Practical Magic

Fun with form and function in a Ravenna bungalow.

By Jessica Voelker December 17, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

The centerpiece of the backyard junglescape is a custom fire feature.

Image: Will Austin

IT’S A CLOUDLESS LATE-SUMMER MORNING, and sunlight streams through the living-room windows of Dan Corson’s Ravenna home. Corson, a sculptor and installation artist whose pieces often involve laser-lit zigzags, powers up his creation _Drip_—a standing lamp featuring a gaggle of appendages from which dangle medical IV bags heavy with fiber-optic-enhanced resin. When he turns the apparatus on, the bags emit a soft indigo glow that, after a moment, transitions to mint green. The light bounces around the room, but there are few shadows for it to play against on this bright day. Laughing, Corson hits a switch and the bags go clear. This work was designed for grayer skies.

Corson approaches the remodel with an experimental attitude and a keen but idiosyncratic sense of space.

A California native, Corson already had a degree in theatrical design when he moved to Seattle two decades ago to attend graduate school for sculpture. In 2000, he purchased this 99-year-old bungalow with his partner Berndt Stugger, renovation plans dancing in his head. As you might expect from an art and theater guy, Corson approaches the remodel, which he sees as ongoing and subject to his evolving whims, with an experimental attitude and a keen but idiosyncratic sense of space. Much of the design he does on his own, working informally with professional architects and engineers as needed. When it came time to overhaul the kitchen, he bounced ideas off of two friends: Seattle architects Lorri Nelson and Nicole Portieri. His main collaborator, however, was pal Carsten Stinn of Carsten Stinn Architecture. It was Stinn who took Corson’s drawings and converted them into CAD files for the builders.

To design the kitchen, the sculptor combined his artistic aesthetic with a love of practical design.

In the end, though, the builders used Corson’s original sketches to guide their work: His methods may not be industry standard, but a certain practicality clearly prevails inside the Corson brain. The stove hood he designed in the kitchen, for example, looks like a mounted sculpture, but it is not art for art’s sake. An enormous, bugle-shaped piece of sheet metal, the hood is designed to suck air up and out from the stove even when the fan inside is not on, cutting down on both noise and energy use. The sleek cabinets, meanwhile, are constructed from acid-etched mirror. The material has an enchanting way of reflecting light, but also resists finger smudges and other stains. Electrical outlets, which Corson says he considers an eyesore, are tucked away under shelves. And in place of light switches, Corson and Stinn installed a touch pad, six feet long and two inches wide, below a row of windows lining the side wall.

Painstakingly planned shelves and drawers stow appliances to allow the terrazzo countertops—which Corson embedded with light-emitting diodes—to remain bare at all times. When the artist slaps the electric touch pad, the LEDs wash the room in purplish incandescence, reminding guests that beneath all the functionalism lurks an artist with a passion for light games.

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Stugger works at his home office, which in the evening becomes a casual hangout space for dinner guests.

From the street, the house looks like a pretty, but typical, Seattle bungalow.

With the construction of the kitchen under way, Corson and Stugger turned to the small room behind it, a shag-carpeted addition tacked on in the 1970s. They had already replaced a breakfast bar dividing the two chambers with the Viking range and custom hood, but Stugger, an international project manager for Microsoft, envisioned a light-filled home office during the day, and, in the evening, an informal eating nook where their frequent guests could hang out while they prepared dinner. To that end, the couple replaced the shag with oak floors and aluminum windows with antique frames Corson found stashed in the basement, and then added modern bamboo shelving along the side wall. They hung a burgundy-hued abstract painting by local artist Michael Schultheis on the back wall next to the French doors. Its oval pattern echoes the shape of an overhead light fixture as well as the stove hood, completing the harmonious transition from sleek cooking space to breezy garden room.

Moving upstairs in the master bathroom, Corson designed another dramatic sculptural piece: a trough-style terrazzo sink with light-catching, aquamarine flecks. The sink’s two spouts spray water up in an arc, like a drinking fountain—a special consideration for Stugger, whose pet peeve turns out to be water cups in the water closet. Next to the sink, what looks like a set of large, built-in drawers opens out like a closet door to reveal an impossibly deep linen cabinet that allows enough storage to keep the room free of clutter. The clean simplicity of the space conspires with the standing shower’s Brazilian­-walnut base and skylight to create a luxurious, spa-in-the-rain-forest feel. Astonishingly, Corson salvaged the shower’s sleek glass paneling from a defunct bus shelter.

The surprises keep coming outdoors, where the couple applies what you might call a mullet hairdo approach: business up front, party in the back. Approaching the house from the street, visitors are greeted by a mostly traditional Northwest garden; ground cover in the form of sedum ­‘Angelina’ mingles with black mondo grass to create contrasting bands of black and yellow. In the back lurks an almost obscene mélange of tropical foliage. These men are completely gaga for jungle plants and have a rare talent for cultivating them in our chilly, wet climate. To find species that will grow in ­Seattle, the couple frequently travels to sunnier locales, then seeks out plants that thrive in shady, damp spots. Ferns from New Zealand and Australia, scarlet blooms from Chile, and billowy-leaved botanicals from China, Indonesia, and Africa all flank a stream that runs through the center of the garden, where tiny fish dart about. Right on top of the water, Corson has rigged a fire feature that shoots brilliant orange tongues upward into the air (the fish don’t seem to mind). The dramatic flames aren’t just for show, says the artist, fiddling with the contraption’s intricate wiring. They also provide visibility when Corson and Stugger want to enjoy their garden after nightfall. 

How very practical.

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