Pacific Northwest | December 7, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 7, home
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Out Of Asia
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Chic Snug
Complexity In Simplicity
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Seeing The Light

Winter Home Design 2003

Complexity In Simplicity: In black and white, a hillside hideaway is anything but neutral
The geometric precision in the shaft of sunlight penetrating the stairwell is as perfectly orchestrated as the rhythm of the maple stair risers and the pop of the den's red-leather chair against the gray-and-white palette.
In discussing the vision for his new house, the client gave architect Eric Remash just a few basic directives: Preserve the privacy. Keep it quiet. Use simple, even humble, materials. And make it black.

Tucked high above Shilshole Marina and shaded by big-leaf maples on adjacent rights-of-way, the property was so separate from the homes around it that context wasn't a problem. This wouldn't be your typical mid-block city house that needs to fit in with the neighbors.

Besides, the owner likes living in the woods, doesn't worry about lack of natural light, and had already built three black houses.

"I got wedded to the idea of black," he said, so "why fiddle around with a bunch of mid-grays?"

An old beach cabin was torn down to make room for the new house, and Remash started in. He faced an empty, oddly shaped lot backed by an impressive stand of lofty bamboo and those neighboring maples.
The owner hasn't felt the need to put down a rug in the living room, finding the heated concrete floors both beautiful and comfortable. The fireplace floats in front of the glass doors creating a layered effect; the painting above the hearth is "Time of Change" by Morris Graves.
Remash set the house well back and spun it at a slight angle to maximize the view of Puget Sound, creating a sleek, modern home that gives the owner his longed-for privacy. Turns out his quiet is all-too-frequently shattered by the whistle of trains and the resounding clank of switching from unseen tracks below the bluff. Remash describes the home's exterior "as a box, really, broken up in a nice way and with varying textures." The concrete board panels, exposed rivets and galvanized metal trim give an industrial quality to a house that was originally planned to be clad all in metal.

The ebony exterior serves as a backdrop to the garden, making the predominantly green plantings appear brilliant emerald. There are no flowers in the front garden and precious few in back. The owner calls the casual, sturdy plantings "the Ballard High School look," but there is artistry in the repetition of multitrunked vine maple etching a graceful line above hellebores, barberries and a fluffy stand of Arctic willow. Witch hazels, daphnes and hebes carry the garden through the seasons. A concrete terrace, sheltered between the wings of the house, is furnished with metal chairs and table, and decorated with terra-cotta pots planted with boxwood trimmed into balls.
The concrete slab that forms the interior floors extends outside to create a terrace sheltered by the wings of the house; the lines between indoors and out are further blurred by the series of glass sliding doors.
While lines between indoors and out are skillfully blurred, in one aspect that transition is emphasized. The home's somber exterior is thrown into relief by the pale interior, not unlike walking from a shadowy room out into the light, except in reverse. Enter through one of the glass sliders or the recessed front door, and all is shades of white and gray, with an accent wall or two painted a mussel-like shade called anthracite.

The only color comes from a jolt of red in a painting or a chair, just as flashes of orange and yellow daylilies and crocosmia provide a contrast in the garden. In such a subdued, neutral setting, books, art and even a shaft of sunlight take on intense beauty, each showcased by the purity of the stark, flat colors around them.
The dining table is made of extravagantly textured Cocobolo wood, in the same tones as the oil painting by Clayton James on the wall behind. Built-in plywood bookshelves run the length of the main floor, the book collection transitioning from art and literature in the living room to gardening and cookbooks in the kitchen.
The owner had seen earlier houses Remash designed, and admired his creative use of simple materials, as well as his ability to meld indoors and out. The architect played with these themes, using plywood for all the cabinetry, and glass sliders described by the owner as "straight out of 1950s Innis Arden." Remash extended concrete floors to form terraces, and ran plywood bookshelves the entire length of the house from living room back to the kitchen, with openings for doorways and tall, narrow slot windows.

It is the complexity of such simplicity that fascinates. The house is cleverly layered, the fireplace forming a plane in front of the glass doors, and wall angles stopping just short of where you'd expect them to meet. Simple yet complex, plain yet complicated, subtle yet arresting.
Countertops are laminate and the cabinets are plywood, some stained creamy gray and others near-black in this sleek kitchen. The oversized back window brings light into both the kitchen and adjoining sitting area while affording a view of the back patio and garden.
In the kitchen, the gray-toned cabinets stop several feet short of the ceiling. The counters are dark laminate, and the silvery hanging lamps over the island are an industrial shape to continue the notion of plain materials used well. The natural, unstained concrete floors are patterned with faint whorls that echo the patterns in the plywood cabinetry. The soffits are painted a brighter white so they stand out, while the wall color is softened with a little gray and green mixed into the white paint. This touch of green in both the white paint and in the near-black anthracite walls gives full effect to the small doses of orangey-red in paintings, rugs and leather chairs.

Upstairs are two bedrooms and baths, finished with the same plywood cabinetry and glass sliders, plus soft-gray limestone bathrooms and dark-gray carpeting in the bedrooms. In the master bedroom, the glass doors lead to an expansive rooftop deck, with outdoor shower and planters holding nandina and vining nasturtiums. The view of the water and mountains from the deck, as well as the perch it affords above the terrace and gardens below, make it ideal for parties or a quiet dinner.

This is the most modern house the owner has ever lived in. Yet despite all its geometry the house feels intimate, comfy and personal, with spaces both small and expansive. The main floor is really one big room, stretching from the living room at the front of the house to the kitchen at the rear, divided only by the free-standing dining-room wall. "Scale is the hardest thing to get properly," says Remash of this 3,600-square-foot house that is equally comfortable whether you're home alone reading or entertaining a group of friends. "Ostentatious was not the goal," Remash explains, "but the synergy adds up to something."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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