There is not a ‘fragment’ in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself.” This sentiment by renowned naturalist John Muir could also describe an angular modern house in the Denver foothills that architect Michael Knorr designed to be a seamless part of its majestic surroundings. “There are snow-capped peaks and a lot of smaller hills in the foreground,” Knorr explains. “It’s a very dramatic setting.”
Although Knorr designed the home almost three decades ago, he was recently given the chance to revisit the structure. When the house changed hands, its current owners commissioned him to make some updates. However, once the project got started, it grew in scope and soon morphed into a top-to-bottom revamp. Knorr began by designing a new light-filled atrium with lofted ceilings and clerestories and then added a standalone pool house, which connects to the original structure via an open breezeway. “By adding the pool house, we expanded the architecture into the landscape and made it a lot more horizontal,” Knorr says. “It’s like another abstract outcropping of the overall design.”
The angles and multilevels of the house were originally designed “to conform to the topography and the views,” says Knorr, who organized the main living spaces around a central two-story gallery. “There are square forms and triangular shapes that intermix to create interesting angles,” Knorr explains about the connecting space. Adding to this existing layout, the architect increased the decking around the house and introduced a roof deck off the master suite. “The owners presented a wonderful opportunity to expand on earlier ideas,” says the architect.
To revitalize the interior, the owners called on friend and designer Elizabeth Brosnan Hourihan. The Connecticut-based designer, in turn, brought in her longtime collaborator, New York-based architect Claus F. Rademacher, to tackle interior architectural elements, such as the casework, finishes and built-ins. Working closely together, the duo aimed to complement the modern architecture by introducing natural materials and hues inspired by the picturesque surroundings. “The palette comes from nature and the colors that the clients responded to,” Hourihan says. “The design is modern, but it has a lot of warmth because of the materials.”
Knorr and Rademacher, for example, added sandstone elements to the newly re-stuccoed façade to tie the home to the mountainous setting. The stone was brought inside, as well, to sheath columns in the central atrium and to clad fireplaces in the living room, family room and pool house. “We discussed extensively how to lay the stone and did mock-ups for three or four different looks,” builder Mark Manley says. “The job was significant enough that the owners of the quarry in Wisconsin visited the site.”
To strengthen the connection between inside and outdoors, Hourihan worked with a palette of greens and blues when it came to the furnishings. In the atrium, for instance, the designer selected a colorful wool-and-silk rug that provides a bold backdrop for contemporary wing chairs and a pair of curvaceous sofas. “Since the view of the foothills is the main art, we were careful not to have art hanging on the walls that would compete,” says Hourihan. “The rug, with its powerful color palette, worked wonderfully as it’s a horizontal piece of art, not vertical.”
The atrium leads up to the main level, where Hourihan chose soft colors to “create a welcoming, calming feeling,” she says of the living room. The designer appointed the space, which also functions as a music room, with a sofa, two pairs of swivel chairs and a wide leather-upholstered bench. “It looks simple and modern, but the process was really rigorous,” Hourihan explains about deciding on the furniture arrangement. “A lot of thought went into every element.” A three-dimensional mock-up of the piano was used to find the perfect placement for the instrument.
Rademacher devised a diamond-patterned walnut ceiling coffer to define the living room’s center, and in the adjacent dining room, he created a built-in walnut-and- lacquer buffet. The piece acts as a divider between the two rooms, which were opened during the renovation. Hourihan crowned the dining room with silver wallpaper on the ceiling—“it offers a subtle touch of the unexpected,” she says—and grounded the space with a blue-and-white rug that echoes the snow-covered mountains outside. Rademacher picked up the walnut again with extensive casework he fitted for the family room. “This is a large house,” Rademacher says, “so it was important to establish a sense of continuity throughout.”
That through line continues in the master suite, where Hourihan had a large area rug woven to the bedroom’s unique dimensions and worked within a serene palette of blues inspired by the sky. Two streamlined armchairs by Christopher Kennedy pair with a Maxalto bed, underscoring the structure’s modern lines. In the master bath, Rademacher reconfigured the room to take advantage of the views. “I wanted to create a beautiful open space with expansive glass,” he says. “It doesn’t compete with anything happening outside.”
Inspired by those impressive surroundings, landscape designer Seth Terry added a series of snow crabapple trees to the outdoor terraces for spots of color and put in linear beds filled with lavender and ornamental grasses on the property. “The house is modern, and the owners wanted to blend the naturalistic setting with a contemporary planting style,” says Terry. “As you move away from the house, the planting beds become a little more unruly and natural.”
The project took nearly two years from start to finish, and with updating the arresting architecture, the sophisticated new interiors and the imposing scenery, everything came together in a way that is striking and singular. “The concept was to combine the ideas that were important to the clients: the natural elements and their surroundings, soothing colors and a modern flair,” says Hourihan. “Bringing these ideas together has made the house completely unique.”
— Tate Gunnerson