WOMEN UNDERSTAND the power of restraint: Bold the eye or stain the lip, but refrain from doing both lest one cross the minimalist line. The same with jewels: a bold band of precious metal, a diamond only if it's perfect and very, very large. Clothes run to black, white, constructed, few.
In such an ordered world, clutter - be it on the body or in the home - is thought to be best left elsewhere. It's a way of seeing the world and the extraneous. When done well, such style shines. When it's not, the result is pretentious.
Fortunately, three years spent thinking about how to transform a boxy, 1970s Leschi home into a stripped-to-the-bones work of art paid off for one thirtysomething couple. Sleek and handsome, today the 1,800 square feet of main living space seems to reach out and embrace the sky. Inside, all is similarly elemental: raw concrete, raw steel, fine ash woods and metal-clad doors.
Open, connected, primitive, sensuous, extreme. A minimalist manor to lust for.
"We didn't want a bigger house, but the walls were getting in the way," said the female half of the couple, a compulsive reader of design magazines and a big fan of contemporary European architecture. "What we wanted and what we got was one open space with strong design elements."
"When you remodel a house instead of building a new one, you have a big advantage," says her partner. "You already have a clear idea about what works and what doesn't."
At its most basic, what both wanted was a home that reflected the way they live. Having retired from the high-tech industry, the couple (no kids, one part-time dog shared with her parents) are passionate travelers, opinionated collectors of art and energetic but casual hosts. They wanted an architect with enough confidence in his or her talents to welcome their involvement in the process. And they wanted an architect sensitive to the things on their must-have list: bringing in more natural light and taking advantage of a knockout view.
After meeting with Olson/Sundberg design principal Tom Kundig, they knew they'd met their match. Together, they explored the options: Tear down the house and build new or figure out what to save and go from there. Choosing the latter, they then put together a three-year master plan.
"Some aspects of the original house worked, but the design heat had to be turned up considerably for them to be happy," says Kundig. "Basically, the floor plan worked fairly well, but the restricted view as well as the quality of detailing and styling didn't."
Taking things slow and easy, the team (expanded to include Olson/Sundberg architect-project manager Jim Graham and general contractor Dave Boone) reworked the garden and entry sequence to the front door.
Then came the back garden: a courtyard, fountain and pond designed by the owners. Once they expanded the existing deck and built a small outdoor sitting area off the second-level bedroom and bath, the couple was ready for the big time: life in another home for a year while the interior was demolished and rebuilt.
First to go was a complete corner of the second-level bedroom, with 5 feet of wall removed in each direction from the corner and specially fabricated sliding doors installed. What was once a closed-in room suddenly became a tree-house perch. No obstruction, no posts, nothing to block the view. Supporting what essentially became a cantilevered ceiling over the open corner, beams now reach nearly 20 feet back into the house.
The last remodeling phase was the most radical: stripping the house to its shell and fleshing out the interior from top to bottom. In celebration of an industrial aesthetic, they chose to leave exposed things that are usually covered: plumbing, electrical conduits and fixtures, concrete slabs and structural steel. During this process, the kitchen was expanded and redesigned, the interior finishes replaced and the stairway and a catwalk to the second-level bedroom and office rebuilt. All remodeling work was confined to the first and second levels; a daylight basement (with guest bedroom) retains its original form.
Reconfiguring and resizing the exterior windows and doors gave the house its most impressive reason for being. To accommodate the clients' request for more light and better access to the view, the architect went commercial, turning to applications seldom seen in residential settings. In the main living area, a massive 14-by-5-foot pivoting glass door swings both into the room and out to the deck. Supporting its 1,600 pounds meant using industrial-strength pivot hardware - a rotating hinge that attaches to the top and bottom of a door frame rather than to the side.
An adjacent door is just as impressive, a full 12 by 3 feet and some 1,000 pounds. It uses a continuous hinge running the entire height of the door frame on one side. Substantial structural modification, including two engineered wood beams and two steel columns, was required to accommodate the openings.
In the end, clients and architect loved the roughed-in look and contractor Boone had an additional reason to be proud. "Most of the time, the subcontractors do nice work and it gets covered up," he says. "This particular project gave the craftsman the opportunity to express their individual trade and to turn what some people consider mundane into a fairly aesthetic statement," he said.
When work was finished, the couple found themselves with a new experience: disciplining themselves to a few pieces of furniture and art. "I used to be someone who lived with a lot of clutter and eventually I got tired of it," she says. "Besides, there's no way a small house is going to feel spacious if you stuff it full of furniture."
If there's any downside to all things minimal, it's that the place starts to look messy the minute one spreads out the newspaper. "It does keep you disciplined, however," she laughs.
Having settled in, both continue to be passionate about art; she about paintings, he about glass sculpture. A few favored pieces currently predominate, including three paintings by Georges Mazilu, a Romanian artist living in Paris whose work they describe as an imaginative mix of Flemish, modernist and medieval styles.
And how do they feel about the overall style today?
"Some people walk in and feel the home is empty," she says. "I walk in and feel it's soothing. I must say, it's better than we ever thought it would be. Obviously, this was a very happy experience."
Writer Victoria Medgyesi regularly covers architecture and interior design trends. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.