Andersson-Wise reinvents a 1980's house in Austin as a serene haven for art
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 10/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
When Nona Niland, MD, had two sons growing up, the family's 1980's postmodern house in Austin, Texas, worked well enough—the floor plan was easy and open, and there was a huge swimming pool in the front yard. With the kids almost out of high school, though, Niland thought it was time for the house to grow up, too. So she brought in a friend's firm, Andersson-Wise Architects, to transform the rambling 6,500-square-foot structure into a cohesive series of gallerylike yet intimate spaces and, in the process, resolve the long-standing issues of uncomfortable proportions, ill-conceived skylights, and awkward circulation patterns.
Arthur Andersson is the firm's design vision, while Christian Wise focuses on structural issues. Together, the architects set out to create greater privacy for the bedrooms and to establish a separation between the first floor's living and dining areas—endowing each new room with proportions conducive to comfortable seating arrangements. Andersson-Wise also enclosed the loft guest suite above and moved the stairs from the back of the living room to a less obtrusive spot nearby, gaining space for a banquette and eliminating flow-through traffic. The new configuration required ripping out the three-zone HVAC system and upgrading to a more efficient five-zone one, which also entailed reinsulating the walls.
Although windows are usually an asset, that wasn't the case here. "There were too many places for the sun to come in," Niland says. "We went through a process of selective extraction." Among the keepers were a pair of north-facing windows in the living room, over the banquette—one of the softer furnishings contributed by Holden & Dupuy Interior Design. In the master bath, the architects reglazed the north windows with super-clear low-iron glass to "get the true color of the bamboo outside," Niland says. Most problematic were several south-facing skylights, which sent the harsh Texas sun "bouncing all around the place, like a shotgun blast," Andersson recalls. "You literally could not sit in the living area at times." To combat the problem, he and Wise devised floating ceiling panels that capture and diffuse the light, sending it gently down the walls. Both the panels and the walls are finished in white Venetian plaster coated with beeswax, a subtly luminescent backdrop for Niland's collection of art and artifacts. In the living room, incandescent spotlights are tucked virtually out of sight between the panels and walls, eliminating the need for unsightly can lights.
To contrast with the white walls, Andersson stripped the original oak floors, ebonized them, and coated them with beeswax as well. "Urethane is evil stuff. It seals the wood, so it can't breathe. In the summer months, the wood doesn't know what to do, which is why it swells and buckles," he explains. "A waxed floor can breathe, and the wood can move around from season to season."
"Organic" is how Niland describes the way in which she and Andersson installed her art collection: "Everything draws inspiration thematically from the natural environment." Although he didn't design the rooms around the art, he did create elevations with an eye toward large expanses of white, to be punctuated by a single work. He then steered her toward dealers he thought she would like. "Arthur," she says, "has a sculptor's aesthetic." Or perhaps a philosopher's, judging by one detail in the master bedroom. In an illuminated square niche carved high in a wall, she perched a glass bird sculpture—a touch inspired in part by philosopher Gaston Bachelard's idea that rooms must have "aspects where the imagination can alight," Andersson explains. (He often refers to his dog-eared translation of Bachelard's La Poétique de l'Espace.)
The exterior overhaul began with the main entry. "You had to go up the stairs next to the pool to find it," Wise recalls. "There was no obvious entry point, which was confusing." To redirect foot traffic and make the front door more prominent, Andersson-Wise reduced the size of the pool by half, trimmed its excess angles into a simple rectangle, and redid the remainder in unobtrusive slate and black-tinted plaster. "I was less interested in having all of this recreational activity out front," Niland says. "The pool is more of a landscape feature now." Adding to the relaxing atmosphere are an ipé deck and a hot tub, set in an open-sided pavilion.
Andersson describes his own work as more minimalist than that of his late colleague Charles Moore: "He had such a strong sense of personal style that his rooms could get kind of wacky." Nevertheless, Andersson adds, both his designs and Moore's are born of the same desire for a space "where your mind can wander." As the great Bachelard himself once wrote, "If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: The house shelters daydreaming. . . .the house allows one to dream in peace."