Pursuing Perfection

Pursuing Perfection

By Marc Kristal
Resuscitating a classic can be time-consuming and pricey, but when it comes to the rehabilitation of neglected masterpieces, one Connecticut couple finds it’s worth every minute and cent.

When it comes to real estate, some guys have all the luck. Take Craig Bassam and Scott Fellows, for instance. While house-hunting in New Canaan, Connecticut, the pair discovered what Bassam describes as "this very beautiful, simple, International Style house," perfectly sited on two acres. Designed in 1955 by noted modernist architect Willis N. Mills, the four-bedroom, 4,200-square-foot house featured view-filled expanses of glass and generously scaled spaces, including a double-height living room that cantilevered dramatically outward some 30 feet above the landscape. The property had everything—even a pedigreed architectural neighbor: Philip Johnson’s Glass House was just up the street.

Paradise, of course, wasn’t trouble-free. "The house was a wreck," Bassam admits. "It had been through several owners and various alterations. It hadn’t had any maintenance for years. It was covered in layers of old gray paint, people had put in colonial doors and door handles, there were boxed-out ceiling sections everywhere. And the kitchen was totally cut off—its relationship to the dining and living rooms was awkward."

But if luck is preparation meeting opportunity, then Bassam, an architect, and Fellows, the former creative director of Bally, the Swiss leather-goods concern, were more than ready for their moment. "The kinds of projects that I do, they’re very much based on these simple high-modern principles, and the house had that as its essence," Bassam says. BassamFellows, the company the pair formed to market Bassam’s furniture and a line of jointly designed men’s shoes and accessories, remains committed to what they call "craftsman modern," and the house lent itself to that, too. Says Bassam, "It was easy to add luxury materials and clean detailing—a sense of warmth and craft, which is very up our alley as well."

In fact, Bassam and Fellows ultimately added—and subtracted—a great deal. On the upper entry floor, which holds the house’s study and three of its bedrooms (including the master suite, which was fashioned from the  original garage in the 1970s), work was restricted largely to refinishing surfaces, rebuilding cabinetry and pocket doors, and redoing bathrooms. Downstairs, however, Bassam significantly altered the plan. "The idea was to make that bottom floor flow from kitchen to dining to living room, to operate as one continuous living space," he explains.

This primarily involved converting the warren of rooms and passageways that comprised the kitchen area into a single rectangle that extends from the front to the back of the house, simplifying its connection to the dining area, and replacing the kitchen’s solid exterior wall with full-height glass sliders that open onto a bluestone-paved terrace (and are contiguous with identical doors in the dining and living rooms). The architect also replaced the floors, including the wooden one in the living room, with pristine white terrazzo, so that the different spaces would read as a single element. "Now, you come down the stairs, through this core that’s clearly separated from this big white box that floats over the landscape," Bassam says, explaining the result. "You turn right into the kitchen or left into the living room, and you can circulate around the entire perimeter of the house along the glazing. You have this simple, free flow."

With its tightly edited mixture of classic mid-century furnishings and Bassam’s own pieces and snowy, soaring, art-free walls, the design at first seems rather too con-trolled, too austere. Yet a closer look reveals a sophistication of detail and richness of material that is unexpectedly soothing. "Before, only the stair wall was walnut. Now the walnut continues throughout the house," Bassam observes, a choice that provides the pleasures of not only warmth but harmony. "The built-in cabinetry and paneled wooden walls in the kitchen, the study, the master bedroom—it’s all finished and detailed in the same way; it unifies all of these rooms as one thing." This unity, moreover, absent in the original plan from 1955, has been pursued comprehensively this time.  "There’s a 13-foot-long island in the kitchen that holds sinks and cabinetry and also serves as an informal dining area. It’s white terrazzo, like the floor," the architect points out. "There are four bathrooms and each one of them is finished in the same glass mosaic tiles and stone slab counters. It shows a level of craft and luxury that just wasn’t quite there before."

But this didn’t come quickly or easily. The renovation consumed two and a half years in all (spread over four years), in large part because Bassam ended up general-contracting the job himself. "It was the only way I could get the kind of quality that I wanted," he recalls. "Modern houses, they’re very precise. The details are very fine, there’s not a lot of room for error or to cover things up. Joints have to align with other elements. The baseboard is three-quarters of an inch tall—it has to be laid super-straight and correctly. You can’t just leave these things to a contractor, you have to be there on site and spend the time to do it properly." Over time, Bassam’s perfectionism consumed three sets of plumbers, electricians, and painting crews, two tilers, four plasterers, and no fewer than six carpenters, several of whom he imported from nearby New York. But in the end, the partners got what they wanted—and they saved a fortune. Though he declines to give specific figures, the architect says, "To
do what we’ve done [the conventional way] would have cost at least double."

Bassam and Fellows also maintain a lakeside home in Lugano, Switzerland, which, with its classic modern lines, meticulous detailing, and wholehearted embrace of a stunning natural site, evinces a sensibility nearly identical to that of its Connecticut cousin. This, Bassam explains, is about more than creating home-front consistency. "Our houses are very important showcases for our company, because our company is a very personal statement," he says. Business and pleasure can be a volatile mix. But on two acres in New Canaan, they’ve achieved an elegant symmetry.

"We didn't realize the exterior was straight-grain redwood," says Craig Bassam of the house he shares with Scott Fellows. "It was covered in layers of gray paint." Bassam replaced the terrace's concrete pavers with bluestone and removed a concrete-block wall.

Bassam (left, with Fellows) hung redwood garage doors that match the house’s exterior.

The second-floor bridge that leads to the front door flows from the outside in. "Tractor seat" stools designed by Bassam perch on a floor of pristine white terrazzo.

A 13-foot-long island in the kitchen, finished in the same white terrazzo as the floor, serves as an informal dining area. Bassam replicated the kitchen’s walnut-veneered cabinetry in the study and master bedroom for continuity.

"The site drops away dramatically beneath the living room," Bassam notes. "You really feel like you’re in this big floating box way above the landscape."

The master suite was fashioned from the house’s original garage in a 1970s renovation.


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