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Northwest Living
Enlightened, In And Out
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Visitors to the Marques/Frohnmayer house on Mercer Island are no longer greeted by a dull façade of garage and dark entryway. The new timbered pergola, softened by clambering vines of akebia and grape, plus pots of ornamental grasses, creates a fresh sense of scale.
A boring '60s box becomes a lively 'center of the earth'

It must be far easier for designers to start fresh than to renovate an architecturally undistinguished house and overgrown garden. Kind of that sow's-ear-to-silk-purse thing. David Marques and Janet Frohnmayer's 1968 home on Mercer Island was big, boxy, plain and dated. Architect Robin Abrahams was faced with an unattractive expanse of street-side garage, a dark entry and weary kitchen. Landscape architect Linda Withington's challenge was a boring tract of lawn, a lack of privacy and dank shade cast by massive evergreen trees. "The house had been on the market two years when we bought it," says Frohnmayer. "It was so dark it was hard to believe you could live in it."

Abrahams undertook to convert the gloomy box into a silk purse of a family home by concentrating on obliterating the bad while adding to the good. "We didn't try to create something totally different," says Frohnmayer. "It was more a series of incremental changes that made it feel like a new house." Not a square foot of space was added, but the house has been transformed with new windows, entry, cabinetry, hardware, color and circulation patterns. Abrahams now refers to it as "the center of the earth" because of the gaggle of neighborhood kids constantly coming in and out. Abrahams and Frohnmayer enjoyed their collaboration so much that they extended it to shopping sprees in San Francisco (to hunt down the home's classy brushed-nickel hardware) and to Bali for the patio furniture. A couple of summers ago, Abrahams was married in the flowing perennial garden designed by Withington.
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The new oversized doors and windows open up the vistas to the garden from the pomegranate-red dining room. "Because now there's so much light, the house could take as much saturated color as we could throw at it," says architect Robin Abrahams.
Janet and her daughter, Natalie, concentrate on crafting mixed-media collages in Janet's light-filled studio overlooking the garden.
The original builder of the house was known for doing quality work despite plain finishes and unexciting roof lines. Because the space was adequate, and the foundation and roof sturdy, the budget could be spent on the visible rather than the utilitarian. Abrahams began with a new entryway to distract the eye from the garage. Now, handsome cream-painted window trim breaks up the fa┴ade. A bellyband encircles the house, reducing its visual bulk while dividing the horizontal siding below from the new shingles above. A heavy-timbered pergola creates a whole new sense of scale while clearly delineating the entry, drawing visitors toward the red front doors. An all-seasons garden thrives along the new bluestone walkway with layers of perennials, small shrubs and shimmering grasses.

After several large trees were removed, it was difficult for Withington to sell the owners on anything vertical. They'd lived in near darkness for eight years before the remodel, and they longed for light. Now Frohnmayer loves the deciduous trees and shrubs, such as dogwood and witch hazels, that the landscape architect chose to center the borders and lend some privacy. The borders are filled with mostly low-growing meadow-type plants, which link the garden to others on the street but separate them from neighbors. Two large patios wrap around the house, one for dining and the other for lounging on Balinese chaises by the outdoor fireplace.

Though the house was large enough for a family of four, the arrangement of space was awkward. The remodel turned the laundry room into an expanded family room that opens up to the outdoors, with plenty of windows and a comfy window seat overlooking the front garden. The dated brick corner fireplace is gone, replaced by a sleek focal point with white-painted mantel, flanked with double, glass doors. The carpet over linoleum was yanked and replaced by wooden floors that extend into the bright, adjoining kitchen. A 7-foot-long center island anchors this welcoming space while a bay window pushed out into the side garden brings in still more light.

The entry is even more dramatic inside than it is from the outside. The double-story space shows off a lantern designed by Frohnmayer, who's a multimedia collage artist. Crafted by Serpentine Studios on Capitol Hill, the Asian-inspired fixture hovers above the poppy-print rug, its metal curlicues drawing a smile and coaxing the eye upward. It's here in the entry that you realize the full impact of the remodel, for Abrahams skillfully opened up sight lines, removed doors and widened doorways to create shared vistas between the spaces. These views give full measure to the 12 different paint colors orchestrated through the house, from the buttery-gold cabinetry to the ruddy pomegranate tones in the dining room. "We created a palette of colors that may not be adjacent but are all suitable together, mostly ochres, yellows and red," says Abrahams. Her design ties the whole together with pale hardwood floors, the nickel hardware and trim painted in warm white throughout. "To make a project really work, you need to think of it as a whole," she explains.

Upstairs, the color palette continues with creamy-gold limestone in the master bathroom. The children's bedrooms and bath have bright but not childish colors, in part taken from a jewel-toned collage made by their mother and hung in the bathroom. Just down the hall is a light-filled studio — Frohnmayer's retreat and workspace, where she creates her multimedia pieces.

She says the collaboration on her home's rebirth — the intricacies, choices, and just sheer fun and excitement — is similar to the process she goes through in creating her collages. The blank slate of her dark, boxy home has been transformed into a bright, colorful place for kids and adults.
Perhaps the greatest interior transformation is the family room (in part, carved out of the old laundry room) and the adjoining kitchen, with a bay window, wooden cabinetry painted soft gold and a distressed-cherry-wood center island featuring a book case at one end.
Landscape architect Linda Withington designed the new garden to wrap in gentle curves around the house, with a bluestone patio and fireplace off the family room. Frohnmayer and Abrahams extended their collaboration to include a shopping trip to Bali, bringing back couches and tables for the outdoor spaces.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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