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Modern Art

Scott Fellows and Craig Bassam, the visionaries behind BassamFellows, a modern architecture and furniture design firm and handmade leather accessories label, always thought that
New York City was the only place that they could live. “There are those who can’t wait to get out of Manhattan,” Fellows says. “But we were perfectly happy to stay there.”  But an impromptu afternoon outing in 1998 through the Connecticut countryside changed that view. The drive, which started as a trip to view the late architect Philip Johnson’s fabled Glass House, ended with the couple looking over the listings at a local real estate office. It was there that they first encountered the mid-twentieth-century modernist house they now call home. “We’re architecture junkies,” Fellows explains. “We were flipping through the listing book and came across a photo of a modern structure.” When they inquired as to the location, the agent said it was just down the road from Philip Johnson’s Glass House. “At that point,” Bassam says, “we knew we had to take a look.”

What they found was a beautifully sited, 55-year-old home in complete disrepair. “The paint on the exterior was peeling and it was evident that the windows needed work, but the setting was so lush that we felt like we were in a forest, not a neighborhood,” Bassam says.

Adding to the beauty was the structure itself, a mix of glass, wood and steel. “This wasn’t just a large glass box cantilevered over a rocky slope,” Fellows notes. “The place had architectural presence.”

 So much so that during the drive back to the city, the conversation focused strictly on buying and rehabilitating the property. “We put our apartment on the market the next day and made an offer on the house,” Bassam says. “Looking back it seems rather impulsive, but the place just felt like home.”

A big part was that, despite being more than half a century old, the 4,500-square-foot home had many of the conveniences that people demand in homes being built today (a bathroom for each bedroom, numerous windows for natural light and easily accessible outdoor spaces). “The architect Willis Mills, who designed and built the house, was very forward-thinking for his time,” Bassam explains, an architect himself. 

However, despite the picture-perfect design there were, inevitably, changes that had to be made. The first involved the kitchen. As it was, the space, a series of small rooms, felt crowded and dark. “It wasn’t inviting,” Bassam recalls. To remedy the situation, they devised a plan that called for removing several interior walls and joining the individual areas into one long, gallery-like space. They also opened up the room to the outdoors by replacing the door to the backyard with a wall of glass that ran floor to ceiling. The effect is breathtaking. “Now you can stand at the front of the house and see all the way through to the back,” Bassam says.

In another nod to authentic timeless design, the pair removed all of the interior wood floors, replacing them with sleek white terrazzo. They also reworked each of the baths, replacing dated fixtures with simple white marble designs from Duravit. For surfaces, they selected a modern mix of marble and glass mosaics, changing the color of the glass tiles in each bathroom to keep the design from becoming too sterile. “We wanted to establish a sense of consistency throughout the house, but we didn’t want the place to feel cookie-cutter,” Fellows says.

The last space that required a total overhaul was the master bedroom: Carved out of what had once been the garage (since relocated to a pair of stone-clad buildings in the entry courtyard), the room lacked a sense of order. So Bassam devised a plan that called for borrowing space from an adjacent hallway to create a dressing area that provides not only necessary built-in storage, but also serves to connect the bedroom with the master bath.

Once construction was complete, they furnished the rooms using a mix of things they had in their Manhattan apartment, vintage finds and proprietary designs from their Craftsman/modern furniture collection. “We love Mies chairs and other modern elements, but you can go too far with the vintage look,” Fellows explains. “A room done entirely in period pieces, no matter how good the quality, is a bit cliché.”

The exterior, like the interior, received a similar restorative treatment. For example, each of the home’s three levels opened onto a sweeping wood deck, but the wood had rotted, leaving the decks structurally unsound. So each deck was removed and carefully rebuilt in the same footprint.

The windows were also renovated. Those that were steel had their frames cleaned and single pane glass panels replaced, while those made of wood were removed and replaced with steel. But the most noticeable exterior change resulted when the painters arrived to freshen the battleship-gray siding. “They started scraping away the peeling paint and discovered that the material underneath was redwood,” Bassam says.

Intrigued, they had the gray paint removed entirely, and what they found underneath were flawless panels of quarter-sawn redwood planks. “The wood in its natural state was so beautiful that we decided to leave it,” Fellows states. “This type of work could never be replicated today. The material just doesn’t exist.”

The end result: a contemporary home with timeless appeal. “A lot of contemporary design today is driven by novelty, but this is not,” Fellows says. “Instead of trendy finishes and fittings, we selected timeless materials such as glass, tile and marble that will stand the test of time.”