Global Sensibilities Come Together in a 21st-Century Villa in Austin
Architecture by Dick Clark Architecture/Interior Design by Emily Summers Design Text by Michael Ennis/After Photography by Paul Bardagly
IT WAS GRIM,” SAYS TEXAS ARCHITECT Dick Clark, offering an assessment one wouldn’t expect of a Tuscan-style villa romantically perched on a sun- washed cliff high above Austin’s Town Lake. “With tiny little windows and hardly any view of the lake, the whole house felt dark and oppressive. I said, ‘This is ridiculous. We’ve got to totally open up the entire lakefront side of the house.”
Engaged for a remodel that turned out to be an almost complete reconstruction, Clark, whose firm is based in Austin, and Dallas interior designer Emily Summers did much more than just perk up the dreary Tuscan cloister. Clark and Summers sweepingly transformed a plodding period piece into an elegant expression of 21st-century modernism, to be an almost complete reconstruction, Clark, whose firm is based in Austin, and Dallas interior designer Emily Summers did much more than just perk up the dreary Tuscan cloister. Clark and Summers sweepingly transformed a plodding period piece into an elegant expression of 21st-century modernism, effortlessly translating influences as div erse as local vernacular, classic modern, European contemporary and traditional Asian to create a design as international in outlook as it is intimately wedded to its Texas setting.
This sophisticated fusion began with a new owner’s well-traveled sensibility. “I’ve studied architecture and interior design informally for several decades,” says the client, a businessman who has built and sold several pharmaceutical research and development companies. “I’ve had a chance to travel around the world and be influenced by some fabulous spaces, from Kyoto’s Buddhist temples to the re-creations of 1920s and 1930s interiors at The Swedish Museum of Architecture in Stockholm. I’ve always been taken with modern design and architecture.”
When he decided to begin work on his own home, he hired two longtime members of Texas’s relatively small but accomplished community of committed modernists. Closely collaborating from the outset, the trio quickly arrived at a consensus: “It was a bad house, but it had good bones,” says Clark, “and we were fortunate in that it was east-northeast facing, so we only had to deal with the morning sun. The orientation was really good to just go toward the lake.” While the footprint of the house stayed, almost everything else went: Stone-veneer ext erior walls gave way to massive blocks of locally quarried Lueders limestone in a rich ocher hue; deeply set window arche s were replaced by sheer, minimalist banks of horizontally banded windows; the Tuscan tiles were supplanted by a more authentically Texan standing- seam copper roof.
Preserving the old footprint also presented the challenge of an enormous, basilica-like living room. “Here was this vast space, with a hurnongous walk-in fireplace, and it just felt oppressive,” says Clark. The remedy began with a sleekly curved mezzanine, which breaks up the space while also functioning as a sitting room for the adjacent bedrooms; opposite, the jumbo fireplace was cut down to an appropriate scale and the stone—veneer wall rebuilt with the same hefty but warm-hued limestone blocks used on the exterior. A flat ceiling with dark, faux-finished beams was replaced by gently gabled white-oak planks and beams, a venerable form Clark lightened and updated by separating the sturdy wood beams with thin metal plates. “We wanted the ceiling to have a floating, flowing feel,” comments Clark, “and also tease the viewer with the appearance that the beams aren’t attached to anything.”
Of the interiors, Summers says, “I immediately got a sense of what wasn’t working—little tiles slapped all over the walls, secondary finishes as opposed to integral.” Noted for the serene simplicity of her rooms, she opted for richly authentic yet unadorned, neutral-hued surfaces, such as matte cream plaster and cerused-white-oak paneling. Leather shows up unexpectedly, wrapping the handrail of the Adolf Loos—inspired balcony or as floor tiles in the master bedroom. They’re “very smooth and consistent,” Summers observes of the luxurious, cocoa—colored riles. “You don’t think of a saddle. I wanted a chic look, not a Texas reference.”
Equally well versed in building collections of classic modern furniture and in designing her own, Summers did a little of both in the cavernous living room. “We needed big, strong elements,” she says, “and the owner was willing to have a few simple things.” The uncluttered seating area is anchored by a Summers-designed leather-and-oak daybed, inspired by a Jean Prouve metal version. Hanging on the wall beneath the balcony is a sublime walnut George Nakashima cabinet that Summers found at auction in New Jersey. “He loved the Zen-like simplicity and floating quality of the Nakashirna,” says Summers. Given the designers’ differing aesthetics, “it’s fun to play with the sculptural form of the two pieces and make them work together. It’s about integrating sculpture and shape rather than creating a full period room.”
Summers also emphasizes the interplay of the interior and the outdoors. The house’s subtle palette is keynoted by a muted sage green that hints at both the arboreal and the aquatic. “It’s verv neutral, just enough green to go out again to those trees and the lake. It’s not so much a color as it is a serene environment.”
The biggest surprise—and the most spectacular view—lies downslope, hidden from the main house beneath a sod roof that provides a previously missing rear lawn, as well as a fair-weather setting for the charitable and political gatherings the owner regularly hosts. Built on the site of an old caretaker’s cottage, the Cliff House, one of four additional buildings on the property; variously functions as a corporate boardroom, guesthouse, and media center for the resident teenagers. 1 he cylindrical glass dining room, which wraps around an immense, doughnut- shaped table that Summers designed, is cantilevered over the pooi, providing a spectacular 270-degree vista and the sensation of flying. Explains Clark: “This was just pull out the plugs and do something very European contemporary.
The sum of all the diverse parts is a seamless synthesis, a cosmopolitan 2 1st- century villa that eruditely evokes the past while looking into the future. And when the complex pieces had all been put together, the owner discovered a surprise of his own: Clark and Summers had raised the bar above his own demanding standards. “They actually exceeded my expectations,” he says. “It’s just a magical house.”