Los Angeles architect Christopher Kempel takes his research seriously. When a Southern California-based family asked him to design a rustic home in the forested hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, he spent several nights on the property staying in its original farmhouse, contemplating how the new residence should be oriented to the site. “It was almost like a live model,” he says. “You could see where the sun comes up, how it enters a room and how the sunset affects the light.” The experiment provided the ideal impetus to push Kempel out of his comfort zone. “The truth is, we hadn’t been asked to do a home like this before,” says the architect, who is known for creating warm modern dwellings with large picture windows, exposed steel framing and smooth, refined surfaces. Kempel was admittedly in new territory design-wise. “They challenged us,” he says.
To tackle the project, the architect teamed up with designer Alana Homesley, who’d worked with Kempel on their clients’ primary residence in Los Angeles. They both saw opportunities to weave modernism into a traditionally rooted design that recalled the small, white farmhouse that originally stood on the 82-acre property—a working farm where wild grasses are harvested. “There was this little white house with the field sweeping up to it, and it was absolutely beautiful,” the wife says. “We essentially wanted to build a more modern version of that same image.”
Kempel’s mission was to create a home whose exterior followed the rules of traditional farmhouse architecture: small regularly spaced windows, pitched rooflines, stone chimneys and a wide veranda. Unlike modern architecture, where large windows frame the spaces beyond them, Kempel was challenged to create a symmetrical exterior that looks fairly indifferent to the function of the interior. “You’re constantly pushing and pulling and finessing the interior plan so it works with the exterior to look properly balanced,” the architect says. At the same time, he also had to position the exterior to look balanced with the interior plan.
The home’s L-shaped design evolved around three massive stone piers, inspired by Kempel’s New England upbringing where he would often see stone-chimney relics from long-gone structures. “Everything is built off those main pieces,” he says of this interpretation. “We really enjoyed the connection between the timber frame and the stone masses.”
As the interior layout took shape, a modern sensibility emerged from those rustic materials, especially in the central, two-story living room, where timber framing mingles with steel joinery, delicate glass chandeliers balance the heavy stone wall, and a metal-framed open-riser stair takes center stage. “Our struggle from day one was to understand the mix of rustic-traditional with clean-modern,” Homesley says. She pursued that mix first in the home’s finishes. Instead of painting the paneled ceilings white, she whitewashed them. Instead of choosing smooth concrete for the kitchen floor, she chose a mottled limestone. “Nothing was the cleanest version it could be,” she says. “We tried to have texture in all the materials.” Homesley then put a twist on classic farmhouse furnishings: The wingback chair next to the replace is a playful Papa Bear chair; the tufted-back sofa has hand-turned walnut arms and blackened-bronze feet; the canopy bed in the master suite eschews fabric draping for a spare frame of wood and metal. “It’s exactly what we were trying to achieve, which is a mix of old and new,” the designer explains.
The wife encouraged Kempel to take a more modern approach for her glass-house writer’s studio at the end of a breezeway behind the garage and guesthouse. The transition begins off the entry with a corridor lined in the home’s exterior tongue-and-groove siding. “We’ve created a metaphorical history,” Kempel says, “as if it were an outside porch that’s just been glassed in.” The effect wasn’t easy to achieve, the project’s superintendent Steph Lynch says. “The exterior siding wraps into this space as one continuous line down its back wall. This detail required perfect alignment and precision craftsmanship to segue the lines from outside to inside.”
Since the family uses the home as a weekend retreat, the landscape needed to be low maintenance, drought tolerant and deer proof, explains landscape architect Steve Shapiro. Masses of ornamental-grass varieties fit the bill. “We wanted to have a contemporary look to enhance the house but also be somewhat understated to fit in with the organic setting,” he says.
In that respect, Kempel also played to the home’s natural beauty, orienting the wide porches just so toward the valley side, and keeping areas like the pool and writer’s studio more intimately enclosed by the old-growth fir trees in back. “There’s something very sensual about the property because of the surrounding views and the fog and the quiet,” Kempel says. “It’s very mystical.”