What meets the eye: A home renovation and expansion fills an Albemarle couple’s growing needs with a modern touch—and some hidden surprises

Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

The wife—a 40-something fitness trainer with a compact build—is standing beside the distressed-wood dining table that serves as the transitional element between the simple, serene kitchen and the airy living room, which has a vaulted ceiling accented by two triangular timber trusses and a pair of mod pendant chandeliers that look like giant bows, made with wide, woven strips of poplar. Behind her, on the far side of the room, stands an elegant mid-century credenza against an eggshell-white wall adorned only by a black rectangle, the TV monitor. The room, and the woman, are bathed in warm sunlight flowing in through big glass panes. She is standing but not still. This person radiates energy and speaks loudly, as if she were talking above the clatter and hum of a subway train. She shifts from one foot to the other and gesticulates as she describes the stylistic inspiration for the interior makeover of her family’s home. 

As it so happens, the man behind that inspiration, Jeff Dreyfus, is in the kitchen with his associate Aga Saulle, of Charlottesville’s Bushman Dreyfus Architects. Dreyfus became a friend of the woman, her husband, and their twins (a girl and a boy, now 12 years old) after working out in her classes at a local health club. One day, after she and Dreyfus had discussed the renovation, she visited his home, which—as you would expect from a contemporary modern architect—was clean, precise, and pared down. At the time, the woman admits, her house was an open-shelved shrine to the gods of domestic clutter. She’s a clothes horse with a taste for very nice shoes: Prada, Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Charlotte Olympia. Her husband, who works from home, collects sports memorabilia. The walls of his office are an ESPN jigsaw puzzle, with photographs, jerseys, and robes signed by the greats—Larry Bird, Earl Campbell, and even Sly “Rocky Balboa” Stallone. The kids (she’s talking about them now and getting really animated) were also collectors, though less discriminating than Dad: toys, sneakers, and clothes up the wazoo! Things were strewn everywhere! (The woman’s voice rises.) The place was a mess! I mean, her husband and the kids, God love ’em, but they were all drowning in the trappings of their lives. After she saw Dreyfus’ place—so elegant and austere, everything in its place—came her awakening. “I want to live like a minimalist!” she blurts, and everyone enjoys a chuckle.

So, Dreyfus got the job, deputized Saulle as the project architect, and now their client has a home with clean lines, soothing natural surfaces in muted tones, a giant man cave above the garage where the husband works behind a desk the size of Rhode Island, a walk-in closet worthy of Bergdorf Goodman, and a ground floor where the kids and their friends can be as messy as they want to be, because all of their stuff is contained in one place, separate from the rooms upstairs, where Mom and Dad can work and entertain and live unfettered lives, you know, like adults.

Seen from the foyer, the kitchen stretches out and visually connects with the outdoors via a set of glass doors. In the right foreground, lustrous maple panels open to reveal a powder room and coat closet. Photo: Stephen Barling


Addition by subtraction

If all of that sounds a little too tidy, well, you’re onto something. The truth is, good architects are good at hiding things. The late, great designer Michael Graves once told me that his neighbor in Princeton, New Jersey, the wry humorist Fran Lebowitz, visited his house and, after looking around the kitchen, asked, “Don’t you architects have any ‘stuff’?”

In the case of Graves’ kitchen, the outward appearance of extreme orderliness was enhanced by frosted glass panes in the cabinet doors—and as I recall, there were a lot of cabinets. When I opened one, and then another, I saw that the contents were not all perfectly arranged. I’m not suggesting that the architect was secretly disorganized or a closet pack rat. But he knew that clear glass would have revealed too much detail, creating visual busyness. When it comes to someone’s field of view, what they can’t see does not enter their consciousness. Architects are illusionists, deliberately composing scenes. By choosing certain materials and positioning them in a particular order, the designer controls the viewer’s perception of an object, a room, or even an entire home.

Made with strings of mother-of-pearl discs, a pendant chandelier shaped like an oriole’s nest is the defining decorative element of the master bedroom. The wife’s study (bottom) is a bastion of minimalism and elegance, as comfortable for work as it is for shooting the breeze. Photo: Stephen Barling

When the client uttered the word “minimalist,” Dreyfus and Saulle understood it as a directive, just as Graves knew that frosted glass would enhance the sense of uniformity and simplicity in his kitchen. A guiding principle of minimalism is addition by subtraction. The common phrase “less is more” expresses roughly the same idea. But just because something is minimal doesn’t mean it is not robust. Addition by subtraction leads from one type of fullness to another, not from fullness to emptiness. On the becomingminimalist.com blog (yes, it exists), one writer provided a personal take on the concept: “When we remove the things from life we do not want, we make more room for the things in life that we do [want].”

What the client wanted, in a word, was simplicity. This idea applied not just to the look but also to the circulation from room to room as well as from one floor to another. The kitchen presented major problems. It stood almost immediately inside the front door, connecting the family and living rooms and forming an L shape. By virtue of its position in the entryway, the kitchen also served as a foyer and quasi-mudroom. As if that weren’t enough, the kitchen happened to be at the juncture of the stairs that led up from the basement and connected the first and second floors. It was a 3D version of one of those crazy intersections in Washington, D.C., where five roads converge on one traffic circle. 

Photo: Stephen Barling

“Coming up from the basement,” Saulle says, “One had to literally slip between the kitchen island and the oven to get to the stairs leading to the second floor.”

So, picture this: Mom gets home from the gym and is trying to make the mac ‘n’ cheese. Dad is working the phone in his home office, which is really a guest bedroom. The kids are racing around like maniacs, up and down the stairs and from the family room to the living room. That kitchen was as calm and easy to navigate as the Charlottesville City Market on a Saturday morning. Oh, but there’s more. Adding to the claustrophobia was a small bathroom adjacent to the kitchen, against the east wall. And the place looked like a ransacked Goodwill store. “There was not much storage space at all,” says Saulle. “The kitchen had plenty of open shelves, which was not functional and added to the overall cluttered feel.”

The architects’ primary task on the first floor was to bring order to this chaos. They achieved it by making a small addition—a “bump-out,” as the wife calls it—to the kitchen. The extra space allowed for shifting the kitchen away from the front entry, so that area became a proper arrival area. The next move was to seal the stairwell; a wall replaced the doorway. Access to the basement was achieved via a new staircase beyond the family room, and a spiral staircase leading upstairs was added to a widened hallway extending out of the kitchen, towards the driveway and front yard. That interior space now serves several purposes. It contains a mudroom with a built-in closet, cubbies, and a wide bench—a great place for storage and to change out of your dirt-caked boots. A new water closet accessible from the mudroom took the pressure off of the bathroom near the kitchen.

The hallway is also an axis: To the north, it’s a connector to the wife’s office, a lovely, bright room with multi-paned French doors and sidelights looking out on a small garden beside the walkway to the home’s front entry. A soft, deep-pile rug holds together the furnishings—her desk opposite the glass doors, two low-slung upholstered barrel chairs that look a bit like Pac-Woman emojis, and a couch accented with fuzzy pink faux-fur pillows. Hanging close to the ceiling in the center of the room, a ring-shaped gilt chandelier has an airy feel; its woven metal strands have golden leaves, and the whole thing is punctuated with glistening pointy light bulbs. As noted above, the room is an “office,” but it’s so cheery and comfortable that it would also be a nice spot to sit awhile and chat.

“When my office was finished, I stood in there and just thought, I’ve never been in a room that felt like this,” the wife recalls. “It’s so comfortable, classic, and cool. I love it!”

At the other eastern terminus of the axis, just past the new bathroom, stands a door that opens to an exterior breezeway. This links up with a two-story structure with a three-bay garage downstairs and the husband’s office/sports museum upstairs. The upper floor is cavernous, with a vaulted ceiling and a bathroom with a shower, so it’s easy to imagine it doing double-duty as a guest room.

Secret spaces, magical places

Let’s return now to the architect’s art of hiding things, and the wonderful feeling of discovery that can result from this. Remember the first-floor bathroom with one foot in the kitchen and the other in the family room? It’s not there. Or at least, you wouldn’t know it was there by outward appearances. What you see instead is a single volume formed by three tall walls of rich, blond maple. It looks seamless, like a big box to seal in Houdini and challenge him to escape. Only a single bronze fixture, a doorknob in the shape of a beaker’s rubber stopper, hints at an opening. Regarded only as a form, it complements the large kitchen island, which is also a rectangular box, though shorter and much longer. But when you pull on the fixture, a door glides open, swinging aside to reveal the bathroom, and behind another door, spring-activated by pushing on it, is a closet.

“We introduced the maple box as a portal between the east and the west wings of the house,” Saulle says. “It’s a beautiful spatial feature that also defines the entry area and serves as a coat closet and a powder room.”

Upstairs, another surprise awaits. As you walk down the hall toward the master bedroom (an addition with unadorned double-hung windows looking out on a pasture and woods), the wife’s walk-in closet sits to the left. With two open portals, it’s like an eddy in a stream. Any person who likes to dress well and keep her clothing and shoes well organized would die for a room like this. A crystal-encrusted donut-shaped pendant fixture glitters above a central island with many drawers. Clothes hang in open, recessed spaces lining the walls, and a large cabinet with multiple shelves and glass doors holds the shoe collection.

All of this is wonderful and lavish, and the extreme display of orderliness might lead you to believe that the wife is a neat-freak. But there’s a door in the rear wall of the closet. The wife opens it briefly—just long enough to reveal a storage space that’s a jumble of clothing and shoes in piles on the floor and hung on Ikea-ish racks. “No photographs of that, please!” she declares, laughing. Addition by subtraction, indeed. And also, out of sight, out of mind. It was considerate of Dreyfus and Saulle to add this hidden space.

One more hideaway lies in the basement, the kids’ domain. Beyond the wall of cubbies filled with toys and art supplies, and beyond the wall with the big screen for gaming and watching shows and movies, there’s a bookshelf exactly the size of a door cut into the wall. When you pop open the bookshelf, you encounter a wonderland of Legos covering two sprawling tabletops. Here, in this secret space, which also contains utilities, the twins and their friends have built little villages and street scenes out of colorful blocks. It’s enough to make you wish you were a kid again.

While the outward appearance of the renovation and expansion hews to the elegant, minimal aesthetic that is Dreyfus and Saulle’s métier, and which the client and her family requested, the invisible elements and the basement play spaces provide a counterpoint to the home’s modernist formality. They also indicate something about the client’s personality, which is, on the one hand, very precise and demanding (remember, she’s a fitness trainer), but on the flipside full of humor and joie de vivre—and secretly a little messy.

When I emailed Saulle and asked what she liked most about the project, she wrote: “[The wife] said that we turned a house into a home. I like that we helped create not only a functional home for a family but also dedicated spaces that meet specific needs of each of the family members. [She] is an amazing person, very warm and friendly, easy to work with.

“Every Thursday, after our weekly construction meeting at the site, she would send me back to the office with a box of cookies for everyone. A co-worker once said that this was their favorite project, even though they weren’t working on it.”

She ended the message with a smile emoji.

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