Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


It has to be one of the most mesmerising cabins in America – a twenty first century version of the bolthole in the woods. Gallerist Cristina Grajales and her partner Isabelle Kirshner, a lawyer, have created the perfect escape from their day to day life in New York, complete with a Walden-esque bathing pond of which Henry David Thoreau would be envious.

"It is a little piece of paradise," says Grajales and it is hard not to agree with her. While their quiet nine acre enclave in upstate New York is seductive enough, the house itself is a gem. Designed by architect Thomas Phifer, it is essentially a box of maple plywood with a side coat of perforated stainless steel which gives the house a shimmering, semi-diaphanous quality, mysteriously blurring its outline and impact so that the house seems to melt into the landscape.

Grajales and Kirshner had been renting a traditional timber cabin in the area for seven years, but with the owner refusing to sell they decided to build their own. Grajales, who has an eponymous Soho gallery and deals in Twentieth Century and contemporary furniture, admired Phifer's work, having seen some of the architect's large scale, cutting edge country houses. But she feared that the small size and budget of the project would put him off.

"I was excited by his work but I was afraid to call him because he was already too famous," says Grajales. "But then there was a benefit party there was a friend of mine with Thomas Phifer. She introduced us and it was as though it was meant to be. We went to see him two days later and he said I have been thinking about your house and it's going to be a plywood jewel box. That was the beginning of the project."

Drawn by the location, site and the challenge of creating a sensitively conceived, affordable and modest house of 2,200 square feet, Phifer devised a cabin of sophisticated simplicity. Built with a traditional timber frame and maple plywood throughout, it is a cohesive and unified home but one that is also warmed by the texture and colour of the wood, as well as the way the trees around the house seem to filter through the screens and are drawn inside.

"We really wanted the house to commune with nature and fit into the landscape," says Phifer. "We wanted it to be minimal and simple so that the point of being up there was being in nature, watching the changing light and seasons. The house allows you to frame the landscape, like a Japanese tea house. When you look at the long slot windows cut into the steel screen, that's what they are all about."

The brief called for two bedrooms and a study, which have been positioned upstairs, with a glass bridge linking the two sides of the house, allowing light to filter down to the kitchen area below. On the ground floor, the layout is fluid and natural, with an open plan living area and kitchen leading to a central core holding utility areas and shower room. At either end of the house are dramatic double height spaces, one holding the stairwell and rear entrance and the other holding a fly screened front porch, with views out across the pond.

To maintain the simple unity of the house, Phifer has designed a whole range of built and bespoke elements in the same maple ply, from the kitchen and storage cupboards to mobile television cabinets and lighting units, with simple fluorescent tubes tucked into recessed plywood slots. Only the mahogany furniture within the porch – also by Phifer – offers a contrast, within this indoor/outdoor space.

"With the height of the double spaces and all the glass, it doesn't ever feel claustrophobic even when we have a lot of people here," says Grajales. "People love the house because it is very understated but also has this incredible detailing to it. We were all looking for that sense of quality, even though the scale is humble."

Initially Grajales and Kirshner had some initial nervousness about the screens, not being able to envisage the small samples of perforated steel which they were shown on the finished building . Yet as soon as they were installed, they were won over by their intrinsic beauty straight away. As well as softening the cabin, they also help protect the house from the elements. The screens, lifted away from the walls of the house, create a ventilation gap which helps to naturally cool the house while also offering protection from wind and storm.

"We were completely won over,'" says Grajales. "They are beautiful. One of the things we didn't anticipate was the sound that the screens make as they heat and cool. It makes the house sing, which is kind of wonderful."

Phifer – who is working on the new North Carolina Museum of Art, among other projects – added to the eco-sensitive quality of the house with natural cross ventilation in the house itself, helped by a series of round skylights in the roof which not only draw in light but when opened draw up the hot air and freshen the building in summer without any need for air conditioning.

As a gallery owner, Grajales has built up an important collection of Twentieth Century furniture yet took a restrained approach in furnishing the house, respecting its minimalist aesthetic and allowing the landscape to be the dominant presence. There is a dining table by Richard Schultz, 1960s dining chairs by Friso Kramer and pieces by Eero Saarinen, plus textiles by Hechizoo, a Colombian company that Grajales is working with.

This weekend [15–19 OCTOBER 2008] Grajales will be in Berkeley Square at Design Art London, exhibiting pieces by Hechizoo, Sebastian Errazuriz and other designers. But most weekends, and any other free moments she can muster, Grajales will be savouring her Phifer cabin out in the woods.

'We have fallen madly in love with the house. When the plywood box was finished it was beautiful and I just couldn't believe it could be any better and then the screens arrived. Now we just want to spend more time here, enjoying what we have.'