Modernist knockoff, redux

In 1948, modernist architect (and Bauhaus graduate) Marcel Breuer was commissioned by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to design and build a prototype home for the modern American family in the museum’s garden. It took only four years for an unauthorized copy of that design to hit the then U.S. territory of Alaska (still five years from statehood). The resulting house was recently revitalized, with a renovation illustrating the timeless appeal of a design that’s more than 60 years old.

The kitchen and living area became the centerpiece of this home’s extensive renovation, and, possibly, the renovation’s biggest departure from Breuer’s original vision. Despite all the talk of open floor plans, many early modernists — apparently, Breuer (or, at least, his Alaskan imitator) among them — hid away functional areas, such as kitchens. The original in this residence was small enough to have doubled as a furnace room. Now, the kitchen opens to an adjacent great room to create the entertainment area the home’s new owners sought.


Centering around an island

At the center of this wide-open space is a walnut butcher-block island, in an L-shape that comes close to outlining where the walls of the original kitchen stood. Jana Seda, interior designer with the project’s general contractor, Trailboss Solutions, describes the reasons for the island’s prominence. “It was important for [the space] to be open and welcoming, and they wanted an island at the center of it. And because [one of the owners] is an architect, he had some very particular ideas.”

That owner, Dan Seiser, is a partner in the Anchorage-based firm Bezak Durst Seiser. It was a new experience for Seda to work so closely with a client who also was an architect with a broad vision and a fine eye for detail.

The big-picture element can be seen in Seiser’s ability to envision a full palette of pattern and color in a single material — wood in this case — and to master the detail of each surface’s graining to keep it all from becoming the architectural equivalent of stripes and plaids. The space is filled with wood, from oak flooring to engineered-maple ceiling, with varieties of cherry cabinetry and walnut butcher block in between.

The ceiling, in particular, is unique. In a land where lodge-style tongue-and-groove pine ceilings are common, this narrow-board engineered maple appears much more refined. It also calls attention to a signature Breuer element, the butterfly-wing pattern of the roofline. Breuer’s major home design innovation was a plan that concentrated communal space in the middle — or heart — of a home, with wings at either end for a master suite and children’s bedrooms. Ceiling heights are correspondingly lower in the communal area and higher at either end, an approach made more obvious with a standout ceiling than it would be with simple gypsum board.

“Usually people tend to shy away from this much wood because they’re afraid of the grain,” Seda says.


Hidden elements

“It was such a constantly moving project,” she says. For example, Seiser has an architect’s fondness for clean lines and abhorrence of clutter, despite being a cook that needs certain appliances, such as the much loved KitchenAid stand mixer, close at hand. The solution was an appliance garage fronted by a removable cutting-board “driveway” that hides the “trench” in which the mixer resides when not in use.

“It’s basically a little puzzle piece, but that KitchenAid trench was always a part of it,” Seda says. And it wasn’t alone; to continue with the garage metaphor, this was a multi-vehicle kitchen. “There’s a little home for everything, and we had to do a lot of little homes.”

Even the big-screen television is hidden away behind a sliding wood panel over the seating area’s fireplace. “Every day he thought of something else,” Seda says.

Lighting also plays an important role in the plans. It’s arranged in tiers that include spot fixtures and downlight cans. “Dan worked very closely with the electrician,” Seda notes. “All the cans have stainless baffles, so they disappear into the wood.”

One fixture that doesn’t disappear, however, is the Pirce suspension luminaire that adds even more drama to the darkly stained walnut island. This sculptural piece was designed for Artemide by Italian artist Giuseppe Maurizio Scutella. It also finds a perfect foil in the gentle, matching curves of the stools circling the island, below.

Considering this redesigned space as a whole, this combined kitchen and entertaining area could seem a much more apt example of the classic architecture guideline that form should follow function than the original faux-Breuer scheme. And it certainly embodies the philosophy of one of Breuer’s more famous Bauhaus cohorts. One can certainly say that, in this house, God (as Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe was famous for saying) is in the details. QR


Chuck Ross writes from Brewster, Mass., about remodeling and design.