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Spectacular Suburban Reno Trades Cornices for Sapele Wood

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Today Curbed sits down with Andrew Wilkinson, principal of his eponymous NYC-based architecture firm, to chat about his renovation of a midcentury-inspired house "that had suffered some awful decorating touches over the years," he explains, adding, "Our job was more editing and stripping out." Two words, Andrew: those floors! Please find the full interview below.

Curbed National: Andrew, you've spent time in Singapore. How long were you abroad, what for, and how do you think your time overseas informed your design aesthetic?
Andrew Wilkinson: Prior to starting my own practice, I worked for the New York office of Gensler Associates. One of my last projects with them as project architect was a private banking office located in Singapore. I spent three months there and during what little down time we had, managed to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan. My visit to Japan—in particular Kyoto—was simply amazing, and affirmed my passion for Asian-inspired design. The ancient temples, as well as most modern structures, seemed so clear to me.

CN: If you had to whittle that design aesthetic to a five-word description, could you do so? What would it be?
AW: Practical inspired art for living.

CN: Let's talk about the project here, in Penn Valley, Pa. How did the clients find you?
AW: The clients are my sister-in law and her husband! They actually interviewed other local architects, but with each interview, they became increasingly worried that the professionals were not hearing them—that they as clients loved the house and wanted to take it further, not start from the beginning (one architect actually suggested tearing it down and starting over!). The more they discussed their process with me, the more it became clear to them that I really believed and agreed what they had: it was a great house with great bones, but it needed help.

CN: At the start of the project the house was, as you say, "mistreated." Can you describe what you mean?
AW: Not mistreated in a malicious way, but in a "I'm not sure what to do here" kind of way. The previous owners had traditional elements—cornices, billowy window treatments, fake beams—to wrestle the house into looking like a traditional house, which it isn't. It was a case of split personalities. Once we eliminated the influence of one aspect—the traditional—and further developed a modern vocabulary, it was smooth sailing. Everything fell into place.

CN: During your first meeting, what did your sister-in-law and her husband ask? How did they envision using the home?
AW: They had a clear vision for this home: It Shall Be a Party House. They have two young boys, and their house had always been the place where friends showed up; it needed to accommodate—and realistically promote—that type of living. They're religiously observant and very social, which means any given Friday or Saturday there could be 18 or more people for dinner. And to feed so many—my sister in law is an amazing cook—a very smart, efficient kosher kitchen was a must. To balance that, their master suite had to be like staying at an isolated five-star hotel.

CN: Talk a little about building materials. What predominates?
AW: We started with selecting a flooring material that we knew we wanted throughout the entire house: Sapele wood, which has a nice medium value and visual weight. Plus, it's a bit different from that they had previously known and experienced. We used Sapele—and occasionally close cousin mahogany—for custom built-ins, cabinets, and the custom front doors. Also, we chose a wonderfully textured, durable matte-finish porcelain tile for the entry sequence and newly created loggia. Travertine wound up as a "carpet" inlay in the kitchen to break up the vast amount of wood.

CN: How long was the renovation process?
AW: The construction lasted four months.

CN: Any major hurdles or challenges?
AW: Our contractor was accustomed to traditional work—again, cornices, trim work, moldings—and took some time to become comfortable with crafting a modern project. Once he became conversant with the language and really got the hang of it, it was amazing how many fewer phone calls I received.

CN: What would you say first hits visitors about the home, now that all is said and done?
AW: We spent a lot of time and energy on the entry; there's new clear glass surrounding the door, simplified ceilings, and materials and color that run from the outside in. So I think when a visitor arrives in the foyer, they almost feel like they are somewhere between outdoors and indoors. It's a bit murky perhaps, but a good murky.

CN: Is there a particular nook, room, corner, cranny, etc., that you most
appreciate now that the project is finished? Why?
AW: The original house layout had a huge second-floor loft accessible from the master bedroom. We decided the space could be utilized better, so we created a guest room with a full bath. It's now accessed by a new stairway under a large existing skylight. This stair itself is located at the end of what was—and what typically is—a long, dark hallway to the bedrooms. It not only provides an enjoyable ascent for any guest, but it also benefits the owners by siphoning light into the middle of the house and providing an exhilarating sense of verticality along a compressed passageway. The guest room bathroom on the second floor has an interior window that borrows light from this sun-filled space. I love being able to solve several problems with one move—I do appreciate that the most!



Photos: Garrett Rowland

· Wilkinson Architects [official site]