“It seems as if nearly every job we do now has a private or hobbyist room for the owner,” says Mark Finlay, a Southport-based architect. If anyone can spot a trend, it’s Finlay, who has designed a number of these spaces over the years: a hunting room, a model-train room and several arts-and-crafts rooms. He’s also created a variety of libraries and wine rooms for the collector or aficionado, and even a massive woman’s closet made up of three separate rooms with hidden mirrors and enough storage and display to rival Bergdorf’s. (“That client’s hobby is shopping,” Finlay explains, laughing.)
In fact, he enjoyed the concept so much that, for himself, he even designed a music studio in his basement, where he jams with family and friends.
Here, we visit three intriguing “specialty rooms” — a loft-like Westport photography studio and gallery, a pastoral Wilton cottage used for hooking rugs and a waterfront Wilson Point sculpture studio — that reflect their homeowners’ passions.
The Photographer’s Studio
For more than thirty years Tom Kretsch, a retired teacher with the Norwalk public school system, has lived in the same Westport home with his wife, Sandi, who is also a teacher. Despite several earlier additions to their house, the couple decided they needed to renovate in order to accommodate Tom’s passion and second career: photography. His online company, peacefulplaces.com, sells fine art photography for professional and personal spaces.
Tom’s photos are a reflection of his love of travel and his ability, as he puts it, “to capture visual images that evoke a soothing and calming moment — a colorful building, a quiet beach, a back alley or just around the corner if you take the time to look.” (In September, Westport Magazine published Kretsch’s photo essay on the Saugatuck River.) When photography turned into a full-time endeavor, Kretsch turned to Westport-based architect Ann Lathrop, of Sellers Lathrop Architects, to design a home-based studio/gallery where he could work and display his artistic landscapes, seascapes and portraits.
“Initially, Tom wanted a studio on the ground floor to easily move large photos and equipment in and out,” Ann says. “But the allowable coverage was maxed out and the town would not let him build new foundations into any setbacks. As an alternative, they said, ‘Why don’t you build up? We’ll allow that …’” Thus began a second-floor addition, plus a ground-floor renovation to support it.
The project’s concept was to “create a fresh new look for a small cape on a quiet suburban street,” says Ann. With parameters in hand, she set out to achieve her client’s objectives of creating a large work studio with abundant light, enough room for a full bath, plenty of space for showing and storing large quantities of photographs and an entry that could bypass the main living spaces. Most important, she says, “the addition needed to blend with the existing house and reveal its inhabitant in a creative way.”
The spacious second-story studio runs the full depth of the house and has a loft-like ambience that would not have been attained had the project been erected on the first floor, as was originally intended. Ann recalls the serendipitous turn of events: “After we decided the second floor was going to be approved, we realized this was the better solution. This way, we captured the light and the views to treetops and river.” The architect used high ceilings, windows and natural light to her advantage.
From the outside, the new entry includes a handsome portico embellished with wall brackets and natural wainscoting, and a welcoming custom door to blend with the exterior windows. Inside, visitors are greeted by a grand, two-story entry hall with oak stairs and painted metal railings, which serve both the residence and the studio. From every vantage point, the clustered square windows provide a one-two punch — modernizing a dated cape with architectural interest while at the same time providing framed vistas of the outdoors. For a self-taught photographer who finds beauty in “peaceful places,” Tom Kretsch’s home-based photography studio serves as a cheerful yet serene setting in which to ply his creative passion.
The Rug-Hooking Room
Tucked behind the main house of a charming colonial in Wilton is a secret Shangri-La — an elevated cottage where the owner, whose hobby is hooking rugs, can keep her color-saturated, hand-dyed yarns and supplies and work on her rugs in a serene setting. Explains Mark Finlay, “The owner wanted an area separate from the home where she could enjoy her hobby and her garden at the same time.”
After his first visit to the site, Finlay decided it would be fun to make this room feel like a tree house, so he created a structure that is raised above the ground and features an abundance of windows to bring the feeling of the outdoors inside. Although the cottage does evoke the feeling of a rustic hideaway, the interior is outfitted with handsome finishing touches such as antique ceiling beams and simple wood millwork. Finlay, who had done numerous other additions for the family’s main home, knew the owners’ style going into the project, so he was able to jump right into the project.
“They enjoy simple and spare interior spaces with a casual feel,” he says. “The wooden beams and the unembellished millwork are a continuation of the aesthetic that can be found throughout the rest of the home.”
In addition to the high ceilings, the next thing you notice is that one wall is tricked out entirely with nearly floor-to-ceiling cubbies, similar to a professional display in a fine retail store. While the cubbies serve to showcase the homeowner’s colorful hooking projects and shaker baskets, the storage system is also as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional.
“The owner wanted a place to store her wool,” Finlay says. “So I created this cubic structure on the southern wall, which does not get direct sunlight. Placing large windows on the other walls allowed for a great deal of natural sunlight to come into the room without affecting the wood or the wool in the cubby wall.”
Completing the space’s cottage charm, the hooking room is purposefully placed beside the owner’s beloved garden. The shaded outdoor patio that overlooks the garden provides a pleasant transition from one of her hobbies to the next. With comfortable sofas and a living-room layout, the space is most certainly a getaway for the lady of the house. Not to worry, though, her husband has his own private retreat as well — a library at the other end of the home that Finlay designed a few years back. Now, the spouses each have a space to call their own.
The Sculptor’s Studio
For internationally exhibited sculptor ,, the setting where she creates her pieces plays an important role in her artistic vision. Cornelia’s Wilson Point studio was originally built in 1952 by architect James Raymond to house a collection of pony carts. By the time the Kavanaghs purchased the property in 1987, the structure had been turned into a guest cottage. Although the three-room layout was cramped and poorly suited for the large blocks of stone the artist carves, the waterfront setting was so peaceful and inspirational that she simply moved in her tools and started working.
Over the ensuing years, Cornelia’s artistic recognition expanded — along with the size and magnitude of her sculptures. “Even though the setting was ideal,” she says, “I was outgrowing the space. I was also starting to annoy my neighbors with the sound of jackhammers on the deck, and the interior ceilings were so low that the rooms quickly filled with dust.”
After Cornelia was honored with an exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2005, she determined that it was essential to work out of a more sculptor-friendly environment. A friend introduced her to South Norwalk-based architect Robert Cardello, and plans for a new studio were put in motion.
“We didn’t change the footprint,” recalls Cardello. “It works well and offers great views of Long Island Sound and the Norwalk Islands.”
Instead, the architect decided to modify the roofline in order to let in light, and he also removed the interior walls in order to create an open layout and make the space function much more efficiently, as well as to allow sufficient room to exhibit her finished work.
To be fully functional, the studio necessarily had to meet an array of exacting criteria. For one thing, it demanded proper noise abatement — particularly from the compressor-driven jackhammers that Cornelia uses to carve her signature monolithic forms. (For the new design, these compressors were tucked away in a small, heavily insulated room to minimize their noise.) Plans also required adequate space for dust shields and dust-collection systems (the studio’s ceilings were raised so the dust collectors could perform efficiently).
In the end, the most imperative feature of the studio is its generous open layout. This allows large work, which is moved frequently during the carving process, to be lifted and shifted with ease. “By opening up the interior,” says Cardello, “we gave Cornelia plenty of room for her one-ton crane and hydraulic table. We also provided the means for her to easily move raw materials in and finished work out.”
Though the artist also works out of a studio in the Virgin Islands that has a similar orientation to the sea, she says, “Until Bob showed me how my Connecticut space could be transformed, I always thought my best ideas came from the time spent in the Caribbean. Now I can dream up sculpture concepts wherever I work.”
Her latest project, an exploration of the muse as a source of artistic inspiration, was shown at Art Basel Miami this past December. “One of the muses I exhibited was carved from a six-foot-square block of foam,” Cornelia says. “That is something that would have been impossible to attempt in my old studio space.”