written by:
photos by:
May 4, 2009
Originally published in Small Is the New Big

When an urban expat couple decided to build the suburban house they wanted rather than the one their neighbors expected, they ended up with a spare but airy jewel box and no wooden shingles.

Turning its back to the street and next-door apartment like a curled-up cat, the long, narrow house spills out sideways to the garden, designed by landscape architect Andrea Cochran.

Turning its back to the street and next-door apartment like a curled-up cat, the long, narrow house spills out sideways to the garden, designed by landscape architect Andrea Cochran.

Photo by 
1 / 10
A series of stepping stones leads from the private garden room behind the master bedroom into the open yard.

A series of stepping stones leads from the private garden room behind the master bedroom into the open yard.

Photo by 
2 / 10
May Lawrence sits at the dining table, which features mahogany planks attached to an actual I beam. Above her sprawls a Rigo 99 painting of a bustling Taipei street scene, which according to Ward helps import some "city energy" into the suburbs.

May Lawrence sits at the dining table, which features mahogany planks attached to an actual I beam. Above her sprawls a Rigo 99 painting of a bustling Taipei street scene, which according to Ward helps import some "city energy" into the suburbs.

Photo by 
3 / 10
Charles de Lisle, of the interior design firm Your Space, designed the kitchen backsplash of PVC rubber flooring embedded with stainless steel "plus" signs. The restaurant supply table is flanked by steel-and-wood Lem Piston stools from Design Within Reac

Charles de Lisle, of the interior design firm Your Space, designed the kitchen backsplash of PVC rubber flooring embedded with stainless steel "plus" signs. The restaurant supply table is flanked by steel-and-wood Lem Piston stools from Design Within Reach.

Photo by 
4 / 10
David Baker and cabinetmaker Thomas Jameson designed the freestanding fireplace / media console, which effectively divides the more formal living room from the dining and gathering space while concealing cords and other clutter.

David Baker and cabinetmaker Thomas Jameson designed the freestanding fireplace / media console, which effectively divides the more formal living room from the dining and gathering space while concealing cords and other clutter.

Photo by 
5 / 10
"The structure is simple and straightforward, with nothing hidden," says Baker, "but I made all of the beams and columns as thin and understated as possible, inside and out, so the feeling is delicate rather than monolithic."

"The structure is simple and straightforward, with nothing hidden," says Baker, "but I made all of the beams and columns as thin and understated as possible, inside and out, so the feeling is delicate rather than monolithic."

Photo by 
6 / 10
May Lawrence sits beside one of three ground-level "snow-viewing" windows for which Cochran designed meditative water installations. This one depicts ice mountains (made from recycled glass) that take on an otherworldly glow when lit up at night.

May Lawrence sits beside one of three ground-level "snow-viewing" windows for which Cochran designed meditative water installations. This one depicts ice mountains (made from recycled glass) that take on an otherworldly glow when lit up at night.

Photo by 
7 / 10
The glass platform bed is backed by a headboard of two sheets of lucite embedded with aquamarine wool from Maharam. Hanging pillow-side, electroluminescent draperies glow in the dark.

The glass platform bed is backed by a headboard of two sheets of lucite embedded with aquamarine wool from Maharam. Hanging pillow-side, electroluminescent draperies glow in the dark.

Photo by 
8 / 10
The house moves in linear fashion towards increasingly private zones—upstairs to the family room and down the hall to the master bedroom, where an open door reveals a secluded garden room at the very back.

The house moves in linear fashion towards increasingly private zones—upstairs to the family room and down the hall to the master bedroom, where an open door reveals a secluded garden room at the very back.

Photo by 
9 / 10
Scott Ward and Snowflake share a moment in the sun on their built-in mahogany perch.

Scott Ward and Snowflake share a moment in the sun on their built-in mahogany perch.

Photo by 
10 / 10
Turning its back to the street and next-door apartment like a curled-up cat, the long, narrow house spills out sideways to the garden, designed by landscape architect Andrea Cochran.

Turning its back to the street and next-door apartment like a curled-up cat, the long, narrow house spills out sideways to the garden, designed by landscape architect Andrea Cochran.

Project 
Ward-Lawrence Residence

Around the time that Scott Ward was fixing to build his dream home—a spare, airy two-bedroom house near downtown Palo Alto, California—many in this neck of the woods, giddy with stock options, were erecting mini-manors replete with mudrooms, pantries, libraries, billiard rooms, home spas, and other accoutrements emblematic of gracious living in England between the wars (or a Ralph Lauren spread of more current vintage). So you might think Ward’s neighbors would be thankful for his sensitivity to scale: The house is relatively restrained at under 2,500 square feet.

Alas, no. In fact, the most printable query Ward heard from his immediate neighbors during construction was, “Is that thing a bank?”

Now that people come to sketch the façade of the “honest modern home” Ward shares with his partner, chef May Lawrence, and teenage son, Brendan, it’s hard to believe it inspired such ire. But this is Craftsman country, where folks are as fervent about covered porches and sloping roofs as their neighbors 45 minutes to the north in San Francisco are besotted by bay windows.

May Lawrence sits at the dining table, which features mahogany planks attached to an actual I beam. Above her sprawls a Rigo 99 painting of a bustling Taipei street scene, which according to Ward helps import some "city energy" into the suburbs.

May Lawrence sits at the dining table, which features mahogany planks attached to an actual I beam. Above her sprawls a Rigo 99 painting of a bustling Taipei street scene, which according to Ward helps import some "city energy" into the suburbs.


“It’s nearly impossible to build a modern house in a residential neighborhood in either city,” observes architect David Baker. “And if not for a zoning loophole, we couldn’t have done this one.” (Due to a smattering of apartment buildings nearby, the street was considered transitional and thus escaped design review.) “But ironically, there’s not that much of a chronological divide between these Craftsmans and the first modern homes Joseph Eichler built here in Palo Alto.”

Architect and client first met when Ward, a New Urbanist developer with a master’s in city and regional planning, hired Baker to design an affordable senior housing quadriplex across from one of his more conventional developments. (“David referred to me as ‘neotraditionalist by day, modernist by night,’ ” jokes Ward.) When he reluctantly left the hep café culture of San Francisco’s North Beach for the leafy embrace of the ’burbs (closer to work, a nearby park for his son), Ward felt that Baker could best fulfill his vision of a “disciplined, radically spare” home—despite the architect’s having earned much of his reputation (and awards) for high-density city housing, some endowed with playful flourishes of the pomo persuasion. Baker, a longtime social activist whose website offers quotes from Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, is known for the kinds of grace notes—fountains, courtyards, gardens, natural light—that enhance daily life, be it in low-income developments, trendy live/work lofts, or the Hotel Healdsburg, a minimalist, luxe hotel in the wine country (which, to Baker’s horror, in turn led to many requests for “neo-Tuscan villas”).

“Let’s face it,” says Baker, still tan from his trip to the Burning Man festival, “custom houses are an indulgence, because one could live in a tent. The pleasure is in creating a jewel box—not how the house photographs, but how it feels to be in the space,” continues the architect, who grew up in a solar-powered, rammed-earth house in Arizona built by his father, a self-taught designer inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes.

When approached by Ward, Baker had just returned from Japan, where he was moved by what he describes as the “austere and ethereally beautiful” buildings of Tadao Ando. The opportunity to design an “authentic, calm space” dovetailed with Ward’s desire for a “militant, minimalist house” that would turn its back on the street and the apartment building next door. “It all hinged on Scott’s willingness to have a fairly modest home,” says Baker. “By the time most people custom build, they assume they can’t possibly fit in less than 3,500 square feet.” But for Ward and Lawrence, living in the present translates to a space preternaturally free of tchotchkes. “For Scott, the house itself is his personal statement,” says Baker, “and he had the courage to express his aesthetic, whatever his neighbors might think.”

If some in the neighborhood seemed vexed by its boxy aspect, others were confounded by the materials, despite their elegant austerity. The exterior is clad in panels of Eternit, a sawdust-and-concrete composite made from industrial waste (“a good deal more sustainable than redwood siding,” says Baker), whose bolts create a subtly decorative pattern. “It’s a floating system, like a high-rise,” Baker explains. “You get a crisp look, and because the cracks are voids, the water just runs out.” A built-in mahogany bench provides a permanent niche for plowing through the Sunday papers en plein air.

The side entrance opens into the living room, which is capped with a soaring, double-story ceiling with the volume of a cathedral. Although the lot is slim (50 feet wide and 150 feet long), the space doesn’t seem cramped. “It’s insanely narrow, 20 feet,” says Baker, “but feels gracious partly because of the extended eaves,” which draw the eye outward while shielding the house from the full-on southern sun in summer and providing passive solar heating in winter, aided by concrete floors with radiant heating and thick stucco walls. The room is de-fined by a floating mahogany fireplace console, which partially conceals increasingly private zones—a pared-down great room, upstairs family room, son’s bedroom, and master bedroom, which resides behind a monolithic, 18-foot-tall suspended rolling door.

Charles de Lisle, of the interior design firm Your Space, designed the kitchen backsplash of PVC rubber flooring embedded with stainless steel "plus" signs. The restaurant supply table is flanked by steel-and-wood Lem Piston stools from Design Within Reac

Charles de Lisle, of the interior design firm Your Space, designed the kitchen backsplash of PVC rubber flooring embedded with stainless steel "plus" signs. The restaurant supply table is flanked by steel-and-wood Lem Piston stools from Design Within Reach.


The structure is exposed inside and out, although Baker designed the beams, columns, and supports to be as deli-cate as possible. “It’s basically a refined, wood-timbered house. Pine tongue-and-groove ceiling planks, fir cross beams, and two steel I-beams—nothing hidden—like a traditional house in Kyoto.” Also classically Japanese is the house’s relationship to the gardens, which surround and play off it. The most public planting faces the street: a grid of monolithic granite blocks softened by waves of Irish moss and tufts of blood grass. The side lawn is shielded from the street by a triptych of panels that echo the house’s façade; big double doors open out from the dining area, creating a true indoor/outdoor experience. And the master bedroom leads to a secluded garden room where a foliage scrim screens out the looming building.

The apartments next door are effectively erased by a long, continuous wall, which reminds Ward, somewhat nostalgically, of “a little piece of the city—like a brick wall in a warehouse.” Along its length, Baker punched out three ground-level “snow-viewing” windows, used in Japan to direct the gaze where it wouldn’t naturally drift. They deflect claustrophobia while retaining a meditative sense of privacy, like looking inward and outside at the same time, and each frames a vignette designed by land-scape architect Andrea Cochran to evoke water in its various states: a dripping fountain, glass ice mountains, and, in the bedroom, a swirling mist of fog.

Almost as soon as the house was built, Ward and Lawrence happened upon two pieces of art that went up even before there was a place to sit. Hung high at the roof line, a 23-foot-long WPA-era mural depicting scenes of men at work attracts clusters of viewers like moths outside the corner windows when illuminated at night. Down the hall, renegade artist Rigo 99’s Wedding Photo Studio, Taipei City, 1999 helped prompt the baby-chick yellow of the kitchen walls and the fabric covering the curvilinear Marco Zanuzo sofa.

David Baker and cabinetmaker Thomas Jameson designed the freestanding fireplace / media console, which effectively divides the more formal living room from the dining and gathering space while concealing cords and other clutter.

David Baker and cabinetmaker Thomas Jameson designed the freestanding fireplace / media console, which effectively divides the more formal living room from the dining and gathering space while concealing cords and other clutter.


“I felt much more confident about the architecture than the furnishings,” admits Ward, who brought in interior designer Charles de Lisle. (In a strange twist, the designer had already seen the facade, when a client who lived next door asked, “Isn’t that the ugliest house you’ve ever seen?”) But de Lisle loved it, and was heartened to learn that Ward and Lawrence weren’t seeking some instant furniture program—“Mies, Eames, Breuer, boom!”—but wanted to pick or custom-make each piece to suit its space. For example, their desire for the living room seating to relate to the fireplace prompted a coffee table with a base of sandblasted firewood and a top screened with the mirror image of a spark plug. When pushed together, the custom couches, table, and stools graphically mimic and fill the same dimensions as the console (a slightly fetishistic detail that has to be explained a few times to be appreciated).

A more relaxed social hub is built around the couch and comfy Cassina chairs on the other side of the fireplace. De Lisle made the I-beam-and-mahogany-plank dining table intentionally narrow, both to foster inti-macy and to place Lawrence’s food center stage. Like the table, much of the furniture in the house is either dauntingly heavy or attached—there’s not a lot of moving things about on whim. In the master bedroom, a Lucite sideboard screws into the wall in front of the glass platform bed, where panels of nightlight drapery embedded with fiber optics hang pillow-side. And outside the curtainless windows, the trees are finally high enough to screen the walk-in shower from roving eyes.

“The house has grown into itself,” says Ward. “And now that a couple more modern houses have sprung up nearby, we might even end up with a nice little modern home ghetto! I can honestly say, I never miss the front porch.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a show on Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016