Less is more” is not a concept normally associated with contemporary iterations of Spanish Colonial architecture, a style often particularly susceptible to overkill. But a new Arizona house for empty nesters in Silverleaf, decorated by designer Dana Lyon, could serve as a primer on the effectiveness and beauty of restraint. “We wanted clean lines without going completely contemporary,” Lyon notes.
Designed by architect Gene Kniaz, the house draws on the ethos of a 1930s adobe house he’d been previously working on in Paradise Valley. “A lot of the houses out here can be pretty gussied up with Cantera stone and other fussy things,” he says. “But the adobe house had a really clean approach to its exterior–no stone windowsills or surrounds–that felt like a more authentic Spanish Colonial style. I wanted that look for this new home.”
To carry that sense of authenticity into the 21 st century, builder Eric Linthicum deployed traditional 1-inch-thick, three-coat plaster, “which is a very labor-intensive process,” he observes. The terra-cotta tiles on the roof were also done the old-fashioned way–by hand-forming them over the artisans’ knees. Elsewhere, a modern approach prevails. “We took some risks, such as eliminating all upper cabinetry in the kitchen,” notes Linthicum. “We think that kind of cabinetry looks intrusive.” They also departed from tradition with white subway tiles in the kitchen and master bath and by using a treatment on the Douglas-fir ceilings that extracted the wood’s red tones and made them appear aged and slightly bleached.
This neighborhood is fairly densely built and, explains Kniaz, “The lot didn’t have much frontage, but it had a view of the Reata Wash and the trees bordering it that made you feel connected to the desert. I focused on maximizing that view.” He designed the house around a courtyard, creating views of landscape architect Steve Martino’s desert plantings and the trees beyond through enormous steel windows and French doors, which provide a modern update to the Spanish Colonial-style home without straying too contemporary.
The challenge for Lyon’s interior design scheme was principally one of time. “It happened very, very quickly — literally three months from our first meeting to them moving in,” she marvels. “I had to pull a lot of favors because most everything we do is custom.” Fortunately, Lyon says of her client, “She’s an incredible decision-maker, probably one of the most decisive people I’ve ever met. She also has an eye and knows what she wants. I don’t think I could have done it in that amount of time otherwise.”
Stylistically, the decor would ply the same restraint as the architecture. “They wanted a sort of Belgian classicism where the natural materials of the house stood out,” explains Lyon, “We did everything in a neutral palette — creams, grays, green. The art provides the pops of color.” Silhouettes are simple without being sleek, and by employing some traditional detailing, such as nail-head trim on the living room sofas and dining room chairs, they retain their connection to tradition. Antiques–hand-carved armchairs in the study, a large panel mirror in the dining room–are arranged judiciously in the uncluttered spaces to ground the design in the past, and that quality carries through to the newer pieces. “Authenticity of materials was very important,” says Lyon. “Even a new kitchen table is made of a thick, recycled plank of wood that feels substantial and aged.”
The homeowners, who have five adult children and 13 grandchildren, knew immediately they would feel at home here. “One of the things I love about this house is that there are plenty of places for eating,” says the wife. “Plus, there are three spare bedrooms. It’s plenty of room without being overwhelming.” Lyon’s favorite elements include details such as the beam ceilings, the great room window and the master bedroom’s indoor-outdoor patio and shower, not to mention the overall light and airy feel that prevails throughout. But, above all, it’s the home’s understated, serene demeanor that’s the key to its success. “There’s an honesty to the home,” Lyon says. “We wanted to live up to that.”