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.
Tsao & McKown Architects— Calvin Tsao, Zack McKown, principals; Jonathan Hoover, project manager, architecture; Richard Rhodes, project manager, interior design
CES Engineers (m/e/p);
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.
Prutting and Company
Jack Truman (project manager)
Daniel Fronc (job supervisor)
Heavy timber framing: Architectural Timbers & Millwork, Inc.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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