Butterflies are free
Wings, cocoons, and insect legs take flight at Laurie Chetwood's weekend house in Surrey, U.K.
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 3/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Less is sometimes a snore—hence the provocative weekend house that Laurie Chetwood renovated for his family. No machine for living in, it's more of an experimental living sculpture. "Tapping into a sixth sense, enhancing quality of life. These are issues I tried desperately to put my finger on," explains the architect, chairman of Chetwood Associates.
It took more than five years to reinvent the cedar-shingled house, built in 1930 for London's Ideal Home Show and subsequently dismantled and re- assembled in the Surrey countryside. "Chintzy and cottage-y" is how Chetwood describes the place when he purchased it. However, local planning authorities had protected it from demolition, meaning that the shell would have to remain. Refusing to be discouraged, Chetwood nevertheless transformed the structure beyond recognition, following a curious zoomorphic scheme.
"An ecological study determined that the land made an ideal butterfly habitat," he explains. "So we took the insect's life cycle as a casual metaphor, threading it through from the landscaping to the interior." The symbolism begins at arrival, with the walkway that leads from the driveway to the house. This cocoonlike steel-ribbed bridge, interwoven with colored fiber-optic lights, crawls splay-legged across a front yard teeming with nettles planted to encourage butterfly egg laying.
The bridge culminates at a skylit atrium entry pierced by an exuberant staircase. Steel treads mimic the form and patterning of swallowtail butterfly wings, while the expressionistic handrail—a concatenation of stainless-steel cables, fiberglass fishing rods, and copper pipes funneling recycled "gray water" to the garden—celebrates the energy expended during the chrysalis stage. "My design is intricate, overt, and a bit excessive," Chetwood 'concedes with delight. "At times, I probably went too far!"
The stair descends to the 740-square-foot house's main level, a free-flowing space divided by rotating full-height partitions that Chetwood likens to a plane's airfoils. Made of environmentally friendly Hostaglas extruded plastic, hand-painted with ghostly swallowtail patterning, the five hollow fluorescent-lit forms act as both lamps and storage units.
In the mod living area, Chetwood stretched bungee cords from floor to ceiling to support rocking seats—and break up a topography of shag-lined conversation pits and painted-wood platforms strewn with leather-covered cushions. "The idea was to treat furniture as an amorphous surface integrated into the interior structure," he explains. "My initial concept was an undulating landscape of solid rubber tubing, like a field of corn, so you could just flop in anywhere you wanted. But it turned out that we'd need four miles of tubing and three full years to complete it."
Chetwood is not one to shy away from labor-intensive fabrication, though. Every element of his fully customized house is a prototype, tested and tweaked on-site to avoid cost-prohibitive outsourcing. ("I did much of the arty work myself.") Take the sinuous kitchen island, whose five evenly spaced laminated-glass tiers and integrated sink are supported by an angular explosion of stainless-steel rods. "We kept inserting them until eventually the thing stood up," he recalls. Stainless-steel cables descend in networks, marionettelike, to support the cantilevered bed in the master bed- room and a layered glass tabletop in the conservatory on the lower level.
To shade the conservatory and rear terrace, Chetwood installed wing-shape canopies of Kevlar bonded to swallowtail-patterned film of transparent plastic. "The product had never been used on Kevlar before, but the company was game to give it a go," he says. Luckily, it ' took—not only for the canopies but also for a "poor man's stained-glass window" in the master bedroom.
With resale value not a concern, Chetwood was liberated to conduct at-home tests of ideas and materials for various large-scale developments and commercial projects. He subsequently used the storage partitions' extruded plastic at a Sainsbury's supermarket short-listed for the Stirling Prize. And the Surrey house's ventilation-maximizing exterior louvers have resurfaced at his Zetter hotel conversion in London.
But exploiting the house as an R&D lab does entail certain risk factors—especially with two children, aged 3 and 5, scampering about the jagged edges and the meandering stairs between multiple levels. "My wife and I have to remember not to get out of bed too quickly at night. Otherwise, we'd get lashed by the cables," he offers as an example. "It doesn't necessarily follow, though, that if you have a dangerous house you're actually going to fall afoul of it." In fact, he says, all four Chetwoods have adapted, coming to view the offbeat environment as their natural habitat.