Ask Kevin B. Howard why the Tucson house he designed for one art-loving couple is such a dynamic blend of sheer glass and solid mass and he has a simple answer. “I get bored with ordinary boxes,” says the architect, who thinks of this particular design as a creative cohabitation of the sleek modernism of German Bauhaus and the organic textures of Frank Lloyd Wright. “It’s a minimalist approach, but adapted to the desert environment.”
The desert in question is a piece of land curled up along the Coronado National Forest. Each room was planned by Howard to focus on the landscape, which is peppered with saguaro cacti and awash with vegetation. He designed the home so that the major spaces—living, dining and master suite—would have vistas directly up and into Pima Canyon. Landscape designer Tray Gers worked closely with the homeowners to blend new plantings with the existing flora, bringing in such flowering shrubs as salvia, Mount Lemmon marigold and Mexican honeysuckle, to accent the desert’s quiet palette.
To frame the views, Howard created an expanse of floating horizontal roof planes anchored with vertical walls and columns sheathed in Egyptian limestone. “I think Egypt might be missing a pyramid,” jokes builder Jeff Willmeng, who notes that constructing a home in the modern style is often more demanding than using more traditional designs. “Sometimes less is not more,” he says, paraphrasing Mies van der Rohe’s famous modernist dictum. “Sometimes less is just harder.”
Once Howard had devised the rectilinear base, he then drafted a sweep of glass to enclose the living and dining areas. The curve within the volume sets up a conscious contrast. “It creates a conversation,” Howard says, “a yin and yang that generates unity.” Designers John Senhauser and Jane Keller brought that same harmony to the interiors. “We don’t differentiate between inside and outside,” he says. “Both have to tell the same story.”
Studying Howard’s design, Senhauser asked himself how he could carry those ideas inside with the cabinetry, stairway and fireplaces. Each was developed in its own way, but the fireplace in the living area pays true homage to the Wright style. Long and low, it anchors the space with an Egyptian limestone surround set with the mortar raked out—a trick often used in Prairie houses to accent a horizontal line. “An extended line is the essence of the desert,” Senhauser says, “and every now and then a saguaro cactus provides vertical visual relief.” Think of the house as a desert metaphor with its horizontals punctuated by vertical masses. “Architecture echoes nature,” he says.
Homeowners Farah and John Palmer are just as attentive to their organic surroundings. The lady of the house worked closely with both Howard and Senhauser to envision spaces where the couple could enjoy the connection to the outdoors. For the interiors, she and Senhauser kept the palette simple, creating a neutral envelope to let both furniture and art command attention. Although the owners have been collecting art for many years, they selected only a few works to place in each space. “I chose the art in the living area first, then designed the room around it,” says Farah, who specified all the furniture and fabrics.
With a love of iconic furnishings, Farah chose classic designers such as van der Rohe and Arne Jacobsen, and placed lines from Knoll and Fritz Hansen throughout the house. Her guidance to anyone planning a home? She summarizes: “Have a steady vision of what you want before you begin, put together a strong team and then let them do their jobs.”