Tokyo Meets Harbor Springs in This Jewel Box Home

North meets east in this stunning Northern Michigan home on a forested bluff along Lake Michigan, north of Harbor Springs.

Featured in the February/March 2021 issue of Northern Home & Cottage.

After living four years in Tokyo, Doug and Debbie Brown developed a deep fondness for the warm, clean-lined aesthetic of Japanese style. When they found their dream lot on a bluff along Lake Michigan north of Harbor Springs, they decided they’d try to fuse those two worlds in their new home. The couple took their vision to architect David Kimble and his wife, interior designer Caroline Kimble, who embraced it enthusiastically. “It’s typical of the way we work to pay attention to what sort of influences the client wants,” David says. “We find it exciting to get clients who are creative in their own way so that we can pick up on their interests and learn from them.”

The Browns appreciated the Kimbles’ enthusiasm and a strong client/designer relationship was forged between the two couples. “They were just so receptive to our ideas and easy to work with,” Debbie says. Both the Browns and Kimbles, in turn, were delighted to work with the home’s builders, Waterfront Property Management & Builders, Inc. “We worked very closely with them on the building and installation of this house and they were an integral part of the team,” Caroline says.

Before putting ink to blueprint, David set out to research the Japanese aesthetic. He began by scouring several books on Japanese style that he had in his library, as well as refreshing himself on the influence that Japanese design had on the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s pioneering American designs.

David’s research revealed several features that would immediately lend a Japanese aesthetic to the home. The first was the use of exposed timber frames, both on the exterior and interior of the home. “The Japanese do a lot of timber frame,” David explains. “It’s the same concept as the early English Elizabethan style, except that in the Elizabethan period, they used a lot of bent arches and other things to mimic cathedrals.” By contrast, he goes on to say, “Japanese timber-frame style is defined by the cleanliness of the lines—a very rectilinear style.”

The second important element that draws on the Japanese aesthetic is a low-pitched, hipped, stepped roof with broad overhangs. That roof profile, combined with the home’s perch at the top of a landscaped knoll, feels especially Japanese. “The progression up to the front door through a garden is typical of Japanese homes,” David explains. While traditional Japanese gardens have water elements such as a stream or pond with a small footbridge, the Browns designed a symbolic stream using dark rocks from the Upper Peninsula that run down the hill from the entry porch.

The rest of the landscaping—which the Browns, avid gardeners, did themselves—is also important to the home’s aesthetic. “I tried to bring the Japanese influence into it by repeating a lot of the same plants and not adding too much color. It has more of a textured look,” Debbie says.

The Japanese aesthetic continues at the home’s entry, which is graced with a Japanese lantern-style light, while the front door itself takes its cue from Japanese doors—made from oak, it’s fashioned from 15 slender panels. Floor-to-ceiling windows along the back of the home capture the dramatic Lake Michigan view that on clear days takes in nearly the entire Beaver Archipelago from North Manitou to Beaver islands. David designed the windows with the simple Japanese aesthetic in mind: simple, three-paned, awning windows atop the tall glass panes to let in the lake breezes.

The home’s interior, with its gray-toned, wide-planked oak floor (as at home in a Japanese house as in a Northern Michigan one) and timber-framed ceiling, is a serene backdrop that continues the Japanese aesthetic. Caroline designed a wall of built-in, dark stained cabinetry (that houses a handsome, vertical wine refrigerator) in the kitchen to offer the feel of Japanese black lacquer furniture—and to create a tailored niche for an antique hibachi that sits beneath a bamboo rod once used to hang pots over the hibachi. Meanwhile, David disguised the hall closet to resemble a shoji screen.

The Browns’ collection of Japanese artifacts fleshes out the decor. Among their pieces are a step tansu—a chest of drawers that also acted as a step up to a second floor in a Japanese home—and an abundance of Japanese Hagi and raku pottery pieces. Debbie uses a jewel-toned obi—a traditional Japanese kimono sash—as a dining room table runner.

One particular challenge that Caroline helped Debbie turn into a dramatic design statement was to curate and place the Brown’s traditional Chippendale-style furniture from their former home downstate into the new, modern/Japanese aesthetic of their new home. The result is a graciousness that adds a period feel to the decor. “The home has an eclectic feel inside,” Caroline says. “The traditional furniture with its curves and elegant upholstery stands out against the home’s clean lines.

“There is a lot packed into a small space and it is done very nicely, with tasteful and quality finishes. Like a jewelry box, this home is petite but holds many beautiful things,” Caroline adds. “That’s why I call it the jewel box house.”

Home Resources

Architect // Kimble + Kimble

Interior Design // Kimble + Kimble

Builder // Waterfront Properties Management & Builders, Inc.

Windows // Marvin, Preston Feather

HVAC // Ballard’s Plumbing and Heating

Electric // Dale Mazzoline & Solutions, 231.487.9317

Building Materials // Preston Feather

Stairway // Jacklin Steel Supply Co.

Painting // Chamberlain, Inc.

Find this and more articles celebrating Northern Michigan homes and cottages in the free, digital issue of February/March 2021 issue of Northern Home & Cottage below; or get the printed NHC for free, six times a year when you subscribe to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, delivered to your door each month.

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