Northern Michigan Building: Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright in Leelanau

Northern Michigan Living: Jane Frasier is a little surprised every time she comes up her hilly Leelanau driveway. The modern, flat-roofed house settled into a former cherry orchard isn’t the quaint farmhouse she had expected to build six years ago. A trusting collaboration with Traverse City architect Bob Cornwell produced a design far from farmhouse and much more like the 1950’s Bauhaus-style home where Jane grew up nearby.

“Most people shy away from the modernist style because they think it’s cold,” Cornwell says, “but Jane grew up in a house that was modern and still comfortable.” Infusing modern style with warmth is one of Cornwell’s stylistic signatures. He happily adapts his aesthetic to a client’s own preferences, but he’s really in his element when given the opportunity to design a modern structure.

Jane gave Bob that opportunity after talking with him and touring several of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses—boxlike structures designed for efficiency and simplicity. It became clear to Jane that the 1930’s design could inspire a house well suited to her lifestyle. “I’m amazed that I did this, and that it turned out so wonderful,” she says. “It’s all thanks to Bob.”

Jane’s style is eclectic, and she has filled the house with things she loves.

Cornwell’s modern concept uses a three-foot grid as its guiding dimension and a cubical form centered on a massive concrete fireplace. Spaces are ‘punched’ out of the central form resulting in a footprint with many corners, and rooms with windows on multiple sides. The glassy structure is filled with natural light, blurring boundaries between indoors and out. At the front entrance, a concrete feature wall cuts through the glass, right into the foyer. The layout naturally draws visitors through the clerestoried dining room to the vast south-facing living room, where the ground seems to extend seamlessly from the cork floors to the hardwood forest in the distance. The effect is very light and unobtrusive—a small house with a feeling of endlessness.

A free-flowing layout enhances the airiness. The open kitchen is designed for simplicity and efficiency. Kitchen designer Scott Lankford specified minimalist cabinetry in a galley formation, topped with black Richlite countertops made from partially recycled paper. Two bedroom suites flank the central space, creating an irregular footprint that maximizes window space and provides ample outdoor access. A gravel patio leads to a detached garage with guest quarters.

Jane’s style is eclectic, and she has filled the house with things she loves. Her own bedroom is traditionally appointed, while the living room has Asian and midcentury modern influences. The architecture is a clean canvas for the expression of her personality and for the art she carefully selects. Jane’s son, Ben Maier, works in his pottery studio just steps from Jane’s door so, naturally, his vessels punctuate the space. Above the fireplace, an oversized abstract painting by Traverse City artist Delbert Michel is a perfectly proportioned, very colorful focal point. Jane has plans to place an outdoor sculpture just outside a windowed niche off the dining room to enhance the plantings thoughtfully placed by Zimmerman Landscaping.

Bob credits Jane for giving him creative flexibility and trust, making this one of his favorite projects to date. Her willingness to experiment resulted in the kind of client-architect synergy that makes beautiful things happen. Up in the old orchard, Jane’s glassy, modern house is clearly a beautiful thing.

Find this article and many more complete with gorgeous photography in the "Modern North" issue of Northern Home & Cottage, included in February 2012's Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.

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