From A Distance in Chicago


From A Distance

A home designed to suit a stunning lakeside lot on Chicago's North Shore is all about the views and creating a tranquil environment.

A Gallery Foyer

The foyer acts as a gallery for rotating selections from the homeowners’ existing art collection, which hang on a wall clad in rift-sawn white oak using a bespoke suspension system Shafer designed to protect the paneling. A large-scale blue angel, a recent acquisition from Paris, is mounted on a massive Plexiglas base. Jean-Marie Massaud’s Inout bench for Cappellini is a constant in the space.

Streamlined Yet Sumptuous

The dining area overlooks a spectacular Japanese garden that marches out toward the lake. Streamlined yet sumptuous furnishings—such as a live-edge dining table by noted artisan Frank Pollaro—offer style and comfort, but let the remarkable view take center stage.

 A Purple Pop of Color

Purple leather Papageno chairs by Leolux add pops of color in the lounge. The sharply tailored Sao Paulo sofa is from Holly Hunt, and the Noguchi coffee table is from Room & Board. A muted Mirage rug from Atelier Lapchi grounds the space.

A Sense of Community

Tall banks of cabinets hugging the wall and an extra-long island define the boundaries of the kitchen, maximize storage and give the space a sense of community with the living area beyond. KWI Custom Cabinetry executed the architect’s meticulously detailed cabinet design. The Blu Dot counter stools are from ID Modern Home.

Windows with New Heights

One of the most innovative aspects of the house is the architect’s use of the windows by Hope’s Windows, pushing them to new structural heights along the back of the house. Eero Saarinen’s iconic dining table and Tulip chairs from Knoll can be seen from the outside.

A Colorful Patio

On the patio, colorfully patterned Missoni lounge chairs from Mobili Mobel are stunning yet serene thanks to their lithe, low-slung silhouettes. They turn the minimal bluestone terrace into an intriguing outdoor living room. A historic protected oak tree nearby dictated the placement of the house on the lakefront site.

Luxury and Functionality

The master bathroom is designed to be luxurious yet functional. A spacious walk-in shower is concealed behind swing glass doors. The custom medicine cabinets were designed by KWI Millwork.

Blossoming Wallpaper

In the master bedroom, the architect designed an elegant bed with clean lines and accompanying nightstands, all fabricated by Diebold’s Cabinet Shop. De Gournay’s wallpaper in a plum blossom-patterned wallpaper is tempered by Ligne Roset’s modern Pumpkin armchair.

An Epic Bronze-Cast Bust

Landscape architect Scott Byron surrounded an epic cast-bronze bust by Jaume Plensa— titled Rui Rui and purchased from Richard Gray Gallery—with boxwood bushes and ornamental grass. The piece strikes the perfect balance between antiquity and modernity.

An Intricate Exterior

Rift-cut white-oak siding, stucco and lead-coated copper flashing were used on the home’s exterior. Expansive windows by Hope’s Windows are interspersed between the oak and used to forge the lakeside walls, giving the house transparency. Varying heights on each wing make it possible to have several rooftop gardens and decks.

It goes without saying that lakefront lots are highly coveted. But waterfront locations also come with a challenge: they beg for dazzling state-of-the-art homes that boast exquisite views. Meeting these benchmarks can be daunting for some, but not for architect Thomas Shafer. He’s designed so many contemporary stunners that his reputation precedes him and is what prompted a couple to consider him for their lakefront project. 

Shafer stood out from the start, says the husband, a tech executive. “Only Tom insisted on meeting us on the lot, then proceeded to tell us every detail of its microclimate,” he says. “He had an incredible clarity of vision: Tom described the pattern of the sun and shadows, its impact on the house, and how to maximize the environment.” Shafer’s calm demeanor added yet another level of comfort, as well. “He’s very Zen,” explains the husband, “and we wanted to work with someone who wouldn’t make this a stressful experience.” 

The couple’s second meeting with the architect sealed the deal. “We’d been driving all over the North Shore looking at houses for months, and admired this really cool one that had everything we wanted,” says the husband. “Then we saw the model at Tom’s office and realized it was his project.” Shafer’s homes are all specific to their owners, thanks to an extensive discovery process to analyze their wants, needs, activities and lifestyle rhythms. One request from the couple stayed on the top of Shafer’s mind: They wanted the house to be livable and comfortable. 

Shafer began the project by creating a structure with a streamlined design that captures stunning panoramic views of the lake, another must-have on the clients’ wish list. It also sports personal spaces, such as a yoga studio, a woodworking shop for him and two home offices, as well as a rooftop vegetable garden and a Zen garden. “The house is a composition of volumes and containers,” explains Shafer, who worked with senior project architect Scott Crowe on the house. The lakeside wing holds the main living spaces at ground level, a master suite and the wife’s work space above, and the top- floor yoga studio that opens entirely to a deck. The other wing holds a three-car garage, three children’s bedrooms and a rooftop greenhouse. 

But it is the uniting stair tower that serves as one of Shafer’s most important features—a staircase with floating treads that’s a piece of art in its own right. These dramatic gestures can be seen throughout the house. In the lakeside wing, for instance, the formal lounge to the south is completely transparent to showcase the water from the home’s front façade, while a gallery wall puts the couple’s intriguing art collection on view. It’s bordered by a garden that boasts an epic cast-bronze bust by internationally acclaimed artist Jaume Plensa, purchased for its peaceful Asian demeanor. 

A series of “outdoor areas surround the house and create beautiful views from every window yet also let the lake be the star,” says landscape architect Scott Byron. Nowhere is that more apparent than from the lounge, where an intimate Japanese garden’s fieldstone- slab path marches out to the water in the distance. “Scott nailed the entire project,” says the husband. “Specifically, some of the changes he made in the Zen rock garden were exceptional.” 

Because of the amazing views, precise window placement was of importance. “Everything about Tom’s design is so creative and innovative, especially the inventive way he incorporated the windows,” says builder Barry Sylvester. In the living area, Shafer conceived a wall of windows that splays out and up at a 77-degree angle along the back of the structure. It meets a curved, cantilevered ceiling that melts into exterior overhangs. “The home was designed with many passive sustainable initiatives,” explains Shafer, “including the overhangs, which were precisely calculated to allow maximum light penetration in the winter and sun shading in the summer.” 

The expansive window wall draws attention to the lake and an epic heritage oak behind the house that dictated the home’s placement on the site. “It’s a protected heritage tree, so we were required to maintain a 25-foot distance from it,” explains Shafer. The distance from the tree gave Byron a generous and curvy canvas to paint with various grasses framed in creeping carpet roses that crawl down the blu . Back inside, designer Kathy Shafer—Tom’s business partner and wife—had to determine how to furnish a home with so many transparent walls, which posed significant challenges because “everything has to stand on its own and oat in the spaces,” she says. Working with the couple, she found clean-lined minimal pieces with personality and the right scale. Chunky club chairs in lipstick red and purple, for instance, bring the seating area in the lounge to life, while a majestic single-slab dining table gives the transparent dining area weight. Because the right bed for the master suite proved impossible to find, “we designed one in the office with matching nightstands and then had it constructed,” says Kathy Shafer. 

The completed abode is so serene that the couple is now extremely thoughtful with anything they choose to incorporate, as to not compromise with the scenery. While designing the home proved to sometimes be a challenge, the final result embraces the owners’ original vision of fitting their new abode perfectly into the landscape and embracing the spectacular views. 

Lisa Skolnik