HOUSE TOUR: Modern homes in Seattle
ELLE DECOR: This home is in Seattle’s North Capitol Hill neighborhood. How would you describe the area?
TOM KUNDIG: It’s an older neighborhood, with a large number of homes from the 1920s and ’30s, some of them quite stately. Like many neighborhoods in Seattle, it has a mix of upper-, middle-, and lower-income families, and modern residences alongside traditional ones.
ED: And what about the house itself?
TK: It was a typical cedar-sided ’70s contemporary. When the owner bought it, it was basically falling apart. But before we came on the scene, she had done a lot of work to make it stable, and had brought in a designer, Janice Viekman, to create a design she could enjoy.
ED: What did she want you to do with it?
TK: The client’s brief was to open it up and provide more light. She loved the contemporary aesthetic but wanted to take the house to another level. She knew my work but was unsure if I would be interested in a remodel. She wasn’t sure that there was enough to work with, that I could make something out of the place that we could both be proud of. I thought there was.
ED: Was it a complete house remodel?
TK: Yes and no. Changes were made in all parts of the house, but we didn’t change the entire house. I looked for the moments where I could make the greatest impact. No rooms were actually refigured, although we did open up the rooms to one another.
ED: What were the biggest changes?
TK: I would say the two areas that were highest on my list of priorities were the detailing of the house throughout, and expanding the ways in which the house opened itself to the outdoors.
ED: Is that triangular wing at the back yours?
TK: No, that was done in a prior renovation, but we opened it up, along with the rest of the rear wall. We added a series of sliding and pivoting doors, as well as the large jalousie window in the living room. The original openings of the house were not particularly generous or well-proportioned.
ED: What initially inspired your signature style of opening the insides of the houses you design to the outside?
TK: When I was a kid I always wanted to be outside. My father was an architect, and I grew up around midcentury modern houses, which are touted for their indoor-outdoor connection. But actual access was often very stingy—you might have a small door to the patio at one end of a wall of glass. New technologies make it possible to have much bigger openings and still be energy efficient.
ED: Even in a climate like Seattle?
TK: Well, Seattle gets a bad rap. It’s not nearly as rainy as most people think, and it’s a very mild climate. It’s possible to spend time outside most of the year. And our client wanted to be able to use the outdoor space as if it were a part of the house, rather than apart from the house.
ED: Was the jalousie window your idea?
TK: Yes, in concept and direction, but I worked with Phil Turner on the engineering, which is no small part of the design. He’s a genius of geometry, physics, engineering, and mechanical strategies. When he retired from his own company, he came on staff at Olson Kundig, where his title is “gizmologist.”
ED: Who designed the fireplace?
TK: We augmented a fireplace that was already there, adding some drama and taking advantage of the room’s double height. The surround is mild steel, which is relatively economical.
ED: And did you specify a different finish on the center panel to give you a pattern?
TK: No, that’s just how the steel came from the factory. The imperfections and variations of steel are part of what I like about it. And the center panel just happened to be a different color. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been one of the side panels, either. I like asymmetry.
ED: What is it you like about steel?
TK: I like the texture, the patterns, the burn marks and mottling on the surface. I think steel is quite beautiful. When finished correctly, it’s not aggressive or cold. I think it’s warmer and softer looking than polished granite or mirror. I like to balance steel and wood. I think of it as a yin-yang balance of the natural and the man-made, the timeless and the contemporary.
ED: And what was the guiding principle in choosing the furniture?
TK: That was the work of Debbie Kennedy, Olson Kundig’s co-director of interiors. The client likes neutrals, grays, and blacks, and simple, classic lines that go with the house. Most of the living room furniture is Christian Liaigre. We designed the coffee table. We were also trying to maintain continuity between our work and Janice Viekman’s design.
ED: What was the inspiration for what you call the “karuma chest” home office?
TK: Well, it’s not really a karuma chest, of course, which is an ancient form of Asian furniture. Let’s say it was inspired by a karuma chest, a box on wheels. We talked about an office, but my client said, “I use my office a lot, and I want to work in the room I like the best.” So we came up with this plan. She can work in the living area and be able to close up her workstation when entertaining. And it was perfect for me because I always want things to move and change and reconfigure themselves. It keeps life interesting.
WHAT THE PROS KNOW
• As part of his strategy for softening the transition between the living room and the backyard deck and pool, Tom Kundig designed an overscale curtain to work in concert with a series of new windows. The curtain is made of anodized aluminum mesh. Aesthetically it makes the outside seem more like a traditional indoor space. It also serves to filter light, soften breezes, and screen insects.
• The client wanted to maximize light throughout the house, and Kundig invariably strives to maximize visual and physical access to the outdoors. In designing the bookcases for the home’s library, the architect included small rectangular windows that help balance the asymmetrical composition and offer glimpses of the landscape.
• In remodeling a home, says Kundig, costs can be kept down by preserving things that don’t need replacing. In this home, he added kitchen storage but kept the existing cabinets, painting all the units a dark neutral tone and adding new pulls, as well as installing stainless steel countertops and appliances for a brand-new look.