TODAY’S LESSON is this: Sometimes more space is not better space.
James Kuan knows it well. Before moving to the Midcentury perfect Lamplighter condo tower on Capitol Hill, Kuan lived nearby on Broadway, loitering there until a spot in the Lamplighter (with its sparkling swimming pool and garden patios) became available: “There’s still one person here with no cellphone, so that’s why we still have the buzz box.”
Patience rewarded, Kuan snagged a 1,000-square-foot unit before it even hit the market. Didn’t much matter about the shag carpeting, sea-foam-green walls and shuttered closet doors. Kuan was in.
“There’s not a lot of Midcentury on Capitol Hill,” Kuan says. “A friend of mine said, ‘What are you buying?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s got good bones.’ I took enough art in high school to know that it had harmony in the spaces.”
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Upon moving in, Kuan, now a doctor who knows about bones, did a quick five-day refresh: tearing out the floor for Marmoleum, painting the place white.
The home improvements, however, did not make it a home improved.
“I just always remembered what Eames said, that furniture shouldn’t be in the way; there should be traffic flow.”
And Kuan wanted to go with that, the flow.
“How Prentis describes it is it’s kind of like coming into a cave and then it opens up,” Kuan says of his designer, Prentis Hale, of SHED Architecture and Design.
It certainly does, right up to the newly opened kitchen-dining-living area, 30-foot-wide deck and all that lies beyond, a Seattle’s-best view of the Space Needle, EMP, downtown and mountains beyond.
How this all happened was fairly simple, “I let SHED guide me, rather than micromanage them,” Kuan says. “Contemporary and modern stuff can become kind of cliché and trendy. So much of it is fussy. I didn’t want trendy. I didn’t want fussy. I wanted interesting, but not quirky or weird.”
The idea, initially, was to remodel the kitchen and bath, but you know how it goes. One space leads to another. And here, that is exactly the point: the old galley kitchen, for instance, now offers that Eames flow. A utility wall there, however, provides just the right amount of closure (“I’m not always as neat as I should be,” Kuan says), and holds the refrigerator, microwave and space for cabinets; all of it hidden from view beyond this room.
The entry was enlarged by converting a bathroom into a laundry room, but other rooms were made smaller. To define some spaces, Hale sought to enclose them. Sliding doors, meanwhile, offer shared spaces rather than dedicated ones, most notably in the master bathroom. A slider there closes off the toilet from the rest of the room to become a guest powder entered off the hall. The toilet has a hand-washing station atop the tank; when it is flushed, the faucet flows with water to wash hands, draining to fill the tank.
There is no fussy or trendy to be found. The minimal palette includes rift-cut white oak cabinets and paneling, Milestone, Marmoleum, painted drywall and tile flooring.
Interiors are all Kuan, who enjoys rooting around in secondhand shops. The coffee table came from eBay. The yellow entry chair, Goodwill outlet. The Eames dining table, Craigslist. Six Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs, Pacific Galleries.
“In Canada, I didn’t grow up in a place like this. But one day I was talking to my mom, and she said, ‘James, you know, you always wanted to live in an architect-designed place.’ ”
Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific NW magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.