Architect Nancy Thiel Designs a Classic Farm-Style Residence in Fairfield
The property's proximity to protected wetlands provided natural inspiration for the farmhouse concept.
Photography by Melani Lust
During the four years Nancy Thiel worked for Robert A. M. Stern, she learned a thing or two about what the renowned architect refers to as modern traditionalism. “He taught me to really examine the proportions of traditional architecture but express them in a modern way,” says Thiel. She took that lesson to heart when designing a classic farm-style residence with 21st-century overtones on a 1.2-acre site across from the Fairfield County Hunt Club. “He told me it’s when you really get to know traditional that you can start playing with it.”
And play she did, starting with the front porch where the geometry is pure Colonial, but on closer inspection the detailing is not. “The proportions and angles are all classical, but I used more contemporary square stock for the trim,” says Thiel. “There’s not one curved element on the entire structure.”
Similarly, in the entry, she sidestepped the expected horizontal paneling by going vertical and continued breaking with convention in the living room, where flat-panel moldings were selected over a traditional fireplace mantel, and in the office where the wainscot is decidedly not chair height. “I think because we are living in 2014, we have to look at houses differently. While context and history are important, my goal is to re-create rather than mimic.”
Hired by builder/developer Bob Kaeser of RC Kaeser & Co., Thiel admits to receiving tremendous leeway with the plans but not total carte blanche. Driving part of the design process was the site that included protected wetlands and proximity to the Hunt Club. “There was a small house on the property that we scrapped, but we needed to factor in that footprint and not push any closer to the wetlands,” says Thiel. “And the Hunt Club was the natural inspiration for the farmhouse concept.”
Sited to maximize the picturesque surroundings, with its cedar shingle siding, simple roof forms and half-round gutters, the structure makes a modest yet elegant statement. Ultimately, the pared-down practicality of the farmhouse vernacular outside resulted in a smooth transition to Thiel’s past-meets-present approach to the interiors. In some instances, those moments played out in subtle ways like crystal doorknobs backed by unadorned rosettes. A more noticeable pronouncement is the open floor plan and easy flow from space to space that responds to current lifestyle demands. Rather than totally separating the formal dining room, Thiel introduced cased openings between the space and the adjacent living room and kitchen. “It was a small gesture that signaled it was okay for the spaces to work together.”
Traditional beam work in the living room and a raised soffit in the dining room help delineate the spaces, and shades of gray were introduced throughout. “This kind of backdrop makes it possible to bring in any style of furnishings,” says Thiel, noting the rolled armchairs coupled with glass and chrome tables in the living room, and a pair of modified wingbacks working it out with a clean lined desk. The yin yang continues in the kitchen where recessed cabinets and open shelving are in keeping with the farm-style theme, while the oversized island makes a contemporary statement. “I designed the marble island to function like a beautiful serving piece,” says Thiel.
Perhaps the most modern element consists of the unseen green features that include geothermal, foam insulation and low-E argon windows, all selected to keep energy costs down. The generous number of windows also results in better day lighting, which keeps the need to turn on lights to a minimum while framing the landscape, where new plantings of chokeberries, river birch and cranberry viburnum complement the wetlands. “There’s incredible wildlife on the property, including amazing birds,” says Thiel. “No matter where you walk inside, you feel connected to the outdoors.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Farm Fresh.
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