist Miriam Ellner, its materials—gold leaf, moon gold, palladium leaf and other precious metals—form a shimmering counterpoint to the stone elsewhere. “The colors are always changing,” says Simon. “As the light moves throughout the day, the glass reflects it, and as you move through the rooms, the glass catches the light differently with every step you take.”
Simon, who designed nearly everything in the house, from the nickel-plated corrugated drum table in the living room to the gilded ceramic mirror in the master bedroom, also created a tone-on-tone rug whose swirling patterns echo the stone. The corrugated motif is picked up and magnified in the entrance hall’s high curved wall, while the living room’s two-tiered cocktail table is a variation on the plaid seen elsewhere. Large sliding doors now allow the rooms to flow to the outdoors. “The owners chose this house for its unrealized potential,” says Werner. “The best idea was removing unnecessary walls and connecting more of the spaces to the views of the city and mountainous horizons.”
For the landscape, Walsh introduced a variety of desert plants to set off the rocky terrain. “I wanted to give the owners a macro-micro experience, so I used an assortment of exotic cacti from around the world and placed them all over the house, so there’s a surprise around every corner.” A floating, cantilevered stair leads down to a negative-edge pool, which is set on the edge of the cliff that drops off 50 feet in some places. “We had to be absolutely certain that the pool’s shell would never crack and send the large body of water flowing down into the neighborhood,” says Werner, who consulted with a premier pool builder and structural engineer to get it right.
All involved agree that creating a project that sings could not have happened without a successful collaboration. “It takes a special client with the vision to request this level of design and the willingness to see it through,” says Werner. “But it simply doesn’t happen without a team of dedicated craftsman. We were lucky to have all the stars align on this one.”
—Kelly Vencill Sanchez