Architect Bob Swain creates a Phinney Ridge refuge where everything works — on more than one level.

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AS YOU AMBLE along the lushly landscaped, wood-planked path to Bob Swain’s Phinney Ridge home — once you find Bob Swain’s Phinney Ridge home — your shoulders slump. Your neck destresses. You breathe deeply (remember that?) and sigh, not even on purpose: “Ahhh.”

Wait just one city-slickin’ minute here — is this a house, or some kind of mystic hidden oasis?

Swain calls the nearly 3-inch-thick madrone slab table that anchors the lower level of his home a “piece of magic.” Crafted from a single board by furniture maker Pat Howe (who created many pieces in Swain’s home), the table originated from a 4-foot-diameter tree that had been curing (mostly standing, dead, and then a few years in a Seattle garage) for 30 years. “The tree was once used for a barbed-wire fence,” Swain says. “They pulled the barbs out of the wood.” Bits of history, and the former crawl space, include old posts that were recycled into steps, 150-year-old beams from a Tacoma mill and a concrete floor carefully matched to the color of the sand underneath the house. Swain says he and interior designer Marjorie Yam work together on professional projects and often “do a barter deal” on personal ones, like this space. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)
Swain calls the nearly 3-inch-thick madrone slab table that anchors the lower level of his home a “piece of magic.” Crafted from a single board by furniture maker Pat Howe (who created many pieces in Swain’s home), the table originated from a 4-foot-diameter tree that had been curing (mostly standing, dead, and then a few years in a Seattle garage) for 30 years. “The tree was once used for a barbed-wire fence,” Swain says. “They pulled the barbs out of the wood.” Bits of history, and the former crawl space, include old posts that were recycled into steps, 150-year-old beams from a Tacoma mill and a concrete floor carefully matched to the color of the sand underneath the house. Swain says he and interior designer Marjorie Yam work together on professional projects and often “do a barter deal” on personal ones, like this space. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)

Yes. And yes.

“We live too-intense lives,” says Swain, the architect/designer behind Robert Edson Swain Architecture + Design. “In a busy city, how do you create refuge? It’s an emotional experience as you decompress before you make it to the front door.”

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Technically (though not argumentatively, because we are very relaxed), there are three doors to the three living “environments” that make up Swain’s intentionally tucked-away and thoughtfully renovated 1905 home. Together, they add up to 1,830 square feet, give or take, split between the main building’s upper level, a back-house master suite/office (formerly a one-car garage) and a lower-level entertainment area Swain jokingly (but kind of aptly, actually) calls a “cantina.”

Swain bought his “cabin in the woods” hideaway in 1998. The “long, skinny, tiny T-shaped building on piers” had been modified over the years but, let’s say, maybe not to its full potential.

“The first thing I did was just cleanse,” Swain says. Adios, asbestos. See ya, sad shag carpet and smoke-yellow walls. Bye-bye, giant pink GE refrigerator.

Out went the “classic workers’ housing” vibe. In came the outside. And now every wide-reaching window offers a soothing view of greenery.

A former president of the Pratt Fine Arts Center board of trustees, Swain says he “carefully thought to support a lot of art” in his home. His cathedral-ceilinged living area is a virtual gallery of collected art and furnishings by classic designers, with a Le Corbusier cube chair, Noguchi table and Frank sofa alongside a recaned and reglued rocking chair from the 1800s. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)
A former president of the Pratt Fine Arts Center board of trustees, Swain says he “carefully thought to support a lot of art” in his home. His cathedral-ceilinged living area is a virtual gallery of collected art and furnishings by classic designers, with a Le Corbusier cube chair, Noguchi table and Frank sofa alongside a recaned and reglued rocking chair from the 1800s. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)

“I love climbing, hiking and wilderness,” Swain says. “My fantasy is living in a Cascades cabin I could sleep in every night after work without driving to Methow. This is like a vacation every day in the city.”

But it’s a vacation spot where things work.

“Everything serves at least three purposes, and it has to be beautiful,” says Swain, a credit to his New England boatbuilding heritage. “Everything is very changeable. It’s a way to fit things you shouldn’t be able to fit in a small space.”

A 1990s Gabbeh rug grounds Swain’s extra-convertible study, filled with pieces he’s been “slowly collecting,” such as a 1927 Le Corbusier lounge chair, leather Wassily chairs and a 1967 Guy Aulenti coffee table (outfitted with tail wheels from small airplanes). Swain once designed the interior of a private Boeing 737 and held meetings here to divine inspiration from the space. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)
A 1990s Gabbeh rug grounds Swain’s extra-convertible study, filled with pieces he’s been “slowly collecting,” such as a 1927 Le Corbusier lounge chair, leather Wassily chairs and a 1967 Guy Aulenti coffee table (outfitted with tail wheels from small airplanes). Swain once designed the interior of a private Boeing 737 and held meetings here to divine inspiration from the space. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)

Striking examples are rampant:

• It’s fitting that the back house used to be a garage, because now it screams convertible. Swain sited his gloriously skylighted bedroom up high, “driven by the sky,” to create storage space underneath. His study turns into a yoga area once he moves chairs, nests a coffee table under a bigger table, and extracts the massage table from its below-bedroom nook. The same space transforms into business-meeting central when he angles the larger table 90 degrees, slides a wooden door to block the bedroom stairs, and hangs presentations from a pinboard rail.

The sitting area of Swain’s study is “super-quiet,” he says, and overlooks a garden through an open wall of glass. Swain says he placed windows where he has “major privacy.” (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)
The sitting area of Swain’s study is “super-quiet,” he says, and overlooks a garden through an open wall of glass. Swain says he placed windows where he has “major privacy.” (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)

• Opposite the rusted-steel-sided, cooper-floored fireplace in the living area, a beautiful bookcase looks a lot like your basic beautiful bookcase. But then it moves — and exposes a hidden staircase leading to the lower level.

Swain added a versatile “cantina” entertainment space partially below grade. It’s accessible via a private entrance, and this hidden staircase. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)
Swain added a versatile “cantina” entertainment space partially below grade. It’s accessible via a private entrance, and this hidden staircase. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)

• Down those stairs, the former crawl space is now a magical place of presto-change-o. Poof! It’s a gathering spot: dinner around a 300-pound madrone-slab table and movies in the entertainment nook (on custom seating Swain designed). Abracadabra! It’s a complete guesthouse. Or apartment. Or pied-à-terre. The seating area becomes a queen bed; glass-framed doors define the new sleeping space; and you’ll find your guest bathroom behind, and kind of nestled within, the translucent glass walls framed by steel-shelved bookcases. (That mirror above the granite sink nook just outside? Also a door to the service area.)

Everything in Swain’s home is super-versatile, including its owner. Swain also does urban and landscape design, city master planning and mixed-use and residential architecture in China. This lower-level steel-shelved bookcase not only displays beautiful gifts from China, such as a packaged 18-foot-long silk scroll and a gold-plated framed sculpture; it also frames a toilet and shower room behind its translucent glass back. The fully stocked and equipped butlers pantry/kitchen/bar is at right. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)
Everything in Swain’s home is super-versatile, including its owner. Swain also does urban and landscape design, city master planning and mixed-use and residential architecture in China. This lower-level steel-shelved bookcase not only displays beautiful gifts from China, such as a packaged 18-foot-long silk scroll and a gold-plated framed sculpture; it also frames a toilet and shower room behind its translucent glass back. The fully stocked and equipped butlers pantry/kitchen/bar is at right. (Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times)

• Elsewhere (everywhere), walls hide drawers and light switches; screens shield electric panels and garden supplies; furnishings hold shelves; and nooks conceal storage spaces, travel gear and even a rolling wine shelf.

“I’m a person who’s still super-practical,” Swain says. “My way of thinking with this house is that I don’t let you feel anything is ever a compromise. It’s all in the detailing and thoughtfulness and mindfulness.”

Mindfulness, did he say? Ahhh.