Personal Space

A Lofty Marriage

A couple's modern South End apartment is big enough to be an art studio, home, and place where two different personalities converge.

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon

Painter Joan Resnikoff is no stranger to a blank canvas, but nothing quite prepared her for conjuring her South End loft out of thin air.

Five years ago, her career as an artist was going full steam just as her husband, mathematician and science administrator Howard Resnikoff, elected semiretirement. Their conventional suburban abode, a four-bedroom, 19th-century Winchester house, no longer fit the bill. Joan was commuting into the city to paint in a separate studio, and Howard was restless in the suburbs. The couple needed less domestic space, more studio space, and a way to integrate their lives.

So they signed up for the Laconia Lofts development, which combines artists' live-work studios with market-rate units. For their newly purchased 2,200-square-foot loft, Joan wanted an open, industrial feel. Although Howard played an equal role in designing the unit, Joan's needs as a painter and ceramist came first. “This is my payback for always being there,” she explains. “I was a stay-at-home mom. If he had to rush out of town on a business trip, he never had to worry.” She smiles broadly, even wickedly. “This is his way of saying thank you.”

Even while the Laconia Lofts development was still on the drawing boards, “Howard encouraged me to be bold,” Joan recalls. “He said, 'You're going to be with a bunch of artists. It's your one chance to do something really different.' I would have been more conservative. He's always been more adventuresome.”

The couple asked Jared Della Valle, son of Howard's cousin and partner in the New York-based Della Valle + Bernheimer Design architectural firm, to translate their rough ideas into specifications for construction. With the designers' input, the couple produced a home with a heart of steel: two long, snaking walls constructed of nine-foot-high panels of cold-rolled steel, which define the loft.

“They were incredibly open to ideas,” Della Valle says, praising his clients. “It was fascinating working with them. Howard is analytical while Joan is very visceral.” Joan found the architects could ground her visions in reality and show her possibilities she didn't know existed. “The trouble with being an artist trying to design a space is you think of appearance first, then how it will work,” Joan says.

The couple knew they wanted the customary divisions of an artist's loft: a private zone, a studio area, and a central public area for living, dining, and entertaining. They found they rarely, if ever, used their Winchester living and dining rooms, gravitating instead to the kitchen, study, or home studio. But while the distribution of space was conventional, the radical method of partitioning the unit with steel emerged from an intense give-and-take among the Resnikoffs and their architects.

Thinking “industrial,” Joan suggested galvanized steel for the walls, having admired the material when she worked in the fireproof glass-blowing shed at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. “I'm very fond of the color gray,” she says. “It's a wonderful backdrop for my paintings. But when I suggested galvanized panels, Jared said we could do better by using laser-cut steel.”

Della Valle had worked with laser-cut steel in industrial applications during his early career with a construction firm. “My partner, Andrew Bernheimer, and I were in New York, and the project was in Boston,” he says. “We wanted to be able to control the construction, and with laser-cut steel, what you draw is exactly what you get, within 1/128 of an inch. It's very precise. And cold-rolled steel is a very neutral color, very close to photo gray, so Joan could hang her artwork anywhere she wanted.”

More often found as a structural element — the bones of tall buildings, the hull of a ship, the walls of a boiler — cold-rolled steel is rarely used as an exposed element in a private home. In other projects, Della Valle has employed half-inch-thick sheets to fabricate open stairs, often opting for chemical patination that blackens the surface like a gun barrel. But this was the first time he used entire raw sheets as a domestic wall material.

Once they settled on the steel, Howard proposed building curves into the walls. “I'm a more angular person,” Joan says, “but Howard said, 'Why not take advantage of what metal can do?' And he was right.

The space is not square, and it would have looked odd to square things up. Curves give the walls more flow and bend.”

While skyscraper contractors might order sheet steel direct from the mill, it can also be purchased at steel yards. The Resnikoffs and their architects visited Todrin Laser Industries in Taunton to handpick the steel panels. “It's like going to a quarry to select the specific stones you want,” explains Andy Bernheimer. “Every panel has a slightly different look from the marks it picks up in the rolling process and in the handling.”

Joan values those industrial artifacts and staves off rust by coating the panels with carnauba wax (as advised by the installer) and polishing with her car-buff son's rotary polisher. “You can get a high sheen if you want, but I like them dull,” she says. Maintenance is very low; if rust appears, she will simply apply a product that reduces the oxidation to gray metal and rewax.

The most memorable day in the design and construction project was the one when the 16,000 pounds of cut panels were delivered. “When the flatbed truck and the crane showed up and they started lifting the steel panels through the windows,” Joan says, “I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'd better like this because there's no way I'm going to get rid of them.'” But she had no second thoughts once the installation began.

Visitors who expect a cold, institutional feel are won over by the warm effect of the softly glowing metal, punctuated by Joan's colorful pieces of artwork. The steel panels pivot on posts, opening as doors to cupboards, closets, or rooms, or remaining closed to present a visually continuous wall — albeit a wall only one-quarter inch thick.

After trying other spatial solutions, the architects eventually returned to a refined version of the Resnikoffs' original floor plan. The northern line of panels separates the bedroom and bathrooms from the rest of the loft. The southern line defines the ceramics studio and a narrow study that is Howard's turf. The area between these two sinuous walls contains the open space of the kitchen/living room and the painting studio, which dominates the southeast corner.

There is a constant visual and functional interaction between these areas. The pottery studio, which has to be sealed to contain fumes from the kiln, adjoins the living area through a glass door that floods light into the core of the loft. “I keep the ceramics studio semineat,” Joan says. “It's supposed to look like a workplace.” Only a rolling partition separates her painting studio from the main living quarters. She paints principally in oils, using an ozone generator to neutralize paint and turpentine odors. But, she notes, “It also works very well to eliminate the next-day smell of cooked fish.”

Of course, living and working in such close quarters can lead to unintended overlap. The refurbished industrial steel table intended for dining, for example, often gets appropriated for Joan's art projects. “When you're in the midst of working,” she says, “any flat surface is fair game.” She admits to having been surprised by her own territoriality when the couple first moved in. Fortunately, their design provided a solution.

“We carved out a little bit of the tin can for Howard, his gedanken room,” or retreat, Joan says, laughing. Sandwiched between the closed ceramics studio and the open painting studio is a soothing, narrow room of muted tones. “He works a lot on computers, and he likes a dark room with no glare,” she says. Howard's room is lined with books and music, anchored with a contemporary desk and a comfortable reading chair.

A portrait by Joan hangs inside the door to Howard's study — “I'm always with him,” she jokes — but most of her work hangs in the loft's central living area. Della Valle suggested perforating the wall panels to anchor Joan's paintings, and she designed a rhythmic pattern to provide visual relief to the expanse of steel. The display serves as a retrospective of her artistic career, bringing color and a variety of form to the space. “I like to revisit my ideas,” she says. “By looking at the progression in my work, I get an idea of where to go next.” The work ranges from flatly painted figurative portraits to intense explorations of color relationships. Monochromatic drawings of swaying wild grasses represent the one visual stimulus she missed after leaving the suburbs.

With the exception of Howard's study, the Resnikoffs chose not to cover the concrete floors, in part because Joan treasures such unintentional birthmarks as the imprint of a leaf and a workman's boot, and in part because it's practical to paint over any spatters from her work.

The main living spaces remain sparsely furnished. “It suits my paintings,” Joan says. Moreover, the job of furnishing isn't complete. “I'm careful about what I put in. This is my final space, and I don't want to rush.” Some pieces have carried over from the couple's pre-city life: a pair of antique wooden chairs with graceful carved backs, a Korean rice chest that anchors the foyer.

Most of the furniture the Resnikoffs purchased for the space might be called “modern with a capital M,” Joan admits. The couple has breakfast at a marble-topped Eero Saarinen tulip table they found at Sedia, sitting on black and chrome chairs from the Morson Collection. In the evening they recline on an Italian black leather and tubular chrome sofa purchased from Design Within Reach. The return to modern lines suits the Resnikoffs' style. “We're from the Dansk generation,” Joan notes. “I'm not a Martha Stewart person, and never was.”

But she allows that she likes the mix of modern and antique. “Totally modern furniture might get a bit cold. The wooden chairs and African headrests give a sense of history. I'm thinking of antiques again, maybe some end tables.”

By and large, the couple chose furniture with stripped-down lines, letting the artwork take center stage. Even the custom kitchen island, a quarter-moon sliver in shimmering stainless steel, boasts a minimalist cooktop designed by Renzo Piano for Smeg. “It's beautiful, it's gorgeous — and I wouldn't do it again,” Joan declares, relating a frustrating tale of waiting months for delivery and having to deal with a Toronto office of the Italian manufacturer.

Despite the inevitable frustrations of a large construction project, the loft emerged as “the product of creative minds working together,” as Bernheimer puts it. There were some small compromises: using glass tiles in the main bath meant the architects had to square up walls they had designed to curve.

Any disappointments are outweighed by the magical experience of living in the loft. “I change my paintings from time to time, and it's an entirely different space,” Joan explains.

The best surprise, however, is the effect created by the perforated panels at night. “We just turn off all the other lights and switch on the backlighting,” says Joan, “and it's like a spaceship about to lift off.”

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A House Divided

Big spaces can easily be wasted. Here's how one designer tackled the issue.

By Martha Schindler

Everyone longs for a home with plenty of space, whether it's for living, entertaining, or just storage. But even the largest of houses can seem small if its space is ineffectively organized. Just ask Dennis Duffy, principal designer of Boston's Duffy Design Group, who dealt with the problem when designing a newly expanded and renovated house on three wooded acres in Sherborn. Duffy's challenge: turn the house's enviable 4,500 square feet into a comfortable, functional home, and incorporate the space outside into the interior mix. “In a big house, everything has to work with everything else, or you'll just create clutter on a larger scale,” he says.

That meant partitioning the main living area into several different sections and bringing the yard inside via a series of grand windows. Duffy designed an open corridor that runs along the back of the house and provides what he calls “the spine” of the area.

It showcases a swimming pool and terraced yard surrounded by woods through a series of nine-foot-high windows. A warm gray paint on the window frames mimics the stark vertical lines of the birch trees outside, as do the slightly mismatched lighting fixtures of frosted glass that hang straight down from the ceiling. These clean lines create the effect of a path in the forest, open on all sides but never completely unobstructed.

The kitchen, living, and dining rooms are set off from the corridor by a heavy curtain, a two-layer construction featuring a sage-colored fabric on the outside and copper-wire chain mail on the inside. The curtain allows any or all of the rooms to be cordoned off, creating instant walls that feel soft but not confining, and temporary rather than permanent.

“People don't want to live in perfect little compartments,” says Duffy, who has put his unique soft-contemporary stamp on residential properties including lofts in the Back Bay and South End, as well as on the new Charlesmark Hotel. “But the ideas of a comfortable living area and a formal dining room are still appealing, so we made sure that those rooms could be created whenever they were needed.”

Duffy's make-it-comfortable philosophy carries over into the kitchen. “We all know that people always congregate in the kitchen,” he says. So instead of fighting that, he made the kitchen a comfortable place to hang out, with high stools around the center island and a small table that also serves as an informal breakfast spot.

In the living room, Duffy chose furniture rich in color and on a scale that fits the room's expansive proportions: roomy chairs and an oversized ottoman, all covered in claret mohair, and a glossy baby grand piano paired with jacquard-upholstered stools. “The pieces are big, but there aren't too many of them,” Duffy says. “Their size makes them feel anchored, even in this big space.” Everything in the seating area is grouped casually, neither jammed against the walls nor piled into the center of the room, adding an unfettered air to what might otherwise have felt like formal furnishings.

One of Duffy's biggest challenges came in coordinating the living and dining areas. In contrast to the living room's 16-foot ceilings, the dining room has much less headroom; it's also permanently enclosed by windowless walls on two sides. Duffy chose to play up the room's proportions instead of camouflaging them.

First, he raised the floor a few inches and covered it in a deep walnut that's actually a shade or two darker than the Brazilian cherry he used in the rest of the house. This created a subtle line of demarcation between the living and dining rooms, and made the dining area seem more warm and inviting. Next, Duffy treated the walls and ceiling with a textured paint and copper leaf, creating an effect that's darker than your average eggshell but much more interesting, with a subtly textured and reflective surface. This play of light keeps the room from feeling claustrophobic, as do the wide-open expanses of the living room to one side and views of the wooded yard on another.

Achieving this sense of constancy across several rooms (and hundreds of square feet) is always one of his primary goals, says Duffy. “Having a lot of space gives you great flexibility, but the rules of good design still apply,” he says. “Every object has a function; everything occupies space and interacts with the things around it. And when it all works together, you've got a space worth coming home to.”

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Size Matters

With the help of an old friend, one family's move to a significantly smaller house proves that you can downsize but still upgrade.

By Alexandra Hall

Homes can be a lot like relationships: you build them, put in seemingly endless upkeep, and sometimes find the most humble among them are the ones that fit your life the best. That's what happened to Carolyn Ellis and Leslie Saul, friends for more than 15 years.

Saul had watched Carolyn and her husband, John, raise two children in a sprawling and formal hillside Dutch Colonial in Weston that overlooked the lights of Boston. An architect and interior designer, she had even helped them renovate it as they meticulously tweaked every inch of its 4,500 square feet until it became their ultimate dream house.

So when Carolyn and John announced that they were moving to a modest, ranch-style house not even half the size of their formal and manicured Colonial, Saul was more than a little surprised. “I was pretty taken aback when Carolyn first called me and told me her plan,” says Saul, a graceful, auburn-haired Cincinnati native. “It felt to me like we'd just finished the first house. And it was so beautiful, I couldn't imagine why they would want to move so soon.”

On the other hand, once she saw the little house, with its weathered shingles and mass of surrounding hemlock and oak trees, she immediately understood. “The simplicity and calm of the new wooded site really equaled the beauty of the old place, even though it was worlds smaller,” explains Saul. “With Carolyn and John wanting to simplify their lives, the new house seemed perfect.” Living with less, it turns out, was Ellis's utopian ideal.

“I really wanted a smaller home,” Ellis says, “so there wouldn't be so much stuff to worry about and take care of all the time.”

But while the new house may have been small, Ellis's list of requirements was undeniably big: rooms for each of her two children, a separate dressing area in the master bedroom, and individual vanities in the master bath, to name but a few. “I knew we'd have much less room to work with, but I didn't want to sacrifice the pleasures of the original house,” Ellis says. Reducing the amenities and spaciousness of a stately four-floor house to a one-level residence (plus basement) would be no small feat. Fortunately, she knew just the person to make it all work. “Leslie had done an amazing job renovating our kitchen in the old house and dealing with the problems of limited space when they arose there,” says Ellis. “We turned right to her.”

With 25 years as an architect and an impressive list of small-space projects under her belt, Saul knew a few tricks for using space to its fullest and for creating the optical illusion of spaciousness. Together, she and Ellis set to work just weeks after the papers were passed, carving out “borrowed space”: the extra inches annexed from crevices and corners that give rooms a sense of depth and area.

Borrowed space isn't a new concept. But in order to make the house work, Saul would have to apply the practice with intensity, sometimes repeatedly in the same small area. “If I see two rooms next to each other and there's a wall in between, I always want the illusion that each room is bigger,” she says. “By tearing down the wall between those two rooms, then each room can borrow from the room next to it. Of course, you need to define those rooms with an architectural detail — decorative columns, say, or color — so they're distinct, and you get a feeling of expansive space.”

First up was the master bedroom. “It desperately needed more light, more windows, and a dressing area,” says Saul. Ellis wanted a dressing area independent of the rest of the bedroom, with separate his-and-hers closets and a large window. “I just wasn't willing to compromise on having all of those things,” Ellis says. “Leslie kept saying 'You need at least 5 to 51/2 feet to have even one closet, let alone two closets.' We just didn't think we could fit both of them and a window.” Then came the solution: By building the two closets face to face — perpendicular to the wall and parallel to the bed — they became walls in their own right, in effect creating the dressing area and leaving a wide space in between for a window. Still not satisfied, Saul decided the area needed more definition and added architectural columns to separate it from the rest of the room. “Now, as I'm getting dressed, I can have privacy and an amazing view,” says Ellis. The window looks out over the surrounding woods — a dramatic forest studded with granite and thick with pine, hemlocks, and oaks with rich cinnamon-brown trunks and branches knotted with kinks and curves.

That same view can be enjoyed farther back, too, through the shiny glass walls of the large bathroom shower. “We borrowed a lot of the space for this from a linen closet that had been on the other side of the room off the hall, and we had to knock through the wall to get it,” says Saul. Ellis wanted a number of things from the shower: generous proportions, a view out the bedroom window to the woods, and as much glass as possible, so the large corner it would occupy could remain part of the room. “We still wanted visual access to that corner, so we wouldn't waste the area,” says Ellis. The top-to-bottom glass shower walls the couple ultimately chose accomplished all of those goals.

Back in the bedroom, a cool palette dominates the wide space, from the periwinkle walls and green settee to the multicolored quilt. “The wall colors here change with the light,” Ellis says. “In the evening it's blue, but in the morning it's lavender.” Those fickle shades may seem serendipitous, but they're pure calculation on Saul's part. “Muted colors help expand the size of a room without being boring and remaining flat,” she says. “That's an invaluable tool in a designer's kit for creating space.”

Ellis and Saul clearly are two women who are close. They finish each other's sentences and interject bits of news about mutual friends. Saul laughs as she remembers how the Ellis family lived during the house's renovation. “They were living in the basement and using the laundry room as a kitchen — they only had a crockpot to cook out of.” Ellis breaks in: “One day my daughter, Anna, said to me, 'Mom, I think we've eaten every one-dish recipe that exists on earth.' We all had to be pretty patient back then.”

Since their first meeting years ago while working in partnered design firms — Saul as a principal architect at Dean Tucker Shaw, Ellis as an assistant project manager at Winn & Company — the two women have seen their association warm from strictly professional to personal. That evolution, says Saul, is one of the reasons their collaborations go so smoothly. “Carolyn and I communicate extremely well,” says Saul. “You really need to genuinely like the people you work with on a project like this, because it's such an intimate process.”

Equally important is the fact that Ellis and Saul agreed on one fundamental thing from the project's outset. “We both believe that you can have a beautiful home that works well, that has a sense of space, and that you're proud of without having a huge house to take care of,” Saul says over tea at the small table in the family's new kitchen. “It's important to find a house that really matches your lifestyle, and people often need a lot less than they originally think.”

The kitchen itself is evidence of that. Simple and clean-looking, it mixes homey and modern touches — Italian granite countertops that bring out the warmth of the red birch cabinets beneath them. (“Red birch doesn't fade or darken the way that cherry does,” Saul says. “But it has the same luster.”) When the subject of the stove comes up, Saul and Ellis simultaneously sigh. During the renovation, it seems, the area presented a stubborn problem. “We wanted to keep the lighting open around it, so that you didn't cast your own shadow over whatever you were cooking on the stove,” Ellis says. “And we also didn't want a hood that would make the area seem cramped.” The final answer came after weeks of deliberation: a downdraft venting stove and convection oven, plus modern Italian-designed accent lighting perched over an abbreviated three-inch-wide stainless-steel shelf that Ellis had built by a restaurant-equipment manufacturer. The shelf substitutes for standard-sized cabinets that would have cramped the area.

Counter space, meanwhile, was kept at a maximum by moving the D-shaped stainless-steel sink under the window, leaving an area wide enough for workspace to the right so one person can be at the sink while another chops, and still another sautées at the stove. “We weren't willing to compromise on appliance size,” says Saul. “So to fit everything in, we were literally down to a matter of inches, trying to make all of this work.” The most dramatic proof of this comes once she opens the wide, birch-covered Sub-Zero refrigerator door, which just barely clears the edge of the counter in front of it. “We had the measuring tape out more times than I can count,” she adds. “But we pulled it off.” They even managed to squeeze a baking center to the left of the fridge — multileveled, for more visual interest. “Just because it's small,” says Saul, “doesn't mean it should be boring.”

The precise opposite of boring can be found in the abutting mudroom, where Saul's strategic use of color and space comes into play again. After reconstructing the tiny room — adding a closet and a second door to the front, and raising the ceiling — she saturated the walls with robin's-egg blue. “From the kitchen, the wonderful, bright blue pulls your eye back to the wall of the mudroom,” she says, “so you realize that the house goes back that far.”

Ellis, on the other hand, likes the miniature room as much from the inside as from afar. “It went from originally being a dark and depressing, ugly area to this little jewel with creamy trim, blue walls, and a sunny window that looks out to the backyard. Now I can have anyone to the house, and I don't care if they come in the back door.”

The living and dining room areas also needed work. Originally two separate and long chambers, they were dark and tunnel-like. To give each more breathing room, Saul and Ellis decided to break through the wall between them, adding white columns on each side of the opening. The process created two impressively long lines of sight in the L-shaped house — one from the kitchen sitting area through the dining room and all the way to the living room's fireplace, the other from the foyer down the hall, past a bathroom, and into the bedroom's dressing area.

Another trick Saul employed: bringing the outside of the house in by highlighting broad windows that make the living room feel like part of the strategically landscaped yard. This meant arranging the room around floor-to-ceiling windows. The sitting area now feels connected to the modestly sized bluestone patio, fringed by more trees and small, rocky cliffs. “The same way that you can borrow from inside space, you can also borrow the outside,” says Saul. She adds that patios are a space-maximizing trick in their own right. “Even if you don't have a lot of flat garden space, by paving it and adding a waterfall as we have here, you've created visual interest that takes your eye farther out. The effect is that we've expanded both the patio area and the living room — especially when the outdoor area is lit at night. You almost feel like you're in the woods.”

The adjoining foyer is another case of maximum-capacity quarters. Centered against one wall, a 7-foot, 4-inch Empire-style mahogany secretary literally just fits — one-half inch short of the ceiling. “It only got in there because it's two pieces,” says Ellis. “We hoisted it up and slid it in. If it were all one piece, we wouldn't have been able to get it in.” This meant the carpet that would line the room also had to be carefully measured: Anything more than a half-inch thick would have left too little space for the secretary.

Even given such tight fits, says Ellis, “the house feels expansive inside” thanks to all the space she and Saul effectively opened up. “Even though the square footage may be far less than it was in the old house, it still feels like more than enough space.”

Both women agree the reason this life-size jigsaw puzzle came together was because they're on the same wavelength architecturally and have so many years of effective communication behind them. “Coming from a house much bigger, you don't have to feel like you're taking a step down,” Ellis says, and Saul agrees.

“A small home should still have architectural interest, accommodate your lifestyle, and be a place you're happy to come to at the end of the day,” says Saul. “So many people are obsessed with big houses, but a smaller home can have just as much impact and its own distinct character.”