Skin Deep

A Capitol Hill condominium gets a face-lift without radical surgery.

By Peter Sackett December 28, 2008 Published in the July 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Will Austin

NORTHWESTERNERS POSSESS AN UNPARALLELED ABILITY to distinguish among 100 standard shades of gray. Our daily habit of peering through soggy ozone has honed this expertise to its apex. But Seattleites have a certain handicap with the rest of the crayon box.

Faced with a climate largely bereft of the riotous hues blooming in sunnier latitudes, we reach hopefully, frantically, for saturated oranges, reds, purples, and yellows, as if merely being in their radiant presence could compensate for a lack of vitamin D. But light plays funny tricks when refracted through the billions of tiny water molecules suspended in our atmosphere. Unless scrupulously handled, light deflates red, sours orange, and curdles yellow—not conducive to a sophisticated interior.

Manipulating this color phenomenon is familiar to architect Shannon Rankin of SKB Architects, who guided her business colleague Doug McKenzie, 33, and his partner Todd Johnson, 39, during the remodel of their Capitol Hill condominium. Now outfitted in deep blacks, crisp whites, and nougat-brown furnishings, their airy pied-à-terre demonstrates the precise process.

Only four years old, the home didn’t warrant a structural overhaul, but the off-white interiors of the two-level, 1,400-square-foot space had never achieved personality or cohesion. Faulty, preengineered fir floors were showing serious, premature flaws with deep blemishes and buckles. In short, though still a toddler, the place was already looking geriatric. Shunning radical reconstruction and vibrant color, the three pursued a cosmetic makeover using loamy, contrasting, neutral shades and adding textured fabrics and furniture to infuse the space with the interest and urban vitality it lacked.

“This condo had all the ingredients Northwesterners seem to have a preference for,” Rankin recalls. “It had natural fir and steel detailing, things you don’t necessarily see in other parts of the country. Those orangey-colored woods—everyone seems to love the idea of wood and radiant color here. You just can’t get away from it. It’s really challenging to convince clients to embrace a palette that’s more light and monochromatic,” Rankin says. “The client frets: ‘But where’s the color?’ They’re just so fearful the insides of their homes will look like the sky—cold.”

Under Rankin’s guidance, McKenzie, who specifies and procures furniture for SKB projects, and Johnson, a regional manager for an upscale appliance company, began drawing on their own design experience to flesh out the details of the reworked interior. “You can attain warmth through tactile qualities, and not simply retreat to reds, oranges, and purples,” Rankin explains.

With walls already coated in eggshell white, they took a first thoughtful step and replaced the dark, worn floorboards with solid, seven-inch planks of sandy white oak. The wide boards reflected the light pouring in through living room windows, softly bouncing it throughout the condo and giving the owners a fresh canvas on which to compose the new interior. “The lighter floor makes the space feel larger,” McKenzie explains. “Running the boards against the natural flow of the floor plan helped to define the rooms a little bit, too, without having to actually build walls. It changed the feel of the space, making it seem bigger and less like a runway. And solid wood floors wear well, acquiring a patina over time.”

The original design had framed the windows with the ubiquitous honey-orange fir, which was deployed throughout the condo, including the plinth of the fireplace mantle and the handrail of the stair. Instead of fighting the color, Rankin recommended a restrained approach that confined bold color to the periphery. Erasing the orange of the mantle and handrail grip with a coat of glossy black paint, they showcased the window frames with 17-foot ribbonlike drapes with the color and tactile quality of spun, caramelized sugar. During the day, sunlight seeps gently through the lacy weave of the fabric. At night, oversize copper floor cans direct their beams upward across the shimmering fabric, creating the effect of an entrance at an opening-night gala.

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Drawing on the resources and experience McKenzie had cultivated through his professional work, he and Johnson specified an ensemble of furniture with varying textures in black and stony shades. The dining area coalesces around a marble-topped table, milky-white with veins of watery carbon gray, as if traces of wet pigment had wicked from the surrounding chairs painted the color of India ink. “They were originally designed for midcentury office interiors,” McKenzie says, “but their formal, slick surface looks great in the dining room.”

Twin barrel-backed club chairs in the living room are upholstered in creamy pickled leather featuring a raised decorative pattern in contrasting smoky gray, lending them the appearance of the opposite ends of a hand-carved, alabaster Roman bathtub. A humorously macabre carved-basswood head of a 10-point buck juts from the wall above the fireplace, its nose leather glistening with black lacquer. Tossed unceremoniously on the nearby couch below him is his faux-fur pelt. “I grew up in Alaska,” McKenzie explains, “so the whole dead-animal thing is funny and appalling to me at the same time.”

“Lighting was a challenge in this space before,” Johnson says, wincing at the memory, “just a spotlight on the fireplace and a scrawny ceiling fan lost in the upper reaches of the double-height room.” Now, a small carillon of hand-beaten, bronze pendant lamps hovers above the living room like a mobile. “Most pendant fixtures aren’t nice to look up at,” Rankin cautions, “but the insides of these are as beautiful as the outsides.”

In pursuit of a strategy to help a small, efficient space function with the ease of a larger one, the couple asked Rankin to design a desk for Johnson’s home office, which perches on the second floor, overlooking the living room. Ready-made options seemed to offer only one attractive facade and came in awkward sizes that didn’t accommodate the disparate pieces of office equipment—computer, printer, and scanner. Rankin’s design, painted a high-gloss celadon green, clusters two deep-drawer cabinets with a thick slab of white oak laid across to bridge the cabinets without restrictive joinery. The work surface conceals wires that would otherwise be visible from downstairs, and, because the cabinets rest on felt pads, Johnson can slide them left or right to fit any space the couple may move to in the future.

“The success of this interior is much less about changing the colors and more about gaining detail and texture,” Rankin explains. “Those important effects aren’t going to be obtained by throwing bold color on a couple of accent walls.”

“We’re not sure how long we’ll be here,” McKenzie says, “but all of this work has been strictly cosmetic. From a structural standpoint, we’ve added nothing. And it looks terrific.”

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