When Raleigh, North Carolina, architect Frank Harmon heard what his client wanted in her new home, it must have sounded like music to his ears. “I told him that light was very important, as was access to the outdoors,” says homeowner Sepi Saidi. “I wanted to feel like I’m living outside, with natural light and greenery that feels like it’s coming right into the house.”
As a graduate of NC State University—the same school where Harmon teaches architecture—Sepi was aware the architect had been pursuing that grail for most of his 50-year career. Striking up a friendship with fellow professor Harwell Hamilton Harris, a former protégé of uber-modernists Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, during his tenure left a lasting impact on Harmon, whose own architecture followed suit. His work has come to rely on living in natural light, merging structures and landscape and integrating spatial volumes—concepts he believes enhance the human experience.
The architect’s design for Sepi in Raleigh’s vibrant Cameron Village was no different. A civil engineer at the height of her career, Sepi requested a home that would center her—a retreat from her busy professional life. “Frank endeavored to create privacy in a very dense urban area,” Sepi says. “And he did: The home is simple, with clean lines, and calming.”
Light pours into the home’s living spaces, but not at the expense of privacy. “Because the house is on a hill, we could make the living room, dining room and kitchen face east, with big windows,” Harmon explains. “The sidewalk out front is 8 feet below eye level. So, those who sit in the living room don’t see the street, and others can’t see in—similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.”
North and south sides of the residence are windowless and opaque to limit exposure to neighbors—something the homeowner specifically requested from Harmon. “He understood who I was and what my life was about, and he captured that in my space,” she says. Throughout the process, Sepi likewise earned Harmon’s respect. “She’s an ideal client because she’s a leader of people,” Harmon explains. “Once she chooses you as the architect, she trusts you and empowers you.”
One way in which Harmon felt empowered was by devising most of the landscape architecture himself, liaising with landscape architect Cynthia Rice on construction documents. “I always say that the site is the building, and I thought of this one as a 1½-acre house,” the architect says. Essentially, there is no divide between indoor and outdoor spaces, as Harmon utilized ipe wood floors to create continuity from the screened-in porch, to the patio, to the decking that surrounds the home’s nearly 100-foot interior courtyard and swimming pool.
On the opposite axis, Harmon installed a music room for Sepi’s husband that, standing alone in lieu of a pool house or outdoor fireplace, is clad in the same fiber cement panels as the main residence—and nicely contrasts the white oak-veneer plywood and zinc-colored aluminum seen elsewhere on the building.
Executing these concepts with expertise was general contractor Kemp Harris, a personal friend of Sepi’s and someone Harmon has worked with for 25 years. “Once Kemp had drawings from the structural engineer, he was very inventive about how he put things together,” Harmon notes. “He came up with sketches on his own—particularly for the cantilevered flat roofline, and how to actually build it.”
For the interiors, Harmon and Sepi worked hand-in-glove with interior designer Kay Jordan, who helped specify the home’s finishes and also inserted interesting textures, such as penny round tiles on the master bathroom ceiling. To burnish Harmon’s design for the fireplace, Jordan added distressed copper cladding with an appearance similar to burled wood.
The interior designer displayed a flair for understated drama, as well—evident in her use of contrast throughout a living room already alive with sunshine and shadow lines. Here, she inserted a bright, yellow and white work by Ellsworth Kelly onto the expanse of a white oak paneled wall. To punctuate the matte black finish of a western wall, she hung a lush but minimalist painting of a swimmer by North Carolina artist Peter Butler.
Throughout, Jordan was mindful to select midcentury leaning pieces that would enhance Harmon’s modular volumes. “I wanted to honor his design for the house,” says the interior designer, who’s just as quick to defer credit to the homeowner, calling her “a force of nature.”
Perhaps, then, it’s appropriate that a home of this caliber would become Harmon’s final design. Recently retired from architecture to pursue writing and drawing, the industry veteran contends—cheekily—that each of his homes was designed to be his last anyway. So, while Sepi’s Raleigh home may turn out to be Harmon’s swan song, receiving that news became music to her ears, too.