You might not expect a South African native whose work for NGOs and the United Nations has taken her most often to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia to move into a late-1970s, mid-Maine passive solar house. But that is exactly what the owner of this Camden house did. The attraction? Her parents, who live in a property across the road. Prior to the 2012 purchase, she had been traveling from Los Angeles to Africa. “Los Angeles was overwhelming. It was always a culture shock going back and forth. I liked the peaceful feeling of Maine,” she says.
But the home she purchased had a ski chalet vibe, which was not to her taste. She inclined to an art gallery aesthetic, favoring white walls, loft spaces, and art, often from her home continent. In 2012 and 2013, Priestley + Associates Architecture in Rockport and Taylor-Made Builders in Northport helped her transform her home. Keeping to the original footprint and basic structure, the new design gutted the interior and opened spaces. Now the ground floor has a living room and kitchen with gleaming dark-brown stained-pine floors, and the rooms rise to the second-floor ceiling. A minimalist floating steel staircase with cable railing leads to a master bedroom and guest room located over the ground floor’s other spaces—a cozy TV room and office.
The new owner was sympathetic to the previous owner’s desire for eco-consciousness, so the entire house received an upgrade with high-efficiency glazing, improved insulation, a super-efficient boiler, and in-floor radiant heat.
John Priestley wanted to give the house a “strong new face.” Taking inspiration from the broad horizontal gable of McKim, Mead & White’s William G. Low House in Bristol, Rhode Island, Priestley replaced a former overhanging shed roof with a wide, spreading gable. The homeowner wanted square windows in keeping with the fenestration on other houses on her road. Robert Venturi’s house for his mother, Vanna, also has a broad low gable and square windows. Priestley incorporated a recessed entry, also used in “Mother’s House,” but added a sliding barn door for interest and further protection in winter. Priestley also incorporated a decorative shed roof with struts in the peak of the gable and on the west side of the house.
Because the homeowner wanted everything “really, really light,” windows abound, making daytime electric lighting unnecessary. A living room floor-to-ceiling picture window is so successful at blending interior and exterior, the owner’s dog occasionally walks into the pane.
The interior combines sleek furniture, much of it inherited, with African art. A Parisian aunt, the homeowner’s grandmother, and eBay are responsible for the Danish-style furniture in the living room. A zebra rug in the same room is a gift from the homeowner’s mother, who had two zebra chairs that her daughter admired as a girl. The homeowner’s mother developed a talent for design, as she set up house multiple times, given the frequent moves required by her husband’s foreign correspondent job. The Camden home’s African pieces include South African wooden animals in an open nook above the staircase, a living room red-and-orange painting from Cape Town, and bowls and a drum from a Zambian refugee camp. To this, the homeowner has added work by Maine artists, including, most often, Jonathan Laurence, a photographer and mixed-media artist. Some of his work also focuses on Africa, such as a colorful, open-air portrait of a refugee from Congo in the office and a photograph of the homeowner in Congo on a motorcycle, which is in the master bedroom.
Even when not buying in Africa, the homeowner is drawn to African goods, as with products that West Elm produced using South African craftspeople. The white-and-black diamond-patterned office desk, living room benches covered in Congolese fabric, and colorful kitchen plates are all from this limited-edition series.
The homeowner’s mother helped with the interior design and suggested the bright red oven that distinguishes the otherwise largely black-and-white contemporary kitchen with flat-panel white cabinetry and two kinds of black granite for the counter and island. Although a dining table can be arranged for entertaining, the partially curved island functions as the main eating area, its shape determined by drawers, four hidden receptacles for sorting recycling, and the hope for comfortable seating. (No knees bumping!) The kitchen also includes a pantry hidden behind closet doors, a bar area, and high windows and a skylight that let in even more light.
Because simplicity was such a big theme of the project, window trim is minimal, the same clean, white paint is used throughout the house, and the limited decorative vocabulary, once employed, recurs, as with the whitewashed accent walls with intentional gaps between boards. These are used in the connector between house and garage, as well as the entry into the master bedroom and for select master bath walls. In the end, Priestley describes the elegant home he designed and Taylor Martens built as “a container for artwork and furniture.” While it is that, the home is also a window onto the Maine woods and a work of art itself, a postmodernist Shingle style with farmhouse nods and contemporary flair.