Gesturing at the wood-and-iron house he designed for his family three years ago, the Buenos Aires–based furniture designer and architect Alejandro Sticotti declares, "It was like putting in a UFO, like something from Mars." True, with its clean lines, open floor plan, and raw finishes it stands in stark contrast to its decidedly more traditional neighbors in this tranquil Buenos Aires suburb of Olivos—mostly hundred-year-old English Tudor-style houses with terra-cotta tile roofs and warrens of small, dark rooms. But unlike the derivative surrounding buildings, Sticotti’s house actually feels Argentinean, as if it blossomed out of its gardenlike plot, a genuine native species. It practically did. When Sticotti and his wife, Mercedes Hernaez, a graphic designer, began looking for a house in this neighborhood 20 minutes north of downtown Buenos Aires, they couldn’t imagine living in a typical residence’s cramped quarters. He was a devoted modernist, addicted to "natural materials, clean spaces, less is more" in both his furniture and building designs. And she had previously lived in an airy colonial-style apartment in the chic Palermo neighborhood. But one site did catch their eye: the 5,400-square-foot garden outside one of the houses they were considering. Exhilarated by the idea of finally designing their own home, and delighted by its location next to a tree-filled town plaza, Sticotti and Hernaez made an offer for the land and it was accepted.
Sticotti had designed about a dozen houses for friends and clients over the past two decades—he studied architecture at the University of Buenos Aires before establishing his own line of furniture, NET—so building his own wasn’t much of a stretch. "To him, it was like creating a grand meuble," says Hernaez—a big piece of furniture. He custom-designed every detail and had 14 employees in his furniture workshop and architecture studio fabricate them, from the gigantic, Mondrianesque installations of double-paned windows and doors (made of locally forged iron and rare peteriby wood from northern Argentina) to the modular lapacho-and-pine shelving units used throughout the house to hold books and CDs. Design Within Reach was so impressed that they picked up the shelves for distribution in the United States.
The house held symbolic value for the couple: It was a physical rebuilding of their lives after a series of turbulent events. First there was the emotional turmoil of their relationship—when they met back in 1995, they were both married to other people, each with two children of their own. And then there was the devastating economic crisis of 2001, during which Argentines’ bank accounts were frozen and devalued, making investing in anything, including a home, extremely challenging. Previously abundant construction materials from abroad were suddenly scarce and extremely expensive, forcing designers to look inward for inspiration and recycled materials—a new concept for the country, though not for Sticotti, who has always liked working with old wood. Because of this necessary resourcefulness (and a foreign market suddenly interested in Argentina’s newly affordable goods), the early 2000s were a particularly vibrant and creative moment for Argentinean design, says Sticotti.
Reflecting that economic and architectural climate, as well as Sticotti’s own aesthetic leanings, the finished house is very much "of Argentina," as he says. "People always say that Buenos Aires is like a European city [because of the baroque architecture and Italian heritage], but at the same time, we have our own culture, our own materials. This house is all B.A. In a way, I was trying to find something that represents us—and what we’ve got here is leather and wood and concrete."
Those three materials make many appearances, in several incarnations, throughout the house. The exterior is clad with strips of Latin American lapacho hardwood, affixed an inch from the building to provide good insulation and air circulation; like teak, it will weather and gray over time. The second and third stories—dedicated to the children’s bedrooms and the master bedroom, respectively—have floors of recycled pine, recovered from a local demolition site. (The couple’s children live with them part-time and range in age between 11 and 18.) The walls are paneled in full sheets of plywood, to minimize scrap and keep costs down. Slats salvaged from an old house in La Boca—a Buenos Aires neighborhood known both for its rainbow-colored wooden houses and as the birthplace of tango—lend visual interest to walls in the living room and mas-ter bedroom and are affixed backwards to hide their brightly painted faces.
In a nod to traditional Argentinean construction techniques, the ceilings and central structural wall are poured-in-place concrete, with seams and cracks showing "for honesty," says Sticotti. "I try to use simple, honest materials. I don’t like paint or plaster; I prefer to leave things as they come, and show how things are made." Furniture from Sticotti’s own line provides most of the house’s decorative flourishes. Mixed in with a scattering of design icons—wire Bertoia chairs and a pair of cowhide-covered butterfly chairs, invented in 1939 by three Buenos Aires designers—are a plethora of NET products: router-cut cedar light shades; wooden stools topped with woven rawhide; tray-topped side tables (used as nightstands in the bedrooms and as a coffee table in front of the couch); and those modular shelving units, lined with books along a narrow catwalk hovering above the double-height living room.
"A house floating in the garden" is how Sticotti describes the finished building. Every room overlooks the surrounding landscape, with treetop and park views from the upstairs bedrooms and a tangle of flowering plants, cacti, and jacaranda trees visible from the ground-floor living area. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors slide open onto large patios, physically extending the interior living space into the garden, and a stacked stone fireplace literally penetrates the glass wall in the living room—a bit of visual trickery that blurs the line between the end of the house and the beginning of the yard. Upstairs, a giant deck off the master bedroom overflows with terra-cotta pots whose contents tell the story of the couple’s past and present lives: plants and cacti from their previous apartments and gardens; other people’s discarded plants, snagged off downtown sidewalks; and blooming souvenirs from their travels.
These days, the house buzzes with activity, alive with the sound of teenagers playing musical instruments, a tinny radio in the kitchen, and two dogs lumbering underfoot. Seated contentedly on the deep, nestlike sofa (a Sticotti original, of course), Hernaez sighs happily. She’s a recent convert to modern design and she’s not looking back. "This is more fresh, more light, not much in the background. It’s like a paradise!" she says.
It’s also a brave new direction for Buenos Aires, a city best known for its ornate European-style baroque buildings. Sticotti’s house, born out of trying economic and personal times, and set amidst a sea of terra-cotta roofs and faux English cottages, signals a very 21st-century approach to Argentine architecture, one that melds local and recycled materials with a global modernist language and
celebrates native architects and designers who thrive by that old gardener’s motto: Bloom where you’re planted.
When not writing, editing, or combing design magazines and blogs for inspiration, Jaime Gillin is experimenting with new recipes, traveling as much as possible, and tackling minor home-improvement projects that inevitably turn out to be more complex than anticipated.