Living Large

The shortest distance between two points isn't always a straight line — especially if your taste is out of the ordinary. The road to Peter Smith's suburban sanctuary, for example, took a few detours. But the end result, he says, was worth the drive.

“I wanted a large, comfortable space with lots of land — a kind of getaway from city living,” the fortysomething executive explains. After touring several properties west of Boston that missed the mark, he was smitten by a sprawling, one-level contemporary with a staggering 18,000 square feet of floor space on a five-and-a-half-acre plot.

“It was unusual,” Smith says, referring primarily to the Japanese landscaping and the house's cavernous, sunlit atrium. “It matched my taste.” And it certainly was big. But comfortable? Not even close. “It was like a bunker,” says Amy Dumas Mall, a straight-talking designer for Roche-Bobois who helped infuse the dreary 1980s domicile with modern luxury.

“There was too much stone. Certain areas were too cold,” Smith says. The interior of the house got almost no natural light, making the long, narrow hallways and huge rooms look stark and barren. “It was so uninviting,” Dumas Mall recalls.

Smith's friends were skeptical of his Cinderella-story plan to transform the gangly manse into a designer showpiece. Walls would have to be torn down, windows carved out, and electrical problems reckoned with before the rooms — including a fuchsia and mauve art gallery the size of a basketball court — could be wrestled into the 21st century. But Smith was unfazed. “He's a problem solver by nature,” says Dumas Mall. “He saw the potential.”

“I want it to be cozy,” Smith told Dumas Mall when he hired her and Frederic Bay, another Roche-Bobois designer, to turn his dream house into a reality. Two different architects had drawn up renovation plans, both of which called for tacking on even more space with a second story. Concerned that such construction would drag on too long, Smith discarded their proposals, scaling back his changes to tearing down walls and cutting windows with the help of a contractor.

In the end, subtracting from — rather than adding to — the structure proved a winning strategy. “It has a natural, homey environment,” Smith says of the finished product. “I'm very happy with it.” Ten new oversized windows capture the sun and views of the Japanese gardens that surround the house. And thanks to strategically chosen paint and furniture, the building's size is now a strength instead of a weakness. Says Smith's wife, Sabrina, “The size calms you down.”

It wasn't always so. At first, the massive scale caused the couple nothing but anxiety. Sabrina's first reaction, she says: “How am I going to outfit seven bathrooms?” Dumas Mall was worried, too. “There was so much volume,” she remembers. “It was such a daunting task.” But the path was clear. “The lines and landscape smacked of Asian influences,” Dumas Mall says, recalling the lawn's tall, majestic pines and Japanese maples. “You could see the yearning for the house to go in this direction.”

Nowhere is that yearning stronger than in the atrium, a cavernous, glass-topped area that serves as the hub of the house. At 40 by 50 feet, it's enough to make anyone feel Lilliputian, were it not for the soothing Japanese garden and red benches at the edges. Before Smith redesigned it, the garden consisted of scattered rocks and tufts of greenery surrounded by a square pool with a bed of pebbles. He enlisted the landscape design firm Zen Associates to fill the space with tall, graceful bamboo trees, queen palms, baby tears, and creeping fig plants. The firm also added more boulders, confined the water to a small pool — complete with multicolored koi fish — and installed a stone path that runs down the center of the garden, creating a surreal homage to the lush oases that grace Japanese monasteries. The Eastern aesthetic is further ignited by bright red upholstered benches, bamboo ladders, and shojis, or Japanese screens, that slide back to reveal a wet bar.

Sabrina focused on filling in the details. With so much wall space to cover, she needed attractive artwork in large quantity. She found it at Complements, a Warwick, Rhode Island, gallery that designer Shirley Novack tipped her off to. (Novack also helped the Smiths select window treatments, cabinetry, and plants for their new quarters.) A dealer at the gallery who shared their taste for the modern steered them toward pieces for their living room, exercise room, and bedroom. “We're new at collecting,” Sabrina confesses, but her eye is that of a seasoned aficionado. The house brims with the bounty of the couple's travels: A trio of paintings found in a Stockholm gallery hold court on an arcing recessed wall in the dining room; a painting of fish like those in the atrium pool, the souvenir of a Hawaiian vacation, hangs beside the front door.

The most breathtaking scene, though, may be the one outside. “Peter is really into beautiful landscaping,” Sabrina says, surveying the Japanese maples and pine trees on the lawn, which slopes down to a pond. Nature has been infused inside, too. The living room, Smith's favorite spot, displays organic materials that pop up at every turn — Brazilian cherry floors, a cedar ceiling, and a stone fireplace — made cozy by large rectangular sofas and soft crimson pillows. The couple is drawn here when relatives visit, and it's here that they play heated games of Cranium on a square table meant for serving tea.

Smith invited nature into the pool area, too, with a poolside waterfall nestled between lush palm trees against the backdrop of pines in the yard. The house's linear character, defined by its high ceilings and long, narrow hallways, is softened here by the curves of the pool, where stone seats are grouped near the waterfall just beneath the water's surface.

Next to the pool, the exercise room is warmed by large windows and potted plants clustered around a Jacuzzi. It's a far cry from the space's previous incarnation — two offices with solid walls. “We decided, 'Okay, if we open windows here and there and take the walls away . . .'” Smith says, describing the facelift technique used in this room and throughout the house. On chilly days, the couple takes to the hot tub in this cozy haven for a glass of wine or to watch CNN on the wall-mounted television.

With or without the television, the themes of nature and Zen resound subtly — and not so subtly — in every room. Besides adding 10 enormous picture windows to showcase the Japanese landscaping outdoors, the renovation included installing shojis on many walls. (They also serve as doors.) Custom-made with rice paper-covered Plexiglas on cherry frames, the screens perpetuate the Asian look while warming up areas that might seem bleak for their expanse.

During the planning stages, Sabrina suggested erecting a wall to bisect the large master bedroom into separate sleeping and lounging areas and make it less daunting; her husband favored keeping it open. In the end, they decided to leave it alone, and now the space is segmented by plush couches near a fireplace, towering potted plants, and a fabric screen. “A nice alternative to a wall,” Sabrina explains. A row of floor-to-ceiling windows, which can be concealed by silk dupioni drapes, includes two sliding-glass doors that lead to the wraparound deck that circles the house. The bed is from Roche-Bobois's Voyages line, an ethnic, earthy collection with dark woods and richly colored fabrics that Dumas Mall drew on to outfit the house. “She has a very good eye,” Smith says appreciatively. “She used furniture as a tool in redesigning the house.” The help was welcome, Sabrina says. “I'm a novice. I know what I like, but it's a little overwhelming.” The couple relied on the designer for sofas, beds, chairs, tables, storage pieces — and advice. “She helped pick the paint colors,” says Smith, who speed-dialed the designer several times a day to talk shop. “She has very interesting taste, which matched exactly what we wanted.”

In addition to helping the Smiths find furniture and paint that suited them, Dumas Mall had a knack for illusion, making the long, skinny, ranch-style hallways seem wider by suggesting a different shade of white for each wall. The result is a harmony between design and décor that flows seamlessly through the house, from the soothing lavender and blue tones in the guest rooms to the fiery swaths of red in the living room.

The kitchen remained largely the same in the renovation, save for cosmetic fixes that calibrated its style to that of the rest of the house. A marble island was altered to allow extra leg room for four chairs; a tile backsplash was replaced with a brushed-steel model; and glass-and-wood cabinetry was added. (There's a butler's pantry for additional storage.) In the dining area, potted plants splash green against a casual wooden dining table, while a smaller table and a pair of armchairs made of woven Southeast Asian water hyacinth provide a more intimate setting. “This is where my mother always sits,” Sabrina says, smiling.

It's a comfortable kitchen, even when it's filled with company. Rather than fight guests' tendency to cling to the chef, the Smiths encourage it. “The kitchen is big enough,” Peter Smith says; so is the media room, which is designed purely for entertaining. A cluster of three separate areas — a home theater with a plasma TV, a billiards area, and a bar with a smaller plasma set — the media room is the ultimate cocktail-hour hangout, heated by a freestanding stone fireplace. The couple hosts dinner guests in the dining room, where a 12-foot-long glass table seats up to 18. Accommodating as it is, Sabrina acknowledges that the house's large scale still intimidates most visitors. “People think, Wow, it's so big,” she says. To her, the space instills serenity. “It's very peaceful,” she says.

While the renovation was fairly basic — tearing down walls and cutting out windows — there were still stumbling blocks. “As we were doing the design,” Sabrina recalls, “we said, 'This house is not conducive to having children.'” Two large rooms isolated the master bedroom from the other three, making trips between them inconvenient. Nor was the layout of the master bath ideal, down the hall as it was from the bedroom. “So we turned the master bath into a nursery,” Sabrina says. (Until the Smiths have kids, it will be her office.) The bedroom's narrow walk-in closet then became a master bath. That was easier said than done, though, given the long dimensions of the room. The solution: a double-entry shower in the middle, with individual sinks and toilets on either side.

Other obstacles arose as the journey progressed. “We found the original contractor,” Smith says, “but little was known about the wiring. We had to rediscover it. And every time we wanted to put in a new window, we had to do a nonstructural change.” Twice this meant abandoning plans for a window when the structure wouldn't allow it. These roadblocks, plus unwieldy electrical-access panels, slowed the redo, which took a year and a half to complete. Even after that, Sabrina remembers, “There were constantly little jobs.” The bluestone floors were sealed for easier cleaning. Wiring had to be finished.

It was worth the wait, though. Where solid walls once blocked light and scenery, broad windows now offer a portal to the outdoors. Rigid lines and cold hallways have given way to soft curves and warm color. “It's such a transformation,” Sabrina says. “It's a place to escape the chaos. That's what we were looking for.”

The Atrium

The atrium makes a dramatic first impression on visitors to Peter and Sabrina Smith's house, as it did on Peter himself when he first saw it. “I thought the atrium [would be] a really great place to entertain,” he says. He was right; “people start out there and they stay there.” In addition to offering the diversion of a walk-through Japanese garden — complete with a pool of fish — the atrium features a wet bar hidden behind Japanese screens on the right. The screens are functional both in purpose and also in décor, funneling warmth into a room that, like others in the house, needed it badly.

The Master Suite

“I always end up back here,” Sabrina says of the master suite, a 50-by-25-foot hideaway in the rear of the house. A fabric screen partially separates the bed from the lounging area, making the space more intimate. A window and a sliding door were added, and the screen above the bed is backlit for illumination.

The Living Room

To add warmth to the living room without sacrificing its minimalist look, designer Amy Dumas Mall complemented the rich hardwood flooring and dark cabinetry with angular furniture such as the tea table in the center of the room. A stone fireplace and cedar ceiling evoke the nature outside.

The Kitchen

Since company always migrates to the kitchen, the Smiths extended the marble island to accommodate seating. A stainless-steel refrigerator, identical freezer, and twin dishwashers add elegance and efficiency.

The Breakfast Nook

A table and chairs positioned near the windows of the breakfast area offer the perfect spot to take in the Japanese landscaping outside.

The Dining Room

A wall once blocked this view of the dining room, bottom, which now has easy access from the atrium, kitchen, and back hallway. The Smiths' fondness for Asian design resounds from the artwork to the lines of the straight-backed chairs.

The Pool

Once a dimly lit room with a rectangular lap pool and only a long, thin slit for a window, this space has undergone a complete transformation. Natural light streams in through a mini-greenhouse, and pine trees outside contrast nicely with the lush plantings near the waterfall, where stone seats lie just beneath the surface.

The Media Room

A plasma television set is the focal point of the media room. Screens flanking the TV hide unsightly electrical wiring while adding a dose of natural-looking light that is the result of directing the beams downward behind the panels. The room gained valuable openness when a wall on the right side was knocked out, allowing easy access to a hall that leads to the garage.

How It Began

Before the renovation, the Smiths' house was cold and unwelcoming. From top, the atrium, says designer Amy Dumas Mall, “was very stark. It was like entering an office building.” The walls were painted in warm white hues, and a Japanese garden was planted. Red benches now warm the space. The living room also needed warmth, and now benefits from hardwood flooring, light from two new windows, and dark wooden cabinets. The master suite's bookcases were untouched, but the carpet was replaced with hardwoods and windows were added for more light. Richly colored fabrics now lavish the room with coziness. The media room's dark gray lacquered storage unit was replaced with simple screens that hide the television wiring. The right-hand wall was torn down, opening up the room.