Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Idaho is a state of extremes. Rugged, wild and beautiful – and as big as the whole of New England – this is America in the raw. The summers are hot here, but the winters in this landscape of mountains and hills can be dramatic, with plenty of snow and temperatures well below freezing. This is where artist Jan MacFarland Cox has created an extraordinary new home, The Outpost, opening up to the rolling countryside of Blaine County in the southern part of the state.

'I love the winter here,' says Cox. 'The snow is several feet deep for four months or more and the landscape becomes very sculptural, with the amazing sun and changing light. We are in the widest part of a valley where the mountains and high desert meet and the views are 360 degrees. The foothills form a natural bowl around us and there are glimpses of the snow covered peaks to the north.'

Sitting within this epic countryside, the house itself stands like a piece of sculpture: a flat roofed, rectangular form punctured by vast panels of glass that open out to the landscape, complemented by a walled garden, where fruit trees, roses and wisteria are protected from the elements. The house was essentially designed around one open, elevated and multi-functional room, overlooked by a mezzanine bedroom, but with a separate studio/office as well as utility spaces on a lower entry level.

'The combined studio and home aspect was always crucial,' says Cox, an artist and designer who works in a wide range of mediums, from photography to metalwork to ice. 'The original design was much larger than the one we ended up with but the connected house and walled garden were always a given. The garden was a natural progression of the house and was for practical as well as aesthetic reasons.'

Cox has known the area for many years. Her father was a peripatetic architect who brought his family to the region many times during Cox's childhood, taking advantage of Idaho's ski season. For many years Cox split her time between Idaho and the San Francisco Bay area, but moved back to the nearby town of Ketchum around 23 years ago, where she raised her children, now grown up.

It was her late father who actually bought the plot of land where Cox's house now stands, intending to build a solar house, which never happened. Years later, it fell to his daughter to create a striking home within this mesmerising tract of countryside.

'They could have had lots of other pieces of land, with water or trees, but they chose this,' Cox says. 'I am not sure exactly why, as my father died many years ago. The house is actually less remote than it appears, with neighbours on two sides on 20 acre parcels, which are intersected with fields of hay and horses. But on the other two sides it is wild and there are often antelope, elk and coyotes.'

Cox first started thinking about building a home here around ten years ago, after her divorce. She thought she might design the house herself, but was struck by the work of architect Tom Kundig, of the Seattle based practice Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen. Many of Kundig's striking and award winning houses are thoughtful and highly imaginative responses to rural landscapes, sitting in the countryside like pieces of land art. It was just this level of artistry and character that drew Cox to Tom Kundig's work.

'I saw Tom's work in a dramatic magazine layout and I was going to be in Seattle so I contacted him,' Cox says. 'We had a great connection in approach, philosophy and as he had also grown up skiing in this area the project spoke to him immediately. I hadn't been "shopping" for an architect, so working with somebody so talented yet down to earth was a gift.'

The project was delayed as Cox sold her former home and dealt with planning issues, while constructions costs soared in the meantime. This meant that the house had to be reduced in size and a plan for a swimming pool was dropped, but the design of the house retained its integrity and clear form, with the exterior walls of simple concrete blockwork, but carefully detailed with a crafted touch.

'The landscape is really the soul of the house,' says Kundig. 'Every decision about the house was relative to the background of that big, powerful and subtle landscape. So for an architect that grew up in a similar landscape, this commission reached into the soul of my childhood memories and maybe my most important memories: the big sky, the rolling hills, the smell of the dry grasses and sage, the crunch of the wind blown snow.'

Completed eighteen months ago, the warm interiors of The Outpost contrast with the cool, sculpted form of the outside of the building. Within Cox and Kundig collaborated on a scheme that made use of recycled fir for floorboards and some interior finishes, such as the wood panelled. Steel bookshelves, backed with storage compartments, help form a balcony to protect the mezzanine level bedroom.

Cox inherited a number of pieces of furniture for the house, while others have been collected over the years. Some of these were adapted by Cox, such as the round maple topped table, where the maple came west with her pioneer ancestors in covered wagons in the mid 19th Century while the new base is of her own design. Others pieces of furniture, such as the bronze and steel desk in her studio, were designed by Cox from scratch.

Cox also designed or commissioned a whole range of home accessories tailored to the house, including ceramics from Italy and glassware from London based designer Michael Ruh and many other pieces, which Cox now markets as the Outpost Collection. This winter, she also hosts her first invitational Outpost art and design event, including the work of a range of artists - including young British artist Kelly McCallum - which will also be presented online.

'Before I ever broke ground here to build the house, I used the property to host art events and dinners,' Cox says. 'This type of use was always part of the concept of The Outpost. There will be snowshoeing to the exterior installations, as well as exhibiting the interior work, and dinners and so on. Everyone who has been involved is pretty excited.'

Jan MacFarland Cox –
Olson Sunberg Kundig Allen Architects –

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