While many empty nesters jettison their large, traditional suburban homes for coolly sophisticated, modern city apartments, one North Shore couple— after raising four children—ultimately decided to forgo a move and stay put. Although they loved their verdant 2-acre-plus site with its abundance of mature oaks, they still craved a more modern vernacular. “They had lived in a beautiful home but wanted to create a house with a simpler aesthetic and a more contemporary appeal that fit their current needs,” says interior designer Arlene Semel, who worked on the project with principal Brian Snow and senior designer Mary Ennis-Smith. Off the table, however, was the usual glass box with sleek polished surfaces and extravagant materials. “The wife was absolutely steadfast about not wanting the house to be precious,” says Semel. Rather, the clients desired a home that featured a prolific use of wood, connections to the outdoors and Asian-inflected furnishings—with such Japanese design concepts as kanso (simplicity), shibui (understated beauty) and shizen (naturalness).
To begin the project, architect Laurence Booth conceived an open-concept layout. “I really envisioned a home with free-flowing interior spaces,” says Booth, who worked on the residence with project architect Alex Schabel and project manager Christopher Guido. According to Booth, the influence of Japanese architecture, lots of wood, corner windows where glass meets glass, natural materials and nothing too shiny are all evident in the home’s design.
Additionally, the house had to function on a variety of levels. “It had to beautifully serve two people but easily accommodate their children and grandchildren plus small- and-large entertaining needs,” Snow says. Booth and his team responded with a design comprising an H-shaped structure whose connecting middle would be a glass box housing a spectacular handcrafted metal staircase.
The stairway was intended to be a piece of sculpture, which the design—executed by the team at Booth Hansen—beautifully fulfills. Says general contractor Arvid Eiesland, “the massive staircase’s three parts had to be soldered together on site before the walls and windows were installed in the stair hall.”
Throughout the dwelling, Booth also provided spaces with high ceilings and opened up the house to the outdoors, another Japanese concept. “Creating openings from interior spaces that frame views of trees, sky, sunlight and flora was the goal of this design,” Booth says. “Wonderful homes connect people to landscapes.” The architect opted for stucco walls—regularly interspersed with windows and doors with frames—that feature aluminum on the outside and wood on the inside. Moreover, the profusion of rift-sawn, European-cut and plane-sliced oak can be found throughout the interiors. Wood, of course, emanates the shizen concept and is the chief material of Japanese architecture; it imparts mellow warmth that humanizes even soaring spaces such as the double-height living room.
Aside from many of the Asian antiques that can be found around the home, Semel relied on a broader and more eclectic assortment of international furniture archetypes, many of which—though of diverse cultural provenance— are unified by their straightforward, unadorned integrity, or shibui. “Beautiful pieces live well together,” Semel says. “These furnishings are more earthy than dressy, without a lot of frill. They’re also not polished yet not rustic either, and some pieces are very sophisticated.” A long table in the master bedroom, for example, is fashioned from a 12-foot-long wood plank supported by carved legs and connected by hand-forged iron stretchers, while the console in the living room is Spanish Baroque. Furthermore, a Swedish Mora clock resides in a hall near the stairway, comb-back Windsor armchairs mingle with a chunky French Renaissance oak trestle table in the combined family and dining room, and a French apothecary cabinet in one of the guest rooms shares space with an English bobbin chair and a wooden sea chest. The materials around the home are also incredibly inviting. “The fabrics are very soft and beautifully woven,” Semel says. “You feel the handmade quality of everything.” And, in keeping with the kanso spirit, many of the windows are not dressed. “The outside is so beautiful and so much of what this house is about,” Semel explains. “There was really no point in adding draperies.” Instead, hidden motorized shades do the trick when the couple want privacy.
Because the site was the principal reason for the couple to stay put, landscape architect Douglas Hoerr took great care to preserve the mature trees, protecting generous areas and their root zones from construction. He also worked closely with the design team to conceptualize a house that’s final design was informed by and respectful of the site. Then, Hoerr designed gardens of naturalistic native perennials, bulbs and grasses “that would be seasonally dynamic with fluidity and privacy,” says Hoerr, who worked on the home with project manager Patrick Peterson. A woodland garden of rhododendron, boxwood and evergreen situated in a courtyard that embraces the front entrance “became the couple’s art wall,” he adds, referring to the floor-to-ceiling glass wall around the staircase that, when viewed from indoors, is transformed into a three- dimensional landscape. “The house seeks to blend with the outdoors, giving nature the starring role,” says Booth.
This combination of Midwestern landscape, international furnishings and architecture that is Japanese in spirit, while still being thoroughly American, makes this an exceedingly dynamic and distinctive home. “The couple had a real interest in planning the house,” says Semel. “It was a wonderful project because of their clear vision.”
— Jorge S. Arango