Away From it All
To upgrade her weekend getaway on Washington's Orcas Island, Rysia Suchecka of NBBJ called on a neighbor from Heliotrope Architects.
Lawrence W. Cheek -- Interior Design, 3/1/2011 2:27:00 PM
Living on an island is all about simplifying: distilling to essentials, excluding clutter in both physical surroundings and daily routine. Designers who are intimately familiar with island life understand this fundamental truth, and their work is better for it. Interior Design Hall of Fame member Rysia Suchecka's weekend home on Washington's Orcas Island couldn't be more basic in concept. Think transparent boxcar enclosing smaller, translucent boxcar, and you've got the gist.
As an NBBJ design partner, Suchecka has the professional expertise to analyze any architectural scenario. In this case, she also had a deep emotional connection to what the site needed. For almost 30 years, she and her environmental-engineer husband, John Warburton, had been spending weekends there in a prefab cabin-"miserable in winter," she says. Former NBBJ senior associate Joe Herrin, called in by Suchecka as the project's architect, likewise knew the place well. He weekends in a nearby cabin, and the firm he cofounded, Heliotrope Architects, is currently designing its fifth house on the island for a client.
The site, once a camp for the Lummi Indian tribe, looks across a beach to British Columbia's Strait of Georgia. Inland is a meadow with promising exposure for the house's green roof and solar hydronic heating system. Suchecka and Herrin conceived the most transparent, geometrically uncomplicated, minimally invasive 2,100-square-foot structure possible to insert between meadow and sea. If the climate were just a little more welcoming, they would have built a pavilion. "I'd love a wall-less home, just a roof over the head, so you could be continually aware of what's going on outside, what nature is offering," Suchecka says. To that end, the long sides of the boxcar are largely floor-to-ceiling glass.
To preserve as much interior openness as possible, all the utilitarian stuff of life-food, clothes, plumbing-is organized inside the smaller boxcar placed between the public space and the master bedroom, with a hallway on each side. The glass walls and sliding doors of this freestanding box are translucent or transparent, consistent with the theme of free flow though perhaps not consistent with some people's sense of privacy. Except for two layers of glass and some white sheers, there's not a thing between the tub and the hallway and, beyond that, the beach. But the beach is fairly exclusive, the wild brush is waist-high, and Suchecka and her husband, both Europeans, are not hobbled by American notions of modesty. In fact, though the side hallways to the master suite are equipped with rolling pocket doors, Suchecka reports never using them.
The layout positively bursts with unconventional features. "I hate fridges," Suchecka declares. So refrigerated drawers hide in the kitchen island, while the main refrigerator-freezer is exiled to the pantry. Twin sinks live in the master bedroom, not the master bath, because she and her husband find brushing and grooming to be functions more naturally integrated into bedroom life. The two mirror-image guest rooms are essentially an independent entity, secluded at the opposite end of the box and entered only from doors off the decks outside the living area. Each guest room has its own WC, but the double shower in the middle is shared. Suchecka uses one of the rooms as her weekend office, which is why, during construction, she belatedly ordered a vertical sliver of a window to be cut in the wall facing the water and the San Juan Islands' stunning sunsets.
Suchecka designed most of the furniture herself, and she expressed her commitment to the community by having pieces built by an island cabinetmaker. His son took on the built-in beds and the entire freestanding box, including glasswork. "It's a pretty complicated piece. For him, though, there's no such word as complicated," Herrin says. There are no affectations in the detailing, but the plainness demanded meticulous execution. In the dressing room, Suchecka decided to expose the shelving's plywood end grain as a decorative element. Thanks to the craftsmanship, the grain looks as smart as an Italian pinstripe suit.
The palette of materials and colors is as pared-down as possible. Most of the flooring and woodwork is alder, a hardwood that grows like a weed in the Northwest-and, until recently, was regarded as one. However, considered more charitably as a poor man's maple, alder actually serves very well for unfussy furniture, thanks to the elegantly fluid grain patterns and warm honey tones. The dining table is composed of 12-foot-long, 15-inch-wide planks from a storm-felled alder, its spalted wriggles highlighted by a light rinse of whitewash.
In this deceptively simple dwelling, an unspoken force is at work: It might be best expressed by the word acceptance. The house readily accepts the natural forces swirling around it. Originally intended as a summer retreat, it's just as comfortable-and even more dramatic-during dark winter storms, the couple has found. The openness accepts whatever either the owners or their guests bring to it. Tellingly, Suchecka recalls that, when her grandchildren visited for the first time, they said they felt like "free birds" even indoors. Which sounds like the very essence of island life.
Photography by Sean Airhart.
steve brown: heliotrope architects. swenson say fagét: structural engineer. north star marble & granite: stonework. david shore construction: general contractor.
TECH LIGHTING: PENDANT FIXTURES (DINING AREA).
KRISTALIA: CHAIRS (DINING AREA, GUEST ROOM).
ANDREU WORLD: STOOLS (KITCHEN).
JENN-AIR: REFRIGERATOR (PANTRY).
FOLGER & BURT ARCHITECTURAL HARDWARE: DRAWER PULLS (PANTRY, KITCHEN, DRESSING ROOM, MASTER BEDROOM).
AXIS LIGHTING: LINEAR FIXTURES (PANTRY, DRESSING ROOM).
FABER: HOOD (KITCHEN).
DCS BY FISHER & PAYKEL APPLIANCES: RANGE. FLEXFORM: SOFAS (LIVING AREA).
C. JAMES COLLECTION: CUSTOM RUG.
LACAVA: SHOWER FITTINGS (GUEST BATHROOM), SINK (MASTER BATHROOM).
HERMAN MILLER: STOOL (DRESSING ROOM).
JANUS ET CIE: CHAIRS (EXTERIOR).
WETSTYLE: TUB (MASTER BATH ROOM).
DORNBRACHT: TUB FITTINGS, SHOWER FITTINGS, SINK FITTINGS (MASTER BATHROOM), SINK FITTINGS (MASTER BEDROOM).
VISUAL LIGHTING TECHNOLOGIES: READING LAMPS (GUEST ROOM).
ARCHITEX INTERNATIONAL: CURTAIN FABRIC.
FLEETWOOD WINDOWS & DOORS: CUSTOM WINDOWS.
CONTECH CONSTRUCTION PRODUCTS: RECESSED CEILING FIXTURES.
OREGON LUMBER COMPANY: WOOD FLOORING.