Life in Neutral
Moving home design forward by restricting color (and clutter)
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.
As for the pace of things, Michael Pearl says, “We were eager to get out of our condo at Avalon in New Canaan, so we put the project on a fast track.” That track ran for just over a year, with the Pearls, who are the home’s third owners, moving in for the final phase and doing some of the interior painting themselves, attending weekly meetings on site and sourcing any needed materials or objects—art, luminous globe-shaped pendants, leather sofas and chairs.
The principal changes Earls made to the existing house, with the Pearls’ enthusiastic input, were as follows: an overhaul of the HVAC system whereby a trench was dug around the perimeter of the interior to accommodate a pipe that provided radiant heat; an aerating of the front stair to make it into a more open and welcoming ascent of floating treads with no risers; the addition of 600 square feet to bring the total square footage to 3,150, including a gym; a new kitchen; streamlined cabinetry; and the elimination of two of the five bedrooms to bring the total down to three. (The Pearls, who have several grandchildren, say that three bedrooms—and the indestructible nature of the interiors—more than accommodate visiting mischief.)
“I was working on a traditional home at the same time,” says Earls, who designs in a variety of genres and on residential, commercial and institutional projects. “So it was interesting to turn my mind around and consider the cleanness of a space versus carpentry details. It was fascinating because it drew my eyes outside.”
The finished compound, a geometric arrangement of two white-stucco boxes with a main axis that extends from a vaulted living room to dining room, kitchen and family room, occupies a secluded rise in a wooded enclave of houses of a similar vintage. It’s arranged almost like an oblong viewing station, where, through large, double-height windows, occupants can glimpse a lawn sculpted with shrubbery and rock outcroppings as well as a pool, the path to which Jeannie designed.
And the house is full of pleasant surprises—a cabled glass portico over the main entry; a ribbon of fire set into the wall in the intimate family room where a pair of backless red swivel chairs increase the seating capacity; an upstairs balcony that overlooks flower beds and the pool; an in-home gym worthy of a membership card; and, collegiate basketball star Michael’s favorite amenity by far: half a regulation-size basketball court that can be transformed into a volleyball, tennis or badminton court. The entire sportsplex is based on non-skid mesh marked for each game and ideal for drainage. “On weekends I hear the dribbling and I know Michael is out there,” says Jeannie.
An avid cook who, like her husband follows the Paleo diet, Jeannie delights in her functional new kitchen which allows her to converse with guests in the family room over a tall island that doubles as a bar for snacks and wine. Michael, a committed photographer, enjoys printing in the petite but tidy upstairs office his images of graffiti, like the murals that recently perished at 5 Pointz, the street-art mecca in Long Island City, Queens. (For the record, he says he’s never caught on camera a piece engineered by Banksy.)
“There’s peace in the lack of clutter,” Jeannie says, while perched on a black leather Barcelona chair inside the box of light that is the living room, thanks to southeasterly exposure that brings sunrise up over the rear of the house. “The white, the gray, the black, it’s peaceful. Lots of color is not relaxing to us.”
Michael agrees. “At the office, the desk can be in disarray. I don’t care for that and neither does Jeannie.”
The self-invented interior designers stuck to the tri-color palette of white, black and red that delivers the richness of a juicy pomegranate seed because of the judiciousness with which they have used it. The red is most prominent in a glass sideboard in the dining room, pendant light fixtures above the kitchen island, and whimsical wind sculptures by local artist Drew Klotz—one that accessorizes the front entry, and another that stands guard over the pool in the backyard. The Pearls procured work by another member of the Klotz family. A painting by Audrey Klotz, Drew’s wife, hangs over the fireplace in the dining room. “We think [Drew’s] sculptures and [Audrey’s] paintings work well together,” says Jeannie, who describes herself and her husband as fans of the urban pop art embodied in a piece by Rascal that hangs on the wall.
The owners’ contentment mirrors that of the architect. “Who you’re working with makes all the difference in the world,” says Earls. “It may be a modest budget, but, if they’re into it and appreciate it and trust you a little bit, it’s exciting to know you’re in tune with them.”
Let the concert begin.