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Sunday, February 28, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aia Home Of The Year

Simply Bold -- Bells And Whistles, No. Individuality, Yes. An Island Home Rolls The Dice And Wins

AS JUDGES STUDIED the color-slide images of the nominees in the Seattle Times / American Institute of Architects Home of the Year contest, there was a palpable rise in interest the minute one particular home first flashed onto the screen.

Click. Slide of a white-metal exterior punctuated by a bouquet of tropically colored window and door frames.

Click. Slide of a living room that pulsed vibrancy, from its vaulted ceiling to its two curved, freestanding plum-colored walls to its stained-concrete floors.

Click. Slides of an angled hallway with positively sculptural walls and ceiling.

"Part of what we have to look at is who took a chance, who was willing to roll the dice," architect Walter Schacht told his fellow judges.

Rolling them and winning is Seattle architect Tom Kuniholm for the boldly individualistic Bainbridge Island house (it has as many art studios as baths) he envisioned as "a camp or compound of small structures nestled into the trees."

Kuniholm was presented with the annual award Friday night at the University of Washington's Kane Hall. Besides Schacht, the judges were local architects Peter Bohlin, of the firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and Lavae Aldrich, of Aldrich Architects.

Built by Colegrove Brothers Construction, the winning three-bedroom, two-bath house "has the strongest, clearest set of forms," enthused Schacht, of Walter Schacht Architects. "It's sophisticated, smooth and tight."

That was not happenstance.

The home's owners, artists Robert Carlson and Mary Fontaine-Carlson, had shopped hard for just the right architect to develop the one-acre hillside property they purchased a decade ago. On Bainbridge's west side, near the hamlet of Lynwood Center, it featured a much-treasured grove of cedars the couple were intent on preserving.

"One of the things we were adamant about," said Carlson, "was that the architecture should mirror the landscape."

And that, he explained, meant no towering edifices, no daylight basements, even though the latter has become almost obligatory on sloping lots.

But as their architect soon realized, the bells and whistles expected on most new homes held no interest for this artist couple or their teenage daughter. (And their absence weighed not at all with the contest judges.)

No, Mary Fontaine-Carlson told Kuniholm, she didn't want a big kitchen with an island. Nor was there any interest in a big master bath with a soaking tub.

And there'd be no need for a family room; for one thing, this family doesn't watch television (their set, wearing a mantle of dust, sits unplugged beneath a tucked-away desk). For another, they planned to use their living / dining room as what she called a "multispace."

"We could turn the table sideways and have 20 for dinner, or we could take all the furniture out and have a dance party," she said. "It's a very mutable kind of space, warm but multipurpose."

And finally, forget about a garage. More important were his-and-hers studios. Robert is an internationally known glass artist and sculptor. Mary is a writer / artist who hand-crafts books.

"Being artists ourselves, we wanted input and to work with someone who was accepting of that," she says, explaining why they chose the low-key Kuniholm. Says he: "It was obvious from the start that we would be creating a bold statement consistent with their artwork and outlook."

A Delaware native and graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design's architecture program, Kuniholm worked for several noted Seattle firms, including Ibsen Nelsen and Mithun Partners, before starting his own firm.

The fact that his wife, Terry Siebert, is an accomplished potter (she designed the Fontaine-Carlson's dinnerware), certainly gave him a leg up in the "understanding artists" category.

But his previous architectural work didn't seem to jibe with his clients' very contemporary ideas. A lover of history who's done numerous home renovations, including one that was published nationally, Kuniholm is drawn to historic preservation.

There is, he insists, a "bizarre connection" between his love of history and his prize-winning house.

Fascinated with industrial architecture of the early West, he's become enamored with canneries, mining structures, what he calls "simple utilitarian buildings."

"That definitely played real strong with this house."

Indeed, the exterior roof and walls are white corrugated metal that remind him, he says, of boat sheds or workshops. As for the owners, they joke that the white metal was the one material both could agree on and afford.

Their favorite vision of this exterior is from their driveway, which is next to Robert's detached two-story studio. A curving walkway leads down the 16-degree slope, past lush native plantings, to the 2,350 square-foot home.

Rather than battling its own geography, the home itself stair-steps down the hill, drawing kudos from contest judge Bohlin, who lauded its "gentle relationship to the land."

The home is two simple, overlapping rectangles jointed like a gently bent arm. These two rectangles offer three levels.

On the highest level is a bedroom wing, with a guest room and a room for the couple's daughter; her study is cleverly hidden away behind a curtain in a room that also holds clothing.

Down a mere three stairs is the center level and the kitchen - little more than a walkway, but visually rich with tile, stainless-steel racks, stone drawer pulls, granite counters.

All that separates it from the living / dining room is a curved, free-standing wall, a shape that's repeated on the other end of the living room where it becomes a backdrop for the woodstove.

This center space is the most luxurious of all. One yellow wall holds the couple's art collection. Its opposite is a bank of 8-foot French doors topped by 2-foot transom windows that flood the room with light and marine views of Rich Passage.

"The element we wanted was surprise," Mary Fontaine-Carlson said. "You come down through the landscape into the entrance of the house and you don't know this incredible view is here."

Other surprises: the fully wired office alcove tucked behind the second curved living-room wall, and the master bedroom wing. It's on the lowest level, four stairs below the living room. The bedroom offers the distinct feeling of being in a tent; that's thanks to the peaked ceiling.

Just beyond the master bedroom wing is her detached, 500-square foot studio.

For the two studios, the house and its 600 square feet of decks, the Fontaine-Carlsons spent a relatively modest $98 a square foot. "These are not expensive buildings," Kuniholm said. "I tried to make something pretty creative out of standard parts."

In that category put heated concrete floors, premanufactured trusses, simple maple kitchen cabinets and cut-to-fit bookshelves that began their lives as stock IKEA shelving.

And of course, this being the home of artists, many of the creative tweaks came from them. Mary designed the bathroom tiles and they both enjoyed developing the home's bold color palette, which the judges appreciated. "It's gutsy, which a lot of other houses try, but this one succeeds," said Aldrich.

Asked to summarize his objective, Kuniholm said his goal was to develop a working and living environment "in a creative new way."

Creativity realized certainly touched a chord with the judges. "There's a kind of ease to this one," Bohlin. "This is the one I'd live in if you gave me a choice."

Elizabeth Rhodes is a Seattle Times staff reporter who covers residential real estate. Benjamin Benschneider is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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