Photographer James Houston had been looking at a picture of a lake house on his vision board for about a year when he finally decided to turn his vision into a reality. “I wanted a weekend house,” says Houston, who hails from Australia but now lives in Manhattan with his partner, restaurateur Brian McGrory. “And when I went upstate to the lake area, I was blown away by how beautiful it was.” Having narrowed in on Sullivan County, two hours north of the city, he found a real estate agent online to show him around. Within one hour, he had purchased a 5-acre plot of land on a 44-acre spring-fed lake. “I think I had been visualizing this house for so long that when I went to go look for it, it happened very quickly,” he says. “Then it was just a matter of saying yes.”
He said yes to the land, and then set out to build the house. Fortunately, in a similar instance of serendipity, Houston had already chosen an architect. A few years earlier, he attended a dinner party at a friend’s newly built house. The home’s architect, Jonathan Marvel, was also in attendance. “We had a conversation about the house and a great connection,” says Houston. “I came to the decision that night that when it came time for me to build a home, I wanted him to do it.”
With the pieces in place, Houston, who shoots for beauty and fashion clients such as L’Ore´al and Gap, had a clear idea of the direction the house should take. “As a photographer, I’ve been able to travel the world for work,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve catalogued a lot of images in my mind.” The Australian landscape, Indonesia’s indoor-outdoor lifestyle and the balanced aesthetic of Japan were just a few of the elements he had mentally stored away. He shared these ideas, as well as a thick folder of images torn from magazine pages, with Marvel and project architect Shuji Suzumori. “That gave us a huge head start in the design process,” says Marvel. “They were like pieces of driftwood in a whirlpool that started to come together and create their own structure.”
The building that began to unfold was a contemporary house finished with colors and textures that seemed to grow out of the surrounding forest. A wood exterior painted to reflect nearby pine trees and walls of expansive windows and sliding glass doors connect the house with its environment. Inside, where private bedroom volumes flank open public spaces, materials are equally honest. “We stuck to the idea that paint was not an option,” says Marvel. “We wanted surfaces to be authentic.” In the living and dining areas, American walnut warms the floor, and clear pine keeps a 30-foot- high ceiling feeling intimate. A floor-to-ceiling double-sided fireplace, clad in black quartzite, divides the space. “The stone has a bit of mica in it,” says Marvel. “So, the fireplace sparkles even when there’s no fire in it.”
Houston designed the interiors as an extension of the architecture and its natural setting. “I love contemporary,” he says, “but I need it to be comfortable and feel warm.” Working within an earthy palette inspired by the lakeside site, Houston chose a leather-covered sofa and chair from Crate & Barrel for the living area and paired them with a low table he designed. The organic shape of a wood chair from Andrianna Shamaris plays off a modern drum-shade lamp from BDDW. On the opposite side of the fireplace, Houston hung two similar pendants above the huge teak dining table, which he had made in Indonesia from slabs of wood he selected from photographs. The rest of the room was kept spare so as not to compete with the views.
“Editing is very important,” he says. “Even in my photography, my style is very graphic and clean. I like that feeling in my home, too.” In no space is that feeling more evident than in the master suite. Houston designed the spa-like space with walnut cabinetry that was installed by the general contractor, Steve McKean. “Everything was custom-made,” says McKean. “It didn’t come out of boxes. We built the bed, tables on each side and an entire cabinet that hides a TV.” An open doorway overlooks the bathroom and its sculptural Agape tub, centered among a wall of windows, a glassed-in shower and a skylight.
“When you’re in the house, you feel an incredible energy because you’re connected to the environment in a way that you don’t normally get to experience,” says Houston. “It’s kind of magical.” That energy, and the whole design process, inspired Houston to launch his website, The Houston Effect. “It explores mind-lifestyle integration,” he says. “I’ve come to believe that your home space and your headspace work hand in hand to help you get the most out of your life. If you’re dwelling in an inspirational environment, it helps you live the life of your dreams.”