David and Robin Chell happily compare their home in Sunset Hill to a modern Japanese teahouse, thanks to the subtle uses of many Japanese elements. But where the Chells see Japan, their architects see Italy

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David and Robin Chell happily compare their home in Sunset Hill to a modern Japanese teahouse, thanks to the subtle uses of many Japanese elements. But where the Chells see Japan, their architects see Italy.

“One theme that really inspired us was the transfer of light,” says Robin. So much so that their architects at Studio Ectypos, one Italian by birth (Michele Marquardi), the other by heritage (Lucia Pirzio-Biroli), called the house “Chiaroscuro” on their drawings. From Italian, chiaroscuro is “the treatment of light and shade . . . An effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling.”

Pirzio-Biroli explains that the way she and Marquardi like to work is to take traditional concepts, say chiaroscuro, “and think of more primary images like the use of light and dark. These are ideas that are extracted. So you wouldn’t walk in here and say that this was a Japanese teahouse or a Tuscan villa, but there are certain qualities about it that evoke that.” In fact, every room in the house gets natural light, and is decorated by carefully orchestrated shadow.

A study in light, as well as restraint and simplicity, the Chell home was a design collaboration of the two owners and the two architects.”Simplicity is much more difficult to achieve than complexity,” warns Marquardi. So the group spent time exchanging ideas.

At the beginning, the Chells brought many images, several of them Japanese, to the architects. David has traveled and worked in Japan, and introduced Robin to the culture just in time for them to visit her sister there three years ago. As a result, much of the Chells’ wish list was Japanese-inspired: the show of restraint; the use of natural, readily available materials; the unfolding of spaces; and the influence of wabi-sabi (the concept that there is beauty in imperfection).

Coming up first with the big picture allowed them to ensure that every structure inside has a multitude of functions and that restraint abides. They even showed restraint in size: With 2,500 square feet, the house includes a live/work space for Robin’s design firm, Robin Chell Design. The compact plan was also part of a greater plan for sustainability, which included a green roof.

While the Chells certainly showed restraint in that no detail is gratuitous or ostentatious, their design shows absolute precision and incredible attention to detail. The result is a feeling of balance and light, despite the use of heavy materials such as steel and concrete. For example, a single, central concrete blade supports not only the roof but each of the floors, and creates a “lantern” which draws light from the top floor all the way down to the basement; the steel treads of the stairs are perforated, allowing light to pass through; and when two materials come together there is a reveal, so the walls seem to float above the floor, the stairs don’t touch the side walls, and a bookcase lit from beneath appears to float as well.

As requested, the building materials star as themselves, and wherever possible, were left exposed.

And as for the unfolding of spaces, the Japanese use it to create a feeling of anticipation and adventure. To that end, the Chells’ front door is at the back of the house. Inside, a small entryway forces you to take a few important steps and turn a corner before you get to the main living space and discover the stunning view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. And although that space seems wide open, a steel beam creates a false horizon, so the farther into the room you go, the larger the view is.

“When you design a house, you’re designing something that fits somebody who is unique,” says Pirzio-Biroli. So while the Chells’ light-filled glass home may not look like a Japanese teahouse, what’s important is that, to them, it feels like one.

Leora Y. Bloom writes about beautiful homes in and around Seattle. Her e-mail is leorabakes@hotmail.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.