An Ulster County designer adds the spare esthetic of Japan to the simple geometry of Bauhaus and creates a soothing retreat
Designer Catherine Gerry transformed a boxy, onetime office into a classic tearoom for the owners, who often have dinner there. Cherry trim, hand-plastered walls, and a grid of black-edged tatami mats reflect the Japanese emphasis on uncluttered, subtle detail and texture
Photograph by Todd Mason
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You wend your way up a rural road in Ulster County to arrive at one young Manhattan couple’s weekend home — then scarcely notice the house when you get there. The white stucco, flat-roofed contemporary is nestled halfway down the steep bank of the Hudson River on a rocky outcropping, and from the driveway above it, can’t compete with the jaw-dropping views. Once down the steps and through the front door, though, it’s another story — the interior has a tranquil fascination of its own.
The owners first saw the property in 2000. “The long view from the TV room is what sold us on the house,” says the wife. But they were also taken with its architectural simplicity. “It was built in 1986 by the former owner, who was German, so there’s that whole Bauhaus thing in terms of design,” she explains. “It was a good shell for our likes and dislikes, very open and clean.”
The husband, who is half Japanese, wanted to have part of the house remind him of home. His wife, who is from New Mexico, was happy to go along. “I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and grew to love that spare esthetic, especially for a weekend home,” she says. They decided to transform a small first-floor Jacuzzi room into a traditional Japanese tub room, and make the adjacent office space a tatami tearoom. The bland entryway and foyer needed a boost, too.
Enter interior designer Catherine Gerry, whose modern sensibility the couple admired. Gerry added a new, larger front doorway and stone steps, then had the walls of the foyer hand-plastered, and installed a coat closet behind a shuji screen. A small powder room got a textural gridded wallpaper with dried gingko leaves that covers the ceiling, too. All fit the bill, and all were relatively easy to achieve.
The Japanese tub room was another story. It required considerable engineering, including what Gerry calls “souped-up plumbing,” and shoring up the floor to withstand the weight of the huge concrete bath she designed. The laser-cut, lozenge-shaped holes in the blue limestone surrounding the tub look decorative, but actually provide drainage. “It’s a very tricky drain system,” says Gerry. “I had to make it so that the tub could overflow.” A low concrete bench with a shower allows bathers to rinse off.
For the tearoom, Gerry applied the same eco-friendly Marmorino Venetian plaster as in the foyer. Tinted a soft buttery yellow and waxed to a satiny sheen, it’s as inviting to touch as it is to look at.
An L-shaped, three-inch-high cherry platform allows traditional rush tatami mats to sit flush, but can be removed easily for cleaning. Cherry trim around the windows frames the view, and matches the decorative lattice in the room. “What I do best is built-ins,” says Gerry; she points out how sliding closet doors in the wall opposite the windows hide futons and — it’s almost a shock — a television. Pillows surround a squat Japanese table. A tea service sits in wait, and there are a couple of photographs on a low shelf, but otherwise the room is uncluttered, geometric simplicity. It’s hard to imagine an episode of Law & Order blaring into this peaceful space.
Wide sliding doors with laminated rice paper insets keep the quintessentially Japanese wing separate from the rest of the house. The owners are delighted with it. “It’s designed as an escape,” says the wife. “You can close the doors and feel like you’ve gotten away.”
When Gerry’s clients saw how beautifully the work was taking shape, they asked her to make over their master bathroom, too. Although the result is more traditionally western, it’s designed with the same soothing esthetic, and the extra-wide double steam shower with a bench at one end has a whiff of Japan about it. Aqua glass tile — along with limestone twin sinks, vanity top, and floor tiles — looks clean and modern, while bamboo pocket doors, drawers, and hampers add some warmth. It’s simple and functional, with just enough luxe.