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Life in Neutral

Moving home design forward by restricting color (and clutter)

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When contemplating a renovation, not every homeowner gets to enlist the architectural services of a scholar of the Harvard Five, the quintet of architects credited with pioneering the uncluttered forms and precise lines we associate with modern architecture some six decades later. But Jeannie and Michael Pearl did.

In 2007, when the couple bought this two-plus-acre lot in Weston (and the dilapidated 1968 home that sat on it), they hired their scholar, architect Bill Earls, whom they had met at a signing of his book, The Harvard Five in New Canaan: Midcentury Modern Houses by Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, and Others, at the New Canaan Historical Society. The sublime triumvirate had come together.    

“We had taken tours of midcentury houses for a couple of years and we thought that maybe we’d like to have one,” says Jeannie Pearl, a paralegal who works with her attorney husband in White Plains, New York. “But this property didn’t look like this back then.”

On his first visit to the house, Earls, whose eponymous firm is located in Wilton, encountered evidence of several post-construction tinkerings that had altered the essential spirit of the original house: putty-colored vertical siding; a washer and dryer hooked up in the dining room; and a large boxed duct that ran along the ceiling through the spine of the house, among others. In addition, the large windows had lost their seal and fogged up, shrubbery had encroached upon the foundation, and, this was the kicker, shag carpeting covered much of the flooring. “This house had a denial of materiality,” says Earls of what he admired about the original house. “It was getting back to the modern boxes, which were simple volumes done economically—not as an expression of materials.”

Just as few homeowners have the opportunity to work with such an expert in a particular vernacular, few architects are able to collaborate with clients so enthralled with the novel way in which an HVAC system is being installed, the beauty of a pivot hinge or the fractions of an inch required to achieve a flush or hovering look for closets. Nor is it universal that a client re-creates construction documents and furniture plans to scale just to facilitate her comprehension.