Infusing a historic Boston estate with modern functionality
While many modern spaces lack the warmth and approachability of traditional New England design, contemporary need not feel cold. A historic, waterfront manor house in the Boston area was in need of remediation after years of withstanding the elements, but the restored product evokes history and craftsmanship while remaining modern and minimalist. Lian Eoyang, who established the San Francisco-based design firm VIF Studio, served as the lead designer and project manager for the restoration. Her design approach adhered to the Shaker philosophy of simplicity, utility, and absence of adornment.
With stunning views of the city skyline and partially sheltered from ocean storms by a harbor, the owners view the property as their “dream home.” Eoyang and her team were “tasked with restoring the home; integrating a fresh, modern aesthetic; improving the home’s efficacy and usability; and maximizing the views. We also worked closely with the owner on the décor of the property.” A neutral color palette and sparse furnishings with clean lines create a functional, family-oriented gathering place.
Dating to the late nineteenth century, the manor house represents traditional elements of New England architecture. Across more than 9,500 square feet, there are seven bedrooms and seven and a half bathrooms; two guest cottages on the property add three bedrooms and 2,000 square feet of living space. It took over a year to rejuvenate the estate.
The homeowners wished to restore, as much as possible, the dilapidated property to its classic New England style while at the same time making the home more livable. The owner says, “We wanted the house to be in keeping with the neighborhood and the era in which it was originally built. In terms of the interior, it was designed for what seemed to be ‘catered’ entertaining; we wanted it to be more for casual entertaining—where people could gather and relax, whether in the kitchen or dining or living rooms.”
Among the challenges Eoyang faced were several “infrastructural vulnerabilities,” which included fixing rotted window trims and roof leaks. She also updated the millwork and replaced the “dark, brooding” color scheme with flat white walls and trim, which, when paired with the preexisting dark wood floors, prevents the home from competing with its natural surroundings. The furnishings and views are able to shine through in a calm, contemporary home, Eoyang says. In terms of the interior floor plan, Eoyang sought to better utilize the home’s expansive living areas.
“The kitchen layout didn’t take advantage of its large footprint,” she says. “Although a dramatic layout, it was completely impractical from a usability standpoint. The stove was situated on axis with the view but created an irritating blockage in the path of travel to the dining area. And despite the installation of an indoor grill, the ventilation was poor and underpowered for the kind of catering a kitchen like that would endure.” Similarly, the master bathroom was overscaled with awkwardly placed fixtures and wall tiles used as floor tiles. Two oversized closets in the master bedroom were better suited as an additional bedroom suite.
With dramatic ocean views, Boston’s magnetic skyline, and the rocky shoreline as her inspiration, Eoyang explains how she “took a humanistically modern design approach that befit the grandeur of the property and also kept it accessible as a friendly, family-oriented gathering place.” By “humanistically modern,” she means that she wanted to create a more realistic living space using “an aesthetic that is more livable and honest about its materials and usage. Instead of blurring everything into an anonymous monolithic surface, we wished to bring more accessibility, texture, and warmth to the environment.”
Since modern spaces can sometimes feel “sterile and cold,” Eoyang says, incorporating the Shaker principles of minimalism, austerity, functionality, and craftsmanship played an important role in upholding the inviting feeling of the manor house. The Shakers were a religious group that originated in eighteenth-century England and began establishing communities across New England in 1784, including one in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Shakers believed in living simply, and Shaker furniture is renowned for its purposefulness, lack of decoration, and pioneering ideas. Complimented by modern details, the Shaker influence allowed Eoyang’s design to respect the centuries-old heritage of the estate but update it with twenty-first-century amenities and sensibility. “We recognize that domestic spaces carry a special need to be approachable yet efficient,” she says.
She cites the master bathroom as an example of this design philosophy, where she aimed to balance cleanliness with warmth. “In the master bath, we melded the principles of Shaker simplicity with the ethos of modern detailing. We kept the envelope of the master bath the same but gutted it to make it more usable and appropriate to the human scale. We added a two-person shower (before there was only a tub and no shower) and privacy closet for the toilet. This transformed it from an awkwardly scaled and oddly uncomfortable bathroom into a sophisticated and efficient bathroom.”
Only essential materials were used, with clean details and few embellishments. Gray Italian limestone throughout the room brightens the space and creates a spa-like oasis. A custom-built, ramp-sink vanity appears to be formed from a single block of stone as it floats against the wall. The woodwork for the vanity cabinets, medicine cabinet, and light valance was made from custom-stained ash. Loose stone surrounding the freestanding oval bathtub (by Waterworks) is the same gray as the limestone but introduces a new texture to the bathroom. The pebbles also bring the outdoors in and serve the functional purpose of preventing slippage: puddles of water drain through the stone, into a copper pan, and out a secondary drain, leaving the surface relatively dry.
In the kitchen, Eoyang again wanted to connect the space to the outdoors without sacrificing usability. “A kitchen this large was begging to be used for parties and professional catering, so we needed to remain honest about the functional needs of a chef,” she says. She reconfigured the layout to offer easy paths of travel among all the important appliances—refrigerator, sink, and stove—in addition to a clear path to the dining area. She defined specific zones for socialization, which included building a breakfast bar at the end of the island that takes advantage of the city views. Concrete countertops and stainless steel appliances reflect what Eoyang calls “monolithic modernity,” but a custom-made dining set and bar stools integrate the historic bones of the house with the clean, modern lines throughout the kitchen.
For the kitchen and the bathrooms, Eoyang selected quality materials and fixtures that were “neither sterile nor overwrought; approachable yet delightful to use.” The hardware, from the curtain rods to the custom-designed tiebacks to the sconces, was designed by Jonathan Browning Studios in San Francisco, and Eoyang chose them to suggest permanence and heft, with only a few subtle flourishes. Faucets and shower fixtures were made in Germany by Dornbracht while the tiles throughout the bathroom are from Daltile.
On the exterior of the estate, too, Eoyang continued the minimalist approach. The homeowners requested “no-fuss” instead of “overly manicured” landscaping. They wanted trees, bushes, and flowers that were indigenous to the area. The existing planting plan was maintained to encourage the vegetation to mature and grow in over time. Hydrangeas, rose bushes, and summer-flowering perennials were nursed back to health while sea grass was added to help prevent erosion and mask retaining walls.
For the home’s furnishings, Eoyang worked closely with her clients to blend new and old. She used their existing collection of Art Deco and Asian-influenced antiques alongside new, eclectic pieces. Sparse furniture and accessories ensure that the space does not feel weighed down. “The client responded well to keeping things uncluttered and well organized throughout the house, despite its spacious volumes,” she says. “We kept the décor minimal and the detailing crisp, using white walls as a backdrop and a sparing placement of furniture. The custom cantilevered shelves are kept well stocked with collections of art catalogs and keepsakes, but always with room to breathe.” The living room uses light blue and dark brown tones, accented by antique marble-inlay side tables and drawings donated from a family member’s collection.
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The homeowner says that the concept of Shaker simplicity pairs nicely with her Chinese furniture because they share one principle in common: “clean, elegant lines that are timeless—not dull or boring in the least. Because the lines are ‘spare,’ almost any additional decorative accent will work and really show the mark or style of the owner. It’s like ink calligraphy—simple and strong with fine lines.”
In order to add a little Shaker simplicity to your own home, Eoyang recommends, “Be strict and honest about usability and function. Delight can often be had from something that meets its needs in an absolutely perfect, simple way.