The camera crew trains its lenses on Susie Gress as she stands behind the sprawling, lacquered wood island in her newly completed kitchen. Beside her, British television icon Martin Clunes eyes a plate of cupcakes on the counter, infused with cannabis grown on her farm just a few miles away.
The remodel barely came together in time for this impromptu TV appearance. But the house was an entirely new beginning. Just over the line separating Maury Island and Vashon, down a private drive opening up onto the water, Susie Gress had at last found a home to make wholly her own. The pastoral setting hadn’t impressed her much during childhood summers here, but as an adult, the sleepy island had become a sanctuary of sorts. The house wasn’t perfect, but it had plenty of room for guests, and Gress loved the Northwest contemporary architecture. She didn’t mind the lack of updates since the ’80s; it gave her an excuse to make the space exactly what she wanted.
In recent years, Gress gained minor celebrity status as the founder and owner of Vashon Velvet, a family-run boutique operation known for its “motherly” approach to growing cannabis. But a lifetime ago, she and her husband—who passed away suddenly several years prior—had owned a marina and renovated maybe a dozen houseboats. She knew the difference between a homeowner flip and getting a designer to measure down to a sixteenth of an inch. She saved for three years before starting the remodel: “I knew that if I wanted to do it right, it would be expensive.”
When Gress was finally ready, she called Neil Kelly Company in Georgetown. She was familiar with the remodeling firm’s reputation and took an immediate liking to interior designer Anne Bauer. Recently returned to the field after taking some time off from design, Bauer in turn was quietly thrilled to have landed her first design-build; she was eager to work with a client who knew her way around a remodel. “It’s so enjoyable to collaborate with someone with that level of understanding.”
They left the bones of the house largely intact but removed the three-quarter-height wall that separated the kitchen and living room; the dining area and bar would float in between. Additional windows and skylights allowed for as much natural light as possible. Gress’s desire for her home to be exceedingly practical yielded thoughtfully designed storage and multipurpose rooms, like a library with a hideaway bed.
The kitchen, a proliferation of dated oak and less-than-practical shelving (seemingly designed by someone who hadn’t spent much time cooking, joked Gress and Bauer), was outfitted with a custom range hood and cabinetry, with some appliances hidden in plain sight. “The idea was to create something beautiful and functional, like a dishwasher that looks like a cabinet,” says Bauer. Which brings us to the pièce de résistance of the project: the kitchen island.
During her initial walk-through, Bauer, who’d long held an appreciation for Japanese design, was particularly interested in a traditional tansu chest she’d spotted in the master bathroom—with its striking wood craftsmanship and preponderance of drawers. She asked Gress what she thought about subtly incorporating an Asian influence throughout the otherwise modern design, maybe even finding a chest large enough to use in the kitchen. Gress was all for the idea, but sourcing proved easier said than done. Bauer’s plan B: a custom island inspired by the tansu chest, with a home for every gadget Gress might want to store.
The project had other challenges. Working on an island accessible only by ferry meant that one missed boat could put them a day behind schedule. And a month in, Gress broke her foot. Bauer spent much of the project bringing photos, videos, and samples for Gress to approve from her hotel room in downtown Seattle, all details typically (and preferably) discussed on location.
By summer 2018 the end was in sight—the crew would likely wrap up in August, just over a year after the project had begun. But in mid-June, they received a call: The producers of Martin Clunes: Islands of America, a celebrity travelogue journeying 10,000 miles around North America, had caught a whiff of Gress’s burgeoning enterprise. They hoped to tour Vashon Velvet but were also interested in filming in her (still very much unfinished) kitchen. And they’d be arriving in two weeks.
The crew feverishly installed cabinets, electricity, plumbing, and countertops to get the kitchen ready for its close-up. They finished a day before filming. The cameras rolled on a space that, not unlike its owner, went through its share of the unexpected. In the end, the British show’s segment on Susie Gress didn’t include the footage of her kitchen. Then in June, she and her family closed Vashon Velvet, and Gress is now writing a book about the experience. Whatever comes next, at least her home turned out just as she planned.
Images Courtesy Roger Turk / Northlight Photography