You wend your way up a rural road in Ulster County to arrive at one young Manhattan couple’s weekend home — then scarcely notice the house when you get there. The white stucco, flat-roofed contemporary is nestled halfway down the steep bank of the Hudson River on a rocky outcropping, and from the driveway above it, can’t compete with the jaw-dropping views. Once down the steps and through the front door, though, it’s another story — the interior has a tranquil fascination of its own.
The owners first saw the property in 2000. “The long view from the TV room is what sold us on the house,” says the wife. But they were also taken with its architectural simplicity. “It was built in 1986 by the former owner, who was German, so there’s that whole Bauhaus thing in terms of design,” she explains. “It was a good shell for our likes and dislikes, very open and clean.”
The husband, who is half Japanese, wanted to have part of the house remind him of home. His wife, who is from New Mexico, was happy to go along. “I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and grew to love that spare esthetic, especially for a weekend home,” she says. They decided to transform a small first-floor Jacuzzi room into a traditional Japanese tub room, and make the adjacent office space a tatami tearoom. The bland entryway and foyer needed a boost, too.
Enter interior designer Catherine Gerry, whose modern sensibility the couple admired. Gerry added a new, larger front doorway and stone steps, then had the walls of the foyer hand-plastered, and installed a coat closet behind a shuji screen. A small powder room got a textural gridded wallpaper with dried gingko leaves that covers the ceiling, too. All fit the bill, and all were relatively easy to achieve.
The Japanese tub room was another story. It required considerable engineering, including what Gerry calls “souped-up plumbing,” and shoring up the floor to withstand the weight of the huge concrete bath she designed. The laser-cut, lozenge-shaped holes in the blue limestone surrounding the tub look decorative, but actually provide drainage. “It’s a very tricky drain system,” says Gerry. “I had to make it so that the tub could overflow.” A low concrete bench with a shower allows bathers to rinse off.
For the tearoom, Gerry applied the same eco-friendly Marmorino Venetian plaster as in the foyer. Tinted a soft buttery yellow and waxed to a satiny sheen, it’s as inviting to touch as it is to look at.
An L-shaped, three-inch-high cherry platform allows traditional rush tatami mats to sit flush, but can be removed easily for cleaning. Cherry trim around the windows frames the view, and matches the decorative lattice in the room. “What I do best is built-ins,” says Gerry; she points out how sliding closet doors in the wall opposite the windows hide futons and — it’s almost a shock — a television. Pillows surround a squat Japanese table. A tea service sits in wait, and there are a couple of photographs on a low shelf, but otherwise the room is uncluttered, geometric simplicity. It’s hard to imagine an episode of Law & Order blaring into this peaceful space.
Wide sliding doors with laminated rice paper insets keep the quintessentially Japanese wing separate from the rest of the house. The owners are delighted with it. “It’s designed as an escape,” says the wife. “You can close the doors and feel like you’ve gotten away.”
When Gerry’s clients saw how beautifully the work was taking shape, they asked her to make over their master bathroom, too. Although the result is more traditionally western, it’s designed with the same soothing esthetic, and the extra-wide double steam shower with a bench at one end has a whiff of Japan about it. Aqua glass tile — along with limestone twin sinks, vanity top, and floor tiles — looks clean and modern, while bamboo pocket doors, drawers, and hampers add some warmth. It’s simple and functional, with just enough luxe.
“Then I started furnishing the rest of the house,” says Gerry. The den and living room, which are partly divided by the stairwell, share a wall of windows overlooking the river. Shades roll up at the touch of a button to expose the view. “The fireplace wall in the den desperately needed improvement,” Gerry says. “The flat-screen TV was already there, so I had to work around that.” She added a stone fireplace surround, then dressed up the wall with another hand-applied plaster, this time with silver leaf and aqua pigments that shimmer in icy blue-grays and seem to reflect the outdoors. “It gives it a little flash, but it’s subtle,” Gerry remarks. Furniture in pale blue and chocolate brown upholstery looks up-to-the-minute.
The same palette of ice blue and brown is repeated in the living room, on a long L-shaped sofa and a concrete coffee table that Gerry designed in three sections so that it can be rearranged. “There were ugly floor-to-ceiling white bookcases that dominated the room,” she says. “So I pulled those out and installed floating shelves made of ebonized wood.” A low bookcase and storage unit sit beneath.
It’s minimalist, although you can imagine sitting there with a magazine without ruining the look. “It’s our first home outside the city, and we might have been even more spare,” says the lady of the house. “Catherine helped us focus on how we’d spend time there.”
The dining room, which flows from the living room, continues the silver and ebony color scheme. Christian Liagre white leather chairs and bench surround a very tactile trestle table of ebonized walnut whose edges slope gently down. (“We just can’t sit there enough,” says the wife.) A narrow window overlooks the land rising in back, emphasizing how snugly the house sits in its spot. Gossamer embroidered silk curtains soften the room, while silver leaf branch lamps by Hwang Bishop are a fun touch. Gerry designed the rectangular light fixture hanging above the table when the budget wouldn’t stretch to the spectacular $10,000 model she wanted. A flowery table runner and lacquer tray add splashes of red. “I’m trying to get the owners to add a red lacquer screen, too,” Gerry says.
As for the rest of the house: The kitchen has yet to be tackled, but with its basic black cabinets, white floors and walls, it blends in well enough. A master bedroom and two guest rooms are furnished in the usual way but, of course, with no hint of froufrou.
A stroll around this immaculate home raises the question: Where’s their stuff? One answer: The carefully chosen things they have are tidily stowed away. Another answer: In the basement, where there’s a medley of toys. A foosball table, exercise machines, and a small bar crowd one room, which has bright blue walls; another is jumbled with all the equipment of a recording studio — two drum kits, amps, control boards, mikes, and cables snaking all over the floor. A mini wine cellar is tucked into a corner closet.
Gerry’s designs show how subtle detail can bring sterile, white, boxy rooms to life without losing the charm of their simplicity. “It was a long process and not cheap,” she reports. But both client and designer are pleased with the results. “Catherine did an amazing job of translating what we wanted,” say the owners. “All my clients should be like them,” responds Gerry.
Designer: Catherine Gerry Interiors, High Falls
Contractor: George Cuney, New Paltz
Cabinetmaker: Appelson Woodworks, Mt. Tremper
Engineer: Ross Dalland, Kingston
Hand plastering: Loye and Derrickson, New Paltz
Tub and bench fabricator: Concreteworks Studio East, New Jersey