photographs by stacy bass
Much of Fairfield County’s recent residential construction remains within the sturdy, rectilinear confines of neo-Georgian and Federal design, with familiar symmetries of rooflines and openings. Creating a plan that provides more open flow between outdoors and indoors—one that employs a simpler geometry—is a path less taken in this corner of New England. Its rarity notwithstanding, one can always discover a few home owners willing to break from tradition and build in the modern idiom with noteworthy results.
One new house in Stamford, well removed from the main roads in the city’s northern reaches, delivers an exemplary taste of what contemporary design philosophy can create.
A view from the road, where geometry defines the distinctive modern exterior.
Its owners had already honed a preference for the kind of place that stands out among many attractive neighboring homes. Their previous house, the only glass-and-wood, mid-1960s modern home in an enclave of ranches and colonials of the same era, had provided much pleasure for their family. “It was our glass tree house in the woods,” recall Spencer and Andrea, “but we had outgrown it.” So they began to think seriously about building a larger house.
First came the search for land, and then the couple invited a number of high-profile architects to contemplate the contiguous pair of wooded lots they subsequently chose. The property featured two small hills with a ravine between them, forming a unique topography as the basis for a design. Spencer, who loves the clean lines and glass expanses of contemporary structures, had amassed a notebook of clippings and ideas that he liked. “We never lived in the city,” he admits, “but what we envisioned was an airy, loft-like space. So we looked for the person who could understand what we wanted and come up with a plan that would speak to our preferences.”
The couple’s search led them to Michael Gray, a New York–based architect with many completed projects in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. “Michael visited us at our previous home and asked many questions, not only about how we like to live, but also what we liked and disliked about the place,” recalls Andrea.
Michael Gray designed some of the home’s furnishings, including this kitchen table, fabricated by David Edelman of Edelman Metalworks. Red kitchen chairs from Design Within Reach and a pendant from Leucos provide curvy contrast to the space’s crisp lines.
“He wanted to understand our routines,” adds Spencer. “From all of these questions, he came up with a plan that showed how well he listened.”
Using his clients’ list of needs and wants—great natural light, good flow in the public spaces, plenty of storage for their family of five—Gray also addressed the features of the chosen double lot in his design. Instead of a single massive structure spanning the two hills, he designed two pavilions. One would contain guest quarters, and the other, larger form would enclose the public spaces and the family’s private areas. To connect the two, the architect proposed a glass-enclosed bridge that preserved the contours of the terrain below. Its placement would form an axis to unify the three elements in a dynamic balance that simultaneously hugs the land and fits the couple’s vision for their dream home.
“Everyone who made a proposal featured the two hills,” says Spencer, “but Michael understood that we wanted a strong connection between indoors and out, and between house and land. We wanted the structure in the land, not on top of it.” The large pavilion thus sits comfortably in its environment, but at the same time provides a memorable introduction to the house.
Recalls Gray: “Spencer takes architecture seriously, and from the beginning, one of his requirements for this house was that it make a bold statement.”
To achieve this, a winding drive from the street leads to a long stairway along the front elevation to the entry. This approach provides a formal introduction to the twenty-one-foot-high ceiling in the main living area. While it sounds intimidating, it is in fact breathtaking, with a large volume of space that becomes more embracing and relaxing as one enters. Furnishings are iconic but rendered in warm colors and soft textures. Ceilings are impossibly high, but the wraparound views of the natural landscape immediately set the visitor at ease.
Left: Pops of color introduce whimsy to the décor, as seen in the living room’s custom rug from Carini Lang and seating from Design Within Reach, including velvet chairs and sofa and a shaggy pouf made from old flip-flops. Right: A B&B Italia dining room table illuminated by a chandelier from WAC Lighting
“The site posed some real challenges,” notes Bill Marshall, principal of Artisans Home Builders and the general contractor on the project, “but ultimately the design worked very well. Michael did a great job, not only with the way it looks, but the way it flows.”
The open plan positions the dining area adjacent to the living room and a soaring hearth. Beyond these two areas, an expansive kitchen offers more great views to the forever-green conservancy land behind the house, and a dramatic poolscape that hugs the perimeter of the home’s most private elevation. “We entertain a great deal, and the arrangement of the space makes it wonderful for parties,” notes Spencer.
The couple specifically charged their architect with a number of must-haves, including the creation of understated but high-capacity storage for all the day-to-day clutter that might interrupt the crisp lines of windows and walls, which are deftly accented with expanses of natural stone and wood.
To incorporate natural light in all the rooms, Gray ingeniously deployed light that reflects down from upper-level skylights through glass panels set in upstairs flooring. This scheme washes daylight over the quartzite tile facing of the central hallway and powder room on the main level, bringing out the stone’s texture and subtle blue-green hues. “We do a lot of townhouses in New York,” notes the architect, “so we’ve learned to be resourceful to pull in daylight.”
To illuminate the house at night, Gray enlisted a lighting designer to specify a thoughtful schematic. With its grand expanses of glass, a nighttime view of the house reveals interior spaces that glow in the darkness of their woodland surroundings. Modern pendant fixtures sparkle like jewels to accent the areas where family and friends gather.
While the palette of colors and materials used in its construction were purposefully refined to create a clean and spare aesthetic that the couple wanted, the finished and furnished house has become a very personal expression of their interests and tastes. A smart selection of designer pieces and accessories from modern resources such as Cassina, B&B Italia and Design Within Reach add color and texture to the interiors. To accent the furniture groupings, Spencer and Andrea have installed modern artwork and one-of-a-kind accessories throughout the house, as well as individual examples and groupings of the primitive tribal masks from around the world that the couple has collected for many years.
“Contemporary houses are sometimes thought of as cold,” acknowledges Spencer, “but modern doesn’t mean barren.” He notes that he and his wife were determined to make their place a warm and very personal expression of their family life and the things they love.
Its distinctive form, beautiful setting and welcoming interiors have won many local admirers; though still one of the newer homes in Stamford, the house even earned a few moments of national attention. Not too long after it was finished, a scout for Everybody’s Fine—a 2009 film starring Robert de Niro—enlisted the house as a featured player in the movie.
“The plot was kind of dark,” says Spencer, “but the house looked great in it.”
As the production team readied this story for publication, we received word that a fire had occurred over the holidays, resulting in damage to the structure and some furnishings. Fortunately, no one was injured and the repair process has already begun, including the restoration of much of the family’s collection of modern and tribal art. “Although the house was damaged, our plan is to recreate it exactly as it was,” says the owner.