Modern Living: On the Inside, Be Calm and Simplify

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Jobs Lane residence designed by James Merrell Architects. Raymond Koch photo

If architecture is a reflection of society, then the current modern aesthetic has a lot to say.

“I have a suspicion that we’re drawn to minimal architecture because it represents an ideal against the complexity of contemporary, 21st-century life,” Sag Harbor-based architect James Merrell said. “That would be my gut feeling about why it’s so attractive. People are complex and times are complex, and the question is no longer, ‘Where is modern architecture taking us?’ It’s whether it’s reductivist or not, and what does that say about us today.”

From awkward and provocative to accepted and soothing, modernism has found its architectural place on the East End, transforming once ornate, overstuffed interiors into a more streamlined beach aesthetic with lighter woods, minimalist kitchens and the ever-popular open floor plan, according to architect Viola Rouhani.

Atlantic Project in Amagansett designed by Bates Masi + Architects. Photo courtesy Bates Masi + Architects

“It generally seems that people are having more informal attitudes about living out here, or embracing the concept of a beach house more,” explained the partner at Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects in Bridgehampton. “With the informality comes more of a sense of openness and wanting to really use the house, and not only use the house personally, but to be able to have a lot of people stay over and to be able to entertain a lot. I don’t think that in itself is so new, but the idea of being able to have these big, open, communal spaces indoors that have a very direct, open connection to the outdoors certainly is.”

Glass walls are not only affecting the overall form of homes, but the way visitors experience them from inside. Big windows allow for an easier visual and physical connection to the outdoors, which expands the whole experience of a house as the indoors become more of a stage for the outdoors, Rouhani said.

“I do think that modern architecture is more of a trend right now, but for us, it’s less about stylistic elements and it’s more about an all-encompassing thought — not only how it relates to the shape of the building, but more about optimizing the space inside and being modest in some ways, and thinking a lot about circulation and having a modern outlook to not only how you see the building, but how you use it,” she said. “And there’s also a big trend toward using more durable materials, especially in beach houses.”

Inside her Mako house project in Amagansett, there are no wood floors or dry wall, she said, opting to use porcelain tile and plaster throughout.

House on the Point designed by Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects. Matthew Carbone photo

“This is also a house that was very tricky — and it’s not a big house at all, and that was the challenge,” she said. “It’s 2,500 square feet and it’s a multi-generational house, so it has grandparents, three grown kid couples and eight grandkids. So we really had to use every level of it and make it super durable at the same time. The roof becomes an entire outdoor seating area, and I think that’s also a modern solution.”

Reimagining older, smaller spaces — instead of writing them off as teardowns — is a trend for North Fork architect Meryl Kramer, who recently renovated a circa-1970s ranch in Mattituck into what she calls a “Ranch-Not-A-Ranch.”

“A ranch typically has one long gable that goes across, and it’s this series of rooms,” she said. “We created a very large cathedral ceiling space that has the great room in it, that went straight through the middle, and made it a design feature. So it’s a tall, open, airy space that cut the ranch in half, if you will. Ranches don’t normally have cathedral ceilings, interrupting the roofline with something much taller and more prominent. We transformed it into something very different, which I think we were really successful with.”

By doing so, the ranch now has a great room that houses the living, dining and kitchen — a dominant feature of modern homes, according to builder Greg D’Angelo, who just scrapped his own separate dining room for an open living area.

“We had a smaller kitchen and a wall between the dining room, and we realized that we use the dining room twice a year, maybe, and the rest of the time it’s like the mail depot,” he said. “So we renovated our kitchen, took the wall down and now we have this big, beautiful, open kitchen with a big island and there’s a dining table, a sitting area and it’s a really awesome way to live. Only mega, super big houses have dining rooms now.”

In projects across the East End, the Wainscott-based builder is also seeing elements of commercial construction incorporated into residential construction, such as more manufactured wood materials and structural steel that was not commonplace 25 years ago, he said.

Atlantic Project by Bates Masi + Architect. Courtesy Bates Masi + Architects

Exposed steel is a major component of the Atlantic project by Bates Masi + Architects, except that inspiration was pulled from the past — specifically, the Amagansett Life-Saving Station directly across the street.

“Life-saving stations were basically there to hold equipment, but they also became these observation platforms,” architect Paul Masi explained. “We looked at that model, and that’s why we took the kitchen, living, dining and put it upstairs, instead of it traditionally being on the ground floor.

“We have another outdoor level with a little seating area that’s enclosed on three sides — like the deck on a lot of these stations, which had these open, skeletal, post-and-beam systems where they would store equipment,” he continued. “Hang it on the beams, stuff life-saving boats in the rafters, throw ropes over them. And we thought that was really interesting.”

And so, exposed steel beams are the crux of the interior design, acting as a platform for clip-on lighting fixtures, which are moveable, a hanging fireplace and even a suspended staircase.

“That was one of the more aggressive things we did,” Masi said. “We hung the staircase with pencil-like rods from the roof beams, down through the second floor. Doing some research of that life-saving building, it gave our architecture a richer meaning and a more interesting experience, which we wouldn’t have had had that station not been there.”

Bridgehampton-based architect Blaze Makoid also finds himself returning to the basics in his modern builds, using a minimal palate of two or three materials per home on the inside and out — simplifying the composition until the feeling is borderline “monastic,” he said, allowing the exterior to smoothly transition to the interior.

“In a way, we’re trying to bring a serenity or a calmness to the interior,” he said. “We’re conscious of the fact that our clients are pretty active, busy people who are coming here to rest. And we’re trying to make the interiors of our houses feel calm and peaceful, and not frenetic — not adding to stress, but more reducing it.

“I don’t necessarily think of ‘modern’ as a style. I think of it more as a process, a way of living. It’s not necessarily just an aesthetic, at least not to me,” he continued. “Lifestyles have just evolved over the past couple hundred years. The idea of the way architecture worked for a different type of lifestyle doesn’t seem to make sense to me — to try to force that on how people live today. That’s not about look. That’s more about how a piece of architecture functions.”

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