Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today we look at Ben Erickson’s weekend home in Montague Township, New Jersey, where the furniture designer has created a rustic family retreat near High Point State Park and on the bank of a pond teeming with bullfrogs.
During the week, Ben Erickson, his partner Ayana Leonard, and their son August live in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, but on the weekends they make a pilgrimage to the wilderness of northern New Jersey. It’s merely a two-hour drive, but the lifestyle and mindset are a world away.
In Bed-Stuy, the family lives in a brownstone on a street where the background noise is composed of hip-hop and reggae music wafting from the windows of passing cars and the wail of fire truck sirens. Looking out their front windows, they see a row of brownstones across the street that mirrors their own home. "In our New Jersey house, it’s the polar opposite. It’s total country living," says Erickson. "Here, it’s just the sounds of pure wildlife. We see and hear woodpeckers, turkeys, deer—even bears are fairly common. At night, there’s a chorus of bullfrogs from the pond."
How they got there, and how they turned a dilapidated sauna into a modern-yet-rugged cabin, springs from the wish of his once-hippie mother.
"When I was born, she and my dad were hippies in Vermont," Erickson says. "They raised me in Hackettstown, New Jersey, but I think she always wanted to get back to the land." That desire led her on a year-long search for a wilderness property she could share with her family. With her son’s help, she looked in the Catskills and Upstate New York, before she discovered this property: a wooded, 30-acre plot Erickson describes as being "in the middle of nowhere."
Besides natural beauty and plenty of wildlife, the property included a rundown cabin with a sauna in the back that was built in the 1950s or 1960s. It was here Erickson decided to stake a claim for his family.
His plans for the one-bedroom, one-bathroom, 850-square-foot structure preserved the spirit of the building but advanced its aesthetic far into the wilds of modern territory. "I wanted something minimal and severe, nothing predictable," says Erickson. "That’s just my style; I gravitate away from the run of the mill." (After all, this is a designer who created Wormhole, a hand-polished brass coffee table that's a 3D representation of a wormhole diagram discovered in an old physics textbook.)
In this case, that unconventional thinking translates to a house that’s black on the outside and white on the inside with a deck that unfurls into the landscape.
The first step was to make the place less knotty, in other words, remove much of the knotty pine panelling. A lot of Erickson’s furniture is wood, and he loves the material. "But there can definitely be too much of it, and it can get predictable, heavy, and dark," he says. "I felt like the furniture and art would pop if we put it against a calmer background." He covered the highly textured panelling with drywall, but he left the ceiling and the beams above alone. He repurposed the paneling as molding throughout the house.
In the living room, Erickson’s love of making furniture, collecting vintage finds, and art is on display. A tufted sofa, scored at an estate sale, is fronted by a custom-made live-edge table and two EÆ (Erickson Aesthetics) lounge chairs. The angle of a crane-like light fixture (Erickson calls it a Jean Prouvé knockoff) matches the lines of the ceiling.
Large sliding doors reveal a deck without rails that melts into the green landscape. "I wanted it to disappear, to make the indoors and outdoors seamless," says Erickson.
In the adjacent kitchen, the designer created an island from a vintage grand piano with a square case that he restored and topped with marble. "It was a 100-year-old piano I found at an estate sale," he says. "I built the whole kitchen around it, sourcing Brazilian Rosewood veneer for the cabinets to match the piano." When asked if he knew he would use the piano for this purpose, Erickson laughs and says: "No, I didn’t. I’ve had it for a long, long time. I didn’t know what I’d do with it, I just knew I liked it."
In the bedroom, Erickson, who also does a lot of custom work, created a massive headboard out of a piece of spalted hackberry wood. "Spalted" refers to the gray lines caused by fungus that grows when a tree starts to decay. "When a piece of wood like that is milled, it causes crazy lines and textures," says Erickson.
The vintage nightstands have been bleached, refinished, and given French walnut drawer faces by the designer to better match the new headboard. At the foot of the bed, the couple placed a pair of EÆ XX ottomans he created that can fold into magazine racks.
The bathroom was once the sauna, and it was in an extreme state of disrepair. "My vision for this space was a chic minimalism," says Erickson. He added a poured concrete floor, striated white oak marble tiles, and a large skylight. The crowning glory is a sink carved out of a slab of wood. To make it stand up to water, he had it coated with polyester resin. "It’s held up beautifully," he notes.
The family’s love for the cabin is also built to last. One of the biggest benefits for Erickson is that he gets to see his son grow up in nature. "It’s important to me that he have the kind of childhood that kids had generations ago," he says. "I want him to experience grass stains, bug bites, and finding a snake."
Equally as important is the chance for the couple to relax into the environment. "I find that my design thinking has shifted a bit since we’ve lived here," Erickson says. "I’m looking at making furniture with the capability of living indoors or outdoors, things that have multiple uses and span two spaces."
And, while there are definitely four seasons here, for the family it’s a year-round retreat. "I love the balance of city life and country life," says Erickson. "I love the culture of Brooklyn, it’s phenomenal. But I also love the privacy, fresh air, and nature up here. I don’t believe in cliches or live my life by them, but it’s true that it’s the best of both worlds."