A Saltbox Exterior Gives Way to Bauhaus Inspiration

On the water, an architect builds her dream home.
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Inspired by the vernacular New England saltbox style, the basic form of this house designed by Warren Arthur and Mai Tsao Arthur is a classic gabled box, detailed with long spans of glass and porthole windows. Photography by Nancy Elizabeth Hill.

Architect and designer Mai Tsao Arthur and her husband—the late architect, lighting designer and entrepreneur Warren Arthur—were, as Tsao Arthur says, “very young” when they’d just begun working in Connecticut on residential projects, using the skills they’d acquired in architecture school at Columbia and a design sensibility informed by stints at Eero Saarinen & Associates and their own lighting design and textile accessories practice, TSAO Designs, to produce work that was lively, playful and steeped in the best ideals of modern design.

Full of the enthusiasm that so often accompanies early-career architects, they bought a small plot of land on a lake and set to work on arguably every designer’s most important project: their own home. “Because of the lake, you really feel that you’re on your own property,” Tsao Arthur says of the site, which directed the design. “You feel like you have a very private space there.” At the time of their purchase, in the early ’70s, an intense local planning, zoning and permitting process led to the creation of two structures built on existing summer cottage foundations, the larger one of which currently functions as Tsao Arthur’s home.

The couple were trained in the Bauhaus style and developed their design skills during a time when country house architecture was largely dominated by the style of the New York Five (Gwathmey, Hejduk, Meier, Eisenman and Graves). Think white boxes, the prodigious use of angles, glass and rectangles. “It was totally not in keeping with the land,” Tsao Arthur says of the style engendered by those early influences. And so, instead of listening solely to their education, the Arthurs listened to the site and what it wanted. The result? A saltbox on the outside, a Bauhaus-inspired space on the interior.

Today, the house exemplifies their shared design approach, one that is as inspired by the large-scale curving swoops of Warren Arthur’s one-time employer, the Saarinen office, as it is with the needs of each site. Tsao Arthur has a degree in interior design from UCLA, which she married to an advance architecture degree from Columbia, and to Arthur’s skills. “We are minimalists,” she says of their overarching approach. “We like the classic form.” Part of this project’s style is due to their breadth of experience coming into perfect harmony with its inhabitants’ drives, and part of that is the sense that this house—with its gable roof, slat siding, and open airy interiors—is truly, as she says, “suitable for the area and works with the land.”

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In the primary bedroom, table lamps by TSAO Design flank the bed. Photography by Nancy Elizabeth Hill.

A curved staircase connects the first and second floors, offering a moment of sculptural formalism that contrasts with the modest materiality of the exterior, while restrained furnishings from designers like Knoll, Gae Aulenti, and, of course, TSAO Designs—the selections courtesy of Tsao Arthur’s long history working with interiors—bring subtle notes of color, space planning, and orientation to the living room, dining room, bedrooms and alcoved powder room.

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The lower deck is furnished with table and chairs designed by Richard Schultz for Knoll. Photography by Nancy Elizabeth Hill.

Today, Tsao Arthur’s days (Warren Arthur died eight years ago) are mediated by the house. She wakes up to a view of the lake, and then makes her way to the small and efficient kitchen, purposefully designed to be tiny, “almost like an espresso bar,” she says. The formal dining room, shaped like an octagon, is illuminated with a skylight inspired, Tsao Arthur says, by the work of the 16th-century Italian architect Donato Bramante: “We wanted a Bramante dome.” (It’s no minor inspiration; Bramante was a designer of Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s Basilica). Throughout the house, spans of glass invite the eye toward the outside, while articulated windows, including a porthole window on the ground floor, make for moments of playfulness in this otherwise traditional-seeming structure. The project, Tsao Arthur says, feels timeless, yet ever-changing. “There are elements of surprise in every corner.”

The print version of this article appears with the headline: Naturally Timeless.