For interior designer Leah O’Connell, this project wasn’t an average commission. The ranch house on a working equestrian facility near Sun Valley belonged to longtime friends looking to make this idyllic Idaho setting their permanent home. “I’d never done a from-scratch property from afar,” recalls O’Connell, who is based in Northern California. But the idea of working with a family she adored in a place she once lived made the decision to do so an easy yes. And with a local team that included general contractor John Lee and architect Michael Doty, who renovated the home for its previous residents, O’Connell knew she was in fine company.
The owners had purchased the property with the expectation of renovating the 1980s house, but they chose to live in it for a year, concentrating first on updating the ranch’s barns, storage areas and corrals. “This is such an interesting project,” says Doty. “We discussed demolition of the house, but there was value in it. It was modest, with small rooms and low ceilings, but we knew we could fix what was lacking.” They decided to bring the original house up to date and build a large perpendicular addition that would serve as a great room, encompassing the kitchen, dining and living areas. “But we wanted it to look cohesive, to function as a whole,” he explains, and visually knitting old and new together would require a little architectural wizardry.
The result is so successful that, at first sight, most might guess the addition is a period building. Closer inspection, however, reveals new steel doors and windows. The reclaimed barn wood brought from Oregon to clad the interior feels as authentic as the Montana fieldstone chosen for the monumental chimneys. “The owners wanted it to have the look of being pulled out of the ground, with moss and character that made it appear very organic,” says project architect Nicole Ramey of the stone. Uniting the structures is a standing-seam metal roof chosen as a compelling contrast to the rustic siding as well as a harmonizing factor with the property’s existing horse and hay barns and surrounding agricultural buildings.
Striking the right balance between aesthetics and function was top of mind for O’Connell. “This was my first big barn-style project,” she shares, but it was one she was familiar with, having grown up in one herself. “The house had to fit the landscape and a family in work boots.” To make the home stand out, “It was all about mixing elements and creating surprises, like lots of beautiful tile to contrast the barn wood and white walls,” she notes. “That’s the fun of things, combining what does or doesn’t go together.” The palette, too, is a surprise that creates an airy, almost loft-like feel. Soft, earthy hues flow from the dusky blue of the kitchen into the living area, where O’Connell added chestnut, cream and green shades. In summer, the palette is cooling. In winter, it’s warm and cozy.
Avoiding the trappings of Western kitsch, O’Connell focused on creating a singular aesthetic that felt equally right for the climate and for her clients’ lifestyle. She took her cues from Northern Europe, adding a touch of chalet style to the entryway with antique Tyrolean chairs and a refined Swedish sensibility to the homeowners’ bedroom with a pair of Gustavian nightstands. Some gestures that speak more directly to the dwelling’s location do work their way in. Tramp art frames make a family photo wall, and animals have crept into the design through wallpapers (like the foxes in the powder room), duck decoys and the occasional piece of taxidermy. And there are horses, of course—the owners’ photography collection includes shots by Edward S. Curtis and Laura Wilson, whose image of Hutterite cowboys galloping across the Montana grasslands is one of the first works guests see.
After the savvy interventions on the part of the team, “It’s so much more livable now,” says Doty, noting how the great room spills onto the patio and to the sheltered microclimates created with Eggers Associates. It’s something that has come about thanks to changes in communication technologies. Longer stays are common; thus, the desire for brighter living spaces that capture views through large window walls blurring the connection between indoors and outdoors. It’s a feeling O’Connell understood. “This isn’t a vacation house, and because we did the whole thing from scratch,” she says, “we had the opportunity to build out exactly what we wanted.”