Modern Marvels

Originally appeared on sothebysrealty.com.

“Less is more.”

That was the edict of one of modern architecture’s patron saints, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is still a guiding principle for many contemporary practitioners. Geometric shapes, a lack of ornamentation, open, efficient floor plans, and seamless indoor-outdoor living are hallmarks of modern masterpieces. But above all, materials—glass, steel, and concrete—shape the designs.

Van der Rohe himself was a glass-and-steel devotee, as evidenced not only by his signature glass box skyscrapers (such as the Seagram building in New York), but also the private homes he designed.

One of his most famous is the Farnsworth House, a one-level glass home, framed in white metal. Located about an hour from Chicago, it was completed in 1951 and is now a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Van der Rohe, born in Germany and part of a migration of architects to the U.S. before World War II, was part of the International Modern school. But other styles, such as Dutch De Stijl architecture, also incorporated many of the modern elements.

One example is the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht in the Netherlands. The residence was designed by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld for the woman he loved, Truus Schröder, and her three children, according to Natalie Dubois, curator of the house, which is now a museum. Rietveld was inspired by the Dutch artistic movement De Stijl. Fluid transitions between interior and exterior, clean lines, and the use of primary colors next to white, gray, and black (think Piet Mondrian, who was one of the leaders of the movement).

But Schröder had ideas, too, and wanted a home that was less constrained than most traditional builds.

“It’s based on the way she wanted to live,” Dubois says. That meant a glass facade, which was new at the time, open interior spaces with sliding walls, little to no ornamentation, and built-ins and furniture that have multiple uses. Visitors to the home often compare it to a houseboat, mobile home, or modern tiny house, where everything is multifunctional and compact, Dubois notes.

Many of the design elements seen in these homes are still popular with today’s architects. Take the Lost House in London by architect Sir David Adjaye, winner of the 2021 Royal Gold Medal, an award approved by Her Majesty The Queen and given to those who have had a significant influence on the advancement of architecture.

The 4,000-square-foot residence gets its name from its simple entryway, according to listing agent Guy Bradshaw of United Kingdom Sotheby’s International Realty. “It’s literally just a front door,” he says. “You could walk by it every day for 10 years and not know it’s there.”

The Lost House in London was designed by Sir David Adjaye. It looks understated from the outside, but is architecturally sophisticated inside

£6,500,000

Property ID: MFL5LR | sothebysrealty.com

United Kingdom Sotheby’s International Realty

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But beyond that door is an open living space with textured black walls and three light wells that create glass-encased interior courtyards and flood the space with sunlight. One of those light wells is at the center of the space and features a fishpond, while the others create gardens within the home.

The Lost House interior, has black walls and three light wells.
The Lost House interior, has black walls and three light wells

 

“This home was created in 2004 effectively out of nothing,” he says. “It was an old storage yard, and Sir David Adjaye created this incredible U-shaped home with volume, space, and the clever use of light.”

The three-bedroom, three-bathroom home, listed for £6.5 million, also features an indoor pool, a large office above the garage, and a lime-green sunken entertainment room that brings color to the otherwise dark palette.

In Spain’s Balearic Islands, the color scheme is decidedly lighter. There, affluent foreign buyers are looking for minimalist homes with views, clean lines, and outdoor space, says Alejandra Vanoli, managing director of VIVA Sotheby’s.

One such property is a newly completed four-bedroom, four-bathroom villa in Palma de Mallorca. The white box structure is like a modern version of Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, but with mountain views. And although there are floor-to-ceiling windows, it is also partially covered by Iroko wooden cladding that brings warmth to the minimalist architecture.

“The construction is very solid with a lot of noble wood,” says Vanoli, adding that home automation allows owners to control and monitor the residence from afar. There’s a pool and lounge area, outdoor fireplace, oak flooring throughout, travertine marble floors, and radiant, underfloor heating. The property is listed for €3.5 million and is represented by Sandra Cosio of Mallorca Sotheby’s.

A white box home in Palma de Mallorca, nails indoor-outdoor synergy
A white box home in Palma de Mallorca, nails indoor-outdoor synergy.

The preferred materials of modern architecture, exposed steel, concrete, and lots of glass, are also on display at a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home on the market in Seattle. Like the Mallorca home, it incorporates natural elements to take the edge off the minimalist design.

“The materials, while restrained in the home, are still very rich and so well defined,” says listing agent Moira Holley, the founding director of Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty and a co-founder of the firm’s resale division. “The use of the materials is really exquisite.”

Double-height windows in the center of the residence, asking $2.45 million, allow for far-reaching views of the Puget Sound, Bainbridge Island, and the Olympic Mountains. The main floor has an open-floor plan with a fireplace surrounded by cold-rolled steel and walls lined with bookshelves.

Designed by Seattle-based Eric Cobb, one of the top-five contemporary architects in the Northwest U.S., the residence has two terraces that extend the living space outside, Holley notes. On the upper level, the outdoor space is adjacent to the primary bedroom suite and features a spa with “the most incredible view.”

In fact, Cobb’s ample use of glass means there are vistas from almost everywhere in the house, including the garage.

“Luxury equals a view for your car,” Holley jokes.

€3,500,000

Property ID: 9RE8SE | sothebysrealty.com

Mallorca Sotheby’s International Realty

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A white box home in Palma de Mallorca, nails indoor-outdoor synergy

White-Hot Interiors

There’s a restrained beauty about an all-white space; it’s a sophisticated refinement that awes in its absence of color. And, depending on accent features, furniture, and fabrics, the effect can feel warm and welcoming or modern and minimalist.

“White spaces are serene and provide a neutral setting for other more subtle items in the room to shine,” says Amalia Graziani of Noor Property Group, a Manhattan-based real estate development firm. They also create a blank canvas, says Phillip Thomas, founder and principal of Phillip Thomas Inc. in New York City. “You can build a story within the space,” he says. Creating an inspired design is all in the details.

Set against the blue of the water in Miami, this nearly all-white room designed by Phillip Thomas really pops
Set against the blue of the water in Miami, this nearly all-white room designed by Phillip Thomas really pops.

VARY THE SHADES

Playing with different tones of white and cream can keep the room from feeling too stark, says Rome, Italy-based architect and designer Achille Salvagni. He suggests incorporating prints that combine shades of either white or cream on the walls, in the upholstery, or even on the floor. “Small or subtle pops of color or metallics introduced into the room, that come from art and accessories, also add warmth and a level of sophistication,” Salvagni says. “I like to use a warmer white on the walls paired with brighter trim and a cooler ceiling,” Graziani says. “Subtle contrast makes the space feel much more inviting.”

CREATE TEXTURAL TOUCHES

Warming up the room and adding dimension is a matter of texture. “Texture is key in keeping a white space from lacking soul,” Thomas says. “Texture reflects light—both natural and artificial—in different ways, and light excites the eye.”

Salvagni prefers materials such as cashmere, boucle, sheepskin, and mohair, particularly for upholstery, to add warmth, depth, and a sense of comfort. For carpeting, he opts for a plush, warm-toned silk. “I love the idea of complementing a white ceiling and all-white walls with a printed carpet that combines different shades of white and cream,” he says. Hand-knotted and handwoven rugs add sophistication and a sense of luxury to a space, says Lance Thomas, co-founder of Room Service, a fine furniture and interior design firm in Lake Charles, La. “I personally like to contrast the style of my rug to the furniture that sits on top of it,” he says.

Graziani prefers chunky sisal rugs for warmth and texture to offset cool walls. She also loves the contrast of a rough linen weave alongside softer materials such as cashmere and boucle. But texture is not just found in textiles. Lance Thomas recommends wallpapering walls in suede or introducing a lacquered finish on a side table.

A white space designed by Phillip Thomas, feels decidedly upscale.
A white space designed by Phillip Thomas, feels decidedly upscale

 

FOCUS ON ACCENTS

Finishes such as metal play a significant role in achieving an impactful all-white space, Lance Thomas says. “Matte black or iron hardware and fixtures can add stark contrast and a contemporary spin on the space,” he adds. And contrast is a powerful tool. “When the eye sees the truest white and the truest black in a space, all of the other variations of white become richer.”

Given the neutral nature of white walls, there’s a chance to play with interesting hardware and doors, Graziani says. “Sharp stainless door handles, antique glass knobs, or a bold door will shine in an otherwise understated room,” she says. For instance, in one of the white rooms she’s designed, she added three sets of double French doors in place of conventional doors to add depth and reflection. “Adding structural details such as bold beams, chair rails, and paneling also elevates the space and creates dimension,” she says. And don’t forget about greenery, “not only for its vibrant color, but to add a sense of warmth, calm, and fragrance to a space,” Lance Thomas says.

Layering is another important tool. “An all-white space looks best when it feels collected over time,” he adds. For example, a mid-century coffee table would play nicely on top of an antique rug. Or, he recommends framing a vintage piece of art in a contemporary lacquered frame. His other musts: a healthy mix of patterns, patina, and personality, wood furniture, at least one antique—even in a contemporary space—as well as a custom-tailored piece. “When a space feels collected, it creates intention,” Lance Thomas says.

In terms of shapes, Salvagni suggests round and organic forms for sofas, chaises, coffee and dining tables, and even carpets. “These round and organic shapes will accentuate the coziness of the room,” he says.

Black and white contrast well in a room by Lance Thomas
Black and white contrast well in a room by Lance Thomas.

 

LET THERE BE LIGHT

“Lighting is probably the best way to add another dimension and elemental layering,” Salvagni says. The first thing he looks for is to add warm-hued lighting as well as an appropriately proportioned light fixture. “This will create the dimension needed to enhance the ambiance in the room, and when done correctly, always helps to keep a room feeling warm and looking elegantly stylish,” he explains.

“Ambient lighting is a wonderful way to intentionally create depth through highlights and shadows,” Lance Thomas adds. “I love the way a pair of wall sconces can cast shadows onto the ceiling and highlight slivers of surrounding furniture.”

Incorporating multiple sources of light helps a room feel more inviting, Graziani says. “Instead of relying on a central pendant or chandelier, incorporating soft secondary sources of light, such as picture lighting and task lamps, can make a big difference,” she says.