Most architects would be pleased to design a weekend house for loyal clients in a picturesque country setting. But when Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown heard that Josie and Ken Natori wanted a Japanese-style modernist retreat, it gave them pause. The partners in the New York–based Tsao & McKown Architects, feared creating something that looked like a set from Teahouse of the August Moon, especially in the village of Pound Ridge, an hour north of New York City, known for its charming old fieldstone and clapboard houses. “We didn’t want to do Disney,” says Tsao.

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Of course, the Natoris didn’t want that either. But Josie, the Filipino-born lingerie designer, and Ken, a third-generation Japanese American and her company’s chairman, did have an affinity for the wood framing, delicate details, and flowing spaces of traditional Japanese architecture, along with a wish for easy connections to the outdoors. While neither Tsao (born in Hong Kong and schooled in the U.S.) nor McKown (raised in South Carolina) claimed to have personal experience with Japanese architecture, they are both familiar with Asian cultures through their travels and tastes. In the end, they came up with a discreet and elegant solution. “We sought to create the feeling of Japanese architecture, but not replicate a style,” says Tsao. The evolution of the design was immeasurably aided by the close relationship of the architects to the clients: they had designed residences for the couple in New York and Palm Beach, as well as show rooms and boutiques for the Natori fashion business. “It is a real joy to work with architects who understand what you have in mind,” says Josie. “Calvin can finish my sentences.”

The 29-acre property, studded with rocky outcroppings as well as pines, birches, and hemlocks, came with a pre-Revolutionary house near the road where the Natoris had spent weekends since buying the place in 1984. While the cottage had been remodeled over time, it stayed true to the town’s historic character. When the couple finally decided that small windows and separate rooms, however quaint, were too claustrophobic, they turned it over to their son and his family, and contacted their architects.

After closely studying the grounds, Tsao and McKown decided the house should be set on a ledge of glacial rock, looking down a slope toward the original house, a pond, and the road. “The actual siting was the exciting part,” says McKown about finding the right location where the architecture could act as an extension of the natural landscape.

The house itself is simple and informal: a one-story, one-bedroom dwelling composed of a series of rectangular volumes that extend in a line across the crest of the ridge. The Douglas fir post-and-beam structure is wrapped largely in expanses of double glazing, while wood pergolas shade terraces and the long entrance ramp. Inside, interlocking, light-filled pavilion-like rooms open onto each other, yet each has its own distinct spatial quality. The architects positioned two 16-by-18-foot angled skylights—one above the dining area and one above the living room—to amplify the ceiling heights and suffuse the interiors with daylight, giving those spaces a sense of calm and clarity. The light seems to emphasize both the lines of the refined wood structure and the serpentine curves of the sofas and chairs.

While the exposed timber structure gives the architecture a lightness, the reality of the loads from the steel, copper, and wood-framed skylights had to be addressed. Working with Silman engineers, the architects found a structural system to replace the traditional wood dovetail joinery throughout the house: it is formed of steel plates that carry perpendicular and parallel loads and can be subjected to tension and compression without being visible. “We also found this solution allowed fast assembly and installation,” says project manager Jonathan Hoover. The team employed a shear wall system to supplement the timber construction, one that came with integrated channels for electrical wiring and plumbing. In addition, the architects capped the columns and beams with decorative wood over the exposed timber to create a thermal break between the outer surface and the actual structure. A burned finish for the Douglas fir—a favored Japanese technique—darkens the grain of the gray-brown wood.

The project turned into a Gesamtkunstwerk, with Tsao and McKown designing most of the furnishings and fittings. While there were some exceptions (a baby grand piano, a George Nakashima desk, chairs by Nanna Ditzel, overhead lighting by Edison Price, and a number of antiques) the amount of custom work was unusual. The juxtaposition of unique sculptural chairs and sofas against a background of linear framing elements results in a luxurious understated ambience heightened by a carefully conjured color scheme of gold, pale purple, and green for textiles and carpets. The architects designed the shimmering resin-and-bronze dining table to precisely match the warm gold upholstery of the custom chairs. In the master bedroom suite, a freestanding case of dark brown lacquered wood frames the bed and the headboard fashioned from antique wall panels.

Outdoors, just beyond the bedroom suite, Tsao created a protected garden with earth excavated for the house’s construction, forming berms that echo the contours of the topography elsewhere on the property. Continuing around part of the exterior, this cultivated area forms a buffer between the house and the land in back, where tall trees loom.

The combination of old and new, Japanese artifacts and midcentury-style furnishings goes a long way to make the argument that this is not a replica of anything, but, instead, is a singular expression. The architects have created a distinctive response to the Natoris’ wishes, one that reflects in its entirety their clients’ wishes—in a process, as Tsao points out, that is really like painting their portrait. “We feel like John Singer Sargent,” he says.

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Tsao & McKown Architects— Calvin Tsao, Zack McKown, principals; Jonathan Hoover, project manager, architecture; Richard Rhodes, project manager, interior design



Silman (structural);

CES Engineers (m/e/p);

Geodesign (geotechnical)



Lighting: WALD Studio

Project and Cost Manager: Gardiner and Theobold Inc.

Window Manufacturer: Quantum Windows & Doors

Specification Services: CSI

Zoning and Septic: Bibbo Associates, L.L.P.


General contractor:

Prutting and Company

Jack Truman (project manager)

Daniel Fronc (job supervisor)


Structural System

Heavy timber framing: Architectural Timbers & Millwork, Inc.


Exterior Cladding

Masonry: Endicott Brick

Wood: Architectural Timbers & Millwork, Inc.

EIFS, ACM, or other: Cardillo Plastering, LLC



Tsao & McKown designed custom copper drain scuppers



Wood frame: Quantum

Metal frame: Quantum



Skylights: Kawneer



Keyaki wood temple gates: Shibui Inc.

Sliding doors: Quantum



Locksets: Omnia Industries, Inc

Entry Lockset: E.R. Butler

Tsao & McKown designed custom entry backplates: E.R. Butler

Pulls: Rocky Mountain Hardware

Spa Millwork hardware: Brass Center

Tsao & McKown designed custom recessed interior pulls: Wainland’s, Inc.


Interior Finishes

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: JG Ferro, Inc.

Paints and stains: Pratt & Lambert

Wood Flooring: Architectural Timbers & Millwork, Inc.

Master Bathroom Flooring: Silestone

Master Bathroom Walls and Counters: Corian

Interior and Exterior Window Shades: Distinctive Windows, Inc.



Office furniture:

Custom Study Desk: Nakashima Studio

Desk lamp: Vintage Aalto Prototype

Armchairs and ottomans: Designed by Tsao & McKown, fabricated by J&M Upholstery

Custom cabinet in solid wood w/ Shellac finish: designed by Tsao & McKown, fabricated by Carlton House Restoration

Living room

Coffee table: Purchased at Chista

Armchairs: Nanna Ditzel

Sofa, lounger and chaise: Designed by Tsao & McKown, fabricated by J&M Upholstery

Custom rug: Designed by Tsao & McKown, fabricated by Vanderhurd

Patio/Bedroom Spa Exterior

Outdoor chaise lounge: Axial by McGuire

Exterior bath tub: Ofuro type tub designed by Tsao & McKown


Bed from furniture grade birch veneered plywood, solid oak, solid poplar: Carlton House Restoration

Headboard: Designed by Tsao & McKown, incorporates antique painted Japanese wall panels formerly sliding doors

Custom made king size mattress and boxspring, J&M Upholstery

Lava Stone top coffee table: Tsao & McKown designed, Pyrolave top, Goss & Goss fabricated bronze base

Sofa: Tsao & McKown designed, J&M Upholstery fabricated

Convertible daybed/massage Table: Tsao & McKown designed, Sawkille fabricated


Resin & Bronze illuminated dining table: Tsao & McKown designed, Atta Studio resin top, Ferrra Designs bronze base

Dining chair: Tsao & McKown designed, J&M Upholstery fabricated

Credenza and cabinets incorporating antique Japanese cabinet: Custom T&M designed, Carlton House Restoration fabricated

Powder Room

Tsao & McKown designed custom mirror: Bark Frameworks fabricated

Living Room and Master Bedroom Fireplaces

Tsao & McKown designed custom fireplaces: Fiamma LLC



Custom light fixtures at Master headboard: Tsao & Mckown designed

Amsel Sconce: Kevin Reilly for Holly Hunt

Ceiling light at entry: Urban Archaeology

Vanity Lights at Master bath and powder room: Artemide

Ceiling lights at closets: Y-Lighting

Exterior: Amsel Sconce: Kevin Reilly for Holly Hunt

Driveway lights: Plug Lighting

Dimming and Electronic ballast: Osram Sylvania Dulux Ecologic


Tsao & McKown designed custom exterior Ipe Japanese Soaking Tub “Ofuru”: Wood of Maine, LLC fabricated

Tsao & McKown designed exterior pools and water, Meehan and Ramos Pools LLC fabricated

Toilet: Toto Washlet

Bathtub: Kohler Tea for Two

Washbasin: Duravit Vero

Water Closet: Toto NeoRest 550

Push Button Actuator: Geberit Tessera

Lavatory Faucet: Dornbracht Tara Logic

Shower control set/head: Dornbracht Tara

Kitchen sink: Franke Largo

Faucet/Rinsing Sprayer: Dornbracht



Geothermal system and radiant heat