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Building Relationships

photographs by john gruen

Off the main thoroughfares of Stamford, not far from downtown, there are enclaves of narrow, quiet streets and abundant greenery. Close to the action but a world apart, these tranquil neighborhoods are magnets for city dwellers in search of a peaceful place to raise a family and unwind on a weekend.

For one Manhattan couple—with two small children and twins on the way—the search ended when they found a small, modernist-style house in one of Stamford’s close-to-downtown neighborhoods.

The wife had spotted the property while touring the city with her realtor. The house was unassuming, but she was drawn to the beauty of its setting—a two-acre lot that adjoined a woodland preserve. She told the realtor to call her immediately if and when the parcel came on the market. Not long after, her wish was realized.

The couple’s taste is contemporary, but the existing house would need major work to suit the needs of a family with four small children. So, guided by Eric Gartner of SPG Architects in Manhattan and enlisting New Canaan custom builder Karp Associates to execute the plans, the new owners had the old structure taken down and replaced.

“My client was extremely sensitive to the scale of the surrounding homes,”
Gartner recalls. “She did not want the new house to overpower its site or its central Stamford neighbors.”

Although the replacement is larger than the original, the architect designed a front elevation that is only marginally taller. The rear elevation, with expansive windows facing the property’s most beautiful views, cannot be seen from the street.

Finished a year after groundbreaking, the house is a twenty-first-century descendant of the best of twentieth-century modernist designs. Combining natural materials, fine craftsmanship and a seamless fit with its woodland surroundings, Gartner’s design evokes Frank Lloyd Wright, the master who has inspired so many contemporary architects.

The rectilinear form of the exterior—long and low—is enhanced with horizontal cladding of tongue-in-groove cedar that retains its natural color and grain. Inside, an inspired placement of openings draws in natural light from all sides. Beautiful cabinetwork, natural stone and custom-crafted furnishings complete a plan that in the public spaces is open and comfortable, yet at the same time contemporary and sophisticated. “We wanted light and open space, and a design that could bring in the beautiful views from outside,” the homeowner says. “The house is full of great details, but nothing is fussy or complicated.”

Because the site is heavily wooded, Gartner designed rooftop skylights and a unique vertical light shaft in the three-story central staircase. During the day, these openings invite natural light into the core of the house, suffusing the rooms with a soft glow. At night, the careful installation of cleverly concealed accent lighting creates the same gentle illumination.

Project manager Paul Stone, of Karp Associates, admits that the design was a challenging one. “This is a unique custom house, but our schedule was tight. To get it done in our twelve-month time frame, we were building as Eric was drawing details. Also challenging was the need to integrate finishing details into the framing stage, something not common with the Colonial-style homes that most clients in this area choose to build.

“Interesting to me was working on a Wright-inspired signature project for an architect who had a particular vision. Understanding that vision, and the process of working with the client and architect to make it unfold, were very rewarding.”

Not only were the clients and architect pleased; for its part in the project, Karp Associates won the Home Builders Association of Connecticut’s prestigious 2007 HOBI award for best custom home.

To furnish the interiors, the team expanded to include Venezuela-born designer Andres Cova. The architect has worked with him frequently, and Andres and the clients immediately clicked. With a nature-inspired palette of browns, sages and purple, the stylish, comfortable—and sturdy—upholstered pieces, tables, chairs and rugs work as well for the four young children as they do for the extended family and the frequent guests whom the homeowners entertain.

Of course, no busy family can manage its activity without a high-functioning kitchen, and Stone and the homeowner put the right pieces in place. She wanted fuss-free materials with the same quality of light and open feeling as the rest of the house. Using Mohawk Kitchens of Stamford for the project, she chose an incredibly forgiving surface—smooth white laminate—for the cabinet faces. To make the space even more child-friendly, one cabinet wall became a white board/magnetic surface, to post family messages and act as a canvas for her toddlers’ impromptu art works.

Upstairs in the family’s private spaces, Gartner was equally responsive to the homeowners’ needs. When it came to the children’s area, he displayed the wisdom of an architectural Solomon. Four identically sized rooms, with a separate bath for each pair, have a simple, spare design that is easily individualized. Changing the décor as the children grow presents no problems, and sizing them equally dispenses with the age-old argument, “But hers is bigger!”

For the couple, a simple but exquisitely appointed master bedroom, bath and sitting area have every amenity they requested, along with the beautiful woodland views that all the private family spaces afford. The space is refined, with beautiful details of stone, wood and tile, yet it is completely comfortable.

“This house is everything we wanted it to be,” says the wife. “We had a great team who pulled together all the elements that would give us a modern home that is perfectly suited to our lives. We love it.”

Karp Associates, New Canaan, 972-3366; karpassoc.com
Mohawk Kitchens, Stamford, 324-7358, and Wilton, 834-0880; mohawkkitchens.com
SPG Architects, New York City, 212-366-5500; spgarchitects.com