Even the cable guy loves architect Mark Thomson’s Phinney Ridge creation.

Share story

ARCHITECT MARK THOMSON saw the lot and hatched a plan.

On one side of the property tucked up against a Phinney Ridge hillside he would build an ultracontemporary studio/garage. White and spare, stucco and aluminum.

And on the other, how about a chalet? Chocolate brown, decorated, the skirled (wavy-edged) cedar siding like buttercream cake frosting. In fact, he says, “It’s like chocolate cake, because it’s brown like a chocolate cake.”


“Remember, all this stuff is very site specific,” he warns. “Back in the day, the lot was meant to be split, but it never happened. I built this all out with that same idea: They are two separate things.

“I’m into morphology.”

A visit with Thomson always leads to a trip to the nearest dictionary. Morphology: The branch of biology dealing with the form and structure of organisms.

On a previous visit, Mr. Thomson shared with us the contemporary studio/garage side of his home.

Today we’ve come for the chalet.

“The first order of course in Seattle is to look at the light,” he says. “Then there’s the zoning. Then structural. I try to keep it as simple as possible.”

And, despite appearances, it is. In fact, inside it’s downright spare. Walls are white: “You can’t paint unless you have a canvas,” he says. The large and impressive scrollwork over the front of the home (Thomson, whose firm is called MTAP, prefers to call it “ornamentation”) is his own creation, using three circles: “Two are opened and teardropped on the bottom.” The rest of the ornate trim throughout the otherwise contemporary home, around kitchen windows, railings, exterior trim, are repeats of this pattern.

Rooms (three bedrooms, two baths) are small, tall: “You can really live in small spaces if you have height.” The living room is open to the upstairs, 30 feet: “I go up the full shebang,” he says of building codes.

The original bungalow — the chalet sits on its foundation, uses its fir floors — faced the alley. Thomson shifted the focus inward to the lot, to views he could control, even though, from his room upstairs, there are sweeping sights from Fisherman’s Terminal to the Ballard Locks. “I can control the view to the north, but not to the west. Somebody could build.”

Large windows and 8-foot store doors flood the home with light. “Northern light is the best light in Seattle. It’s diffuse and, plus, it doesn’t ruin things.”

Interiors are punctuated by pops of color from art: a large painting of a baseball pitcher by Seattle artist Tom Horn in the family room, a Warhol print (pink cow, blue background) in the dining room.

The kitchen is Ikea. “The cabinets are the ones no one buys. You have to go in the back to find them. And the chopping block counter? I had to oil it once, but it came right back. I gotta say, look it at this . . . ” he pulls open a drawer to watch it close gently and completely.

The whole package, he would like to make clear, is his personal vision, an experiment. “It’s OK to have ideas. You just have to be careful not to use too many.” That said, Thomson produces a cocktail-napkin sketch he made at the very beginning. (Yes, architects really do that.)

“I wanna build stuff worth looking at. I got all these people around me who gotta look at it.”

A mission most accomplished.

“Even the cable guy compliments the house,” Thomson says. “Who gets compliments from the cable guy?”