The design is influenced by such greats as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier,” architect and general contractor Kevin B. Howard says of the Tucson home he created for a couple retiring to the area to be near their family. The owners desired something a bit different from the arched-and-tiled Tuscan villas they saw nearby—something that would stand up to their highly curated collection of modern furniture and art. “They wanted a modern, minimal home: a pristine box that seemed to have landed in the desert,” adds Howard. To accommodate this request, he drew on his historical knowledge of modern architecture and crafted a series of architectural gestures where the home edges the desert and smooth exterior plaster gives the dwelling a streamlined look that pays homage to those modernist masters’ work.
To begin the project, Howard reduced the ground-level footprint to do minimal damage to the desert, lifting major spaces to the second level, where he arranged them into broad volumes of stucco and glass. The architect then precisely placed the home amid the saguaro cactus forest that blankets the site, monitoring every rock and cactus. “The desert is very slow to heal,” he says, noting that the team kept the construction fence tight to the house and transplanted a few saguaro cacti to mitigate damage. The area’s climate and the owners’ substantial art collection also came into play. Because the house lives in the brilliant Arizona sunshine and heat, Miesian walls of glass weren’t an option. “So, to protect the collection, we developed the house as a cluster of shadowboxes with glass panes deeply recessed into thick stucco walls,” Howard says.
In addition to a request for simplicity, the couple brought many other ideas to Howard. For example, they love Renzo Piano’s atrium in the Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago so much that they requested one for their own house. Hence, a two-story-high atrium with a 30-foot-long skylight and glass-railed bridge resides in the middle of the home. “The atrium connects the entry on the lower level to the living space above,” Howard says. “It becomes connective tissue while displaying significant pieces of art.” The architect then grouped the guest rooms on one side of the atrium and the couple’s most-used spaces on the other. Rooms that face north, such as the kitchen—which features modern Italian cabinetry—and a sitting area, boast tall ceilings with high windows overlooking close-in panoramas of the dense saguaro cactus forest. The main living and dining areas face south, so their windows frame the lights of Tucson and mountains beyond.
The interior displays a purposely limited material palette. Walls feature a neutral white plaster to enhance the art, and floors are large-scale Italian porcelain tiles. “I like that the materials are a very quiet backdrop for the art and surrounding views,” Howard says. In the entry, for example, large pool ball sculptures by artist Nacho Rodriguez Bach and a work by Tom Bacher pop against the subdued background. Furthermore, muted walls in the living area allow a vibrant piece by local artist Robert Barber to make a statement over the fireplace. “We’ve always collected what we were drawn to,” says the wife. “No matter where we’ve lived, we’ve always managed to make the art and objects we love work in our environment.” Adds the husband: “Our hobbies are art and architecture, and we really like to reinvent ourselves.” Like many art aficionados, the couple have their favorites: They love artists Joseph Henry Sharp and Thomas Cole, both displayed in the powder room, and Alex Katz, whose work hangs above the dining area’s buffet. “Our style is very eclectic,” says the wife. One of their happiest finds is the one by 93-year-old Barber, who, at the time of the purchase, had painted for years but never sold anything. “We bought his first piece, and now he’s selling in New York,” says the husband.
For the furnishings, the pair consulted with Chicago- based interior designer Arlene Semel of SemelSnow Interior Design. As a trusted adviser to the owners for years, Semel evaluated plans early in the design process and reviewed such items as floor tiles, lighting and cabinetry; she also advised the couple on furniture selection and placement. “Arlene gave us great ideas like increasing the width of the living and dining area, adding extra cabinetry in the master bathroom, creating a bunk room with four built-in beds for overflowing guests, and paneling the east wall of the entry to include two hidden-touch doors,” says the wife, noting that much of their existing furniture made the move from their previous Chicago residence. For instance, a beautiful 1959 Alain Richard rosewood dining table was too small to fit in the new dining space. So, Semel suggested using the table as a desk. Now, with a glass top and a custom black box for electrical and computer wires, the piece makes a perfect office addition. “The process was very interesting to participate in,” Semel says. “They had such formed ideas but enjoyed having a professional eye to support and enhance their thoughts.”
Today, the homeowners couldn’t be more pleased with their home, which is strongly influenced by minimalist art with its simple forms and clean surfaces—a contrast to the dynamic desert site. “Being able to enjoy this beautiful creation, which is about art, architecture and interior design set in the incredibly gorgeous desert landscape was what this project was all about,” says the wife. Sounds like a perfectly curated space.