It all started innocently enough. The owners of this Ansley Park home needed an architect’s expertise to help rethink a window in their too-dark kitchen. They contacted Atlanta’s Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects who, in turn, recommended two of their former employees—Brian Bell and David Yocum, formerly senior project architects with the firm, whom had since moved on to start their own company, bldgs.
“The original kitchen was four feet below the exterior grade,” recalls Yocum. “Also, there was an addition done in the ’80s—which was the footprint for our work—but there wasn’t a clear path from the back of the house on the lower level up to the back of the house on the upper level. The staircase [in the original house] was the only way; it didn’t make any sense. But the reason the kitchen felt ‘buried’ was that, after the addition was done, someone came along and put the pool in, and they backed it right up against the house. It blocked a lot of light.
“The owners said they had some ideas, but wanted to see what we could come up with, too. And we decided the problem was the whole back half of the house.”
The homeowners knew that the architects’ work was consistently contemporary; Bell and Yocum typically use a lot of glass and non-standard materials, things common in commercial settings but not necessarily residential. But even though the clients had always lived in old houses, the complete departure in terms of style was a non-issue. “They were very interested in contemporary art and contemporary architecture and contemporary furnishings,” says Yocum, “so it wasn’t like we were pushing against a door that wasn’t already open.”
The architects took some of their first design cues from the fact that the owners are very fond of the nearby Midtown skyline. Yocum and Bell also knew their clients were interested in a visual connection to the back yard, something not as enclosed—nor as traditional—as the existing addition. “The original scheme we came up with was almost all glass in the back,” says Yocum. “We priced that but it was a little too far over the budget. So we scaled it back, redistributing the relationship of glass and wall, and made the project a little smaller.”
Just as they were getting up to speed with an interior designer, the architects happened to see the home of Sara Steinfeld—a designer herself and, coincidentally, the clients’ neighbor. “The decorator we were working with just didn’t feel right,” says Yocum, “so we suggested that they talk to Sara.” In another twist of fate, their clients happened to see Steinfeld’s own home at about the same time, finding that she’d done the same kind of thing that they were planning—make an old house a little more contemporary. Their like-minds were a perfect match.
With that, the design team was in place. “The choice of interior furnishings and colors was important; it had to be something that would highlight the difference between old and new but not be too abrupt,” says Yocum.
“And it couldn’t be too stark,” chimes in Steinfeld. “I think that was [the client’s] fear of contemporary, that it wouldn’t be comfortable. For example, they’re avid readers; you’ll see that throughout the house. They wanted a spot in every single room to be able to read—and to have the right light to read.”
So with her keen eye for editing—choosing which furnishings from the old house should go and which ones could stay—and her deft hand at mixing traditional and contemporary pieces, Steinfeld created interiors perfectly suited to this couple’s lifestyle.
“They had some wonderful antiques, like the Chinese chest in the front entryway,” says Steinfeld. “They were so excited that I chose to put it in the foyer, building off of it with a custom mirror and that sort of thing. This is what I love, mixing good antiques with more contemporary pieces.”
To call the finished project a success is a vast understatement. But neither Steinfeld nor the architects are willing to take all the credit. “The great thing about the owners is that they can operate at a very high level of discussion, conceptually, but they’re also able to make a decision; they’re executives. And they’re also very trusting,” says Yocum. “They were incredible visionaries in the way they helped us make decisions, but they inspired us, too.
ARCHITECTURE Brian Bell, AIA and David Yocum, AIA, bldgs, 786 Murphy Ave.
Atlanta 30310, (404) 758-0466; bldgs.org
INTERIOR DESIGN Sara Steinfeld, Sara Steinfeld Ltd., (404) 213-7415; [email protected]