Harley Swedler builds a Long Island house in tribute to his family.
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 9/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
Harley Swedler calls the Woodbury, New York, residence he built and designed with his wife Jane the JAM house, and the acronym explains why a die-hard New York couple crossed the great divide between city and suburbs: JAM stands for the three young Swedler children, Jared, Andi, and Marlee. Need we say more?
Canadian by birth and an architect by profession, Swedler approached the move from a coveted West Village apartment to the North Shore of Long Island not only as a professional challenge, but also as a life-altering experience. Once the house was built, this Renaissance man would be free to pursue his other design interests and his passions—for family, home life, and entertainment. A self-described foodie, Swedler cooks daily epicurean meals for his family and several times a week for friends. This is the life of choice for the designer who began his career in Richard Meier's office and subsequently worked with Passanella + Klein Stolzman + Berg.
Swedler began the process of building his dream house "with something I never thought I'd do as a trained architect," he remarks. He drew diagrammatic sketches even before finding a location. He emphasized the universal efficiency of forms and systems rather than considerations of a specific site.
The house evolved from an elemental concept: "Two rectangular boxes [62 ft. long by 16 ft. wide] separated by a four-ft.-wide slot that distinguishes the two masses," Swedler explains. This skylight-capped spine not only allows light penetration, but also establishes a rationale for room divisions on upper and lower floors. No loft wannabe, this was to be a proper house with distinct but interconnected function areas. One volume houses the double-height living area, which soars to 22 ft., the adjacent dining room, and the den. The other accommodates an office, services, and the kitchen, purposely hidden from the dining room's sight lines. "I really cook and make a mess," Swedler comments. "I like my guests to be removed from it." Upstairs are bedrooms for family members plus guest quarters. Overall living space encompasses 4,000 sq. ft.
Having determined layout and forms, Swedler turned to details and materials. Abundant fenestration maximizes the daylight that is high on any homeowner's wish list. Swedler's resolution balances aesthetics and economic viability. "Windows are grouped together and not punched," he comments. "All glazing is one of two sizes, and consists of an aluminum and blue/green glass storefront system. This treatment brought the pricing down and improved the quality of design." Both volumes are clad with corrugated, galvanized-steel panels on a wood-frame structure with steel columns and beams providing structural support.
The house is a modern "machine for living," re-interpreted to accommodate young children. There are no fancy finishes, slabs of stone, or runs of stainless-steel cabinetry that would have been inconsistent with both budget and lifestyle. But Swedler had no intention of sacrificing "beauty, appeal, and interest." Maple flooring, white walls, and white "locker room" tiles in the baths establish a basic palette. The monochromatic envelope becomes exuberant in the kitchen. Checkerboards of color on the cabinets and the 15-seat custom table establish a light-hearted ambiance. Hard-pressed to pick just one laminate color from a selection of samples, Harley and Jane opted to use them all.
While sparse furnishings and artworks can indicate arch elitism, the Swedlers' approach is suited to the ease of family life. A few furniture classics from Italy are joined by John Parnell's enlarged photo of Japanese silver dollar leaves—mounted on a floating "billboard" wall in the living area to dramatic effect—and posters from the Gallerie Vivienne in Paris, where Harley and Jane make an annual pilgrimage. The living area also features a collection of artfully arranged stones on the floor. Harley and the children collected the "Noguchi-like pieces" on the shore of Lake Ontario and brought them home. "I took the center point of the room and made our own circle of stones," he says. "It's a bit of a sociological experiment. The kids have inherent respect for the stones. They've remained untouched for over a year."
Harley admits he was initially worried that his desire for simplicity and efficiency would be at odds with his obsession with detail, yielding a banal design solution. But the project, completed in nine months, demonstrates that his concern was unwarranted, as competing interests are integrated within a harmonious whole.