Finding the Path
A walk in the woods inspires a low-slung modern retreat that’s all about the outdoors.
“There is a Japanese term, Kanketsu, that roughly translates to ‘simplicity derived from a complex process,’” says Stephen Peck, a non-practicing-pediatrician-turned-designer who has studied and traveled frequently in the Land of the Rising Sun. Peck is certainly a person who understands the wisdom of patience, consideration, and steadfastness. It took him and his husband, retired CPA John Messer, 13 years from the time they decided to begin their search for property on which to build a summer home to the day they actually moved in. The path turned out to be long and meandering, both literally and figuratively.
The couple was living in Miami in 2005 when they hatched their scheme for a summer retreat in New England. “We started in Vermont, which at the time was the only place supportive of our family legislatively,” Peck recalls (the family also includes their golden Lab, Luke). The men’s search eventually lured them into Maine, where Peck had attended camp during his childhood. But it was Messer who, two years into their quest, stumbled upon a wooded ten-acre property on a peninsula that jutted out into a pond near Phillips Lake in Lucerne-in-Maine.
Construction on the house wouldn’t actually start for another nine years. First a road had to be cut through the forest to gain access to the property, and Peck, who had returned to school to study design, explains, “I fancied myself as capable of drawing this house. I imagined I’d just hand it over to a structural engineer to review and get the permits. But it was like being a kid in an ice cream shop with too many flavors; I couldn’t decide whether the shape should be a donut, a pyramid, or a rectilinear volume.” So they called in Blue Hill–based Elliott and Elliott Architecture’s principal-in-charge Matt Elliott and project architect Isaac Robbins.
Peck provided the team, which also included Bill Perepchuk of Acorn Builders, with an enormous treasure trove of information, including rough sketches and studies he had conducted to chart the paths of the wind and sun on the site. During the design and construction phases, he also kept the men updated with measurements of furniture purchases, which in some cases actually determined sizes of rooms. But, remembers Robbins, “The site meetings were most important. One of the things Stephen did was walk Matt and me along the path he took through a boulder field and woods and over a little ridge. He gave us that process because so many of his impressions of the site were built into that walk.”
“This building is about arriving and walking toward the site,” adds Elliott. “The sequential narrative was important to Stephen. It’s less about this object sitting on the land and more about the path and a series of moments along the path.” Having hiked this land for over a decade, Peck had very specific views he wanted Elliott and Isaac to frame, and he also wanted the arrival at the house to feel like a mechayeh (a Yiddish word meaning “great relief”). This involved building a suspended boardwalk from the parking area to the front door that gradually introduced visitors to the views he had grown to love. Behind the experience of the casually zigzagging path was a very specific intention: to quiet the busyness and clutter of the mind and settle the system into the rhythms of nature before arriving at the contemporary structure.
Elliott notes that, in general, his firm “tends toward more contemporary, but picks up on vernacular forms. This house had nothing to do with vernacular, so it freed us of certain constraints not tied to conventional Maine architecture.”
Instead, Peck and Messer desired a flat-roofed modern home split into two separate volumes—one for them and another for their guests. “At first glance, most of the architecture and interior spaces are rather simple and straightforward,” says Peck. “But the decisions supporting them involved a great deal of consideration and discussion about pathways, circulation, how spaces function, and what one experiences within them. The conversations I had with John, as well as Matt and Isaac, were rich, productive, and rewarding.” These discussions led to a combination of exterior treatments, rather than one homogenous approach. “It’s a collection of different experiences, and I thought we should emphasize that with different cladding,” explains Peck. So volumes are defined variously by black corrugated metal, clapboard, and cedar shingle. The latter is indeed a nod to Maine’s vernacular architecture, but Peck requested they be cut in a larger format to make them appear more contemporary.
Despite the apparent modernity of the interiors, there are also many subtle allusions, aside from the shingles, to the local landscape, architecture, and culture. “I saw the interiors as informal but refined,” says Peck. “My emphasis was on textures so that it wouldn’t feel cold. John has a great eye for color and objects, and I included him wherever he showed some interest. We started with a mood—something smoky, sexy, and a little dark, like a Tom Ford suit. We’ve also been together 17 years, so we’ve had a lifetime of collecting and travel.”
From the latter category they brought in remnants of their peripatetic life that held sentimental value: Jean-Michel Frank–style chairs covered in shagreen that they purchased in Vietnam, a Moroccan rug, a painted fabric from Nairobi, Russel Wright tableware. Peck then mixed in classic midcentury and contemporary furnishings. In the living room, before a hearth sheathed to the ceiling in handmade tiles, are a Lee Industries sofa, a Ligne Roset “Ploum” chair, and a cocktail table by the Italian firm Henge. In a dining alcove, Verner Panton chairs surround a Warren Platner for Knoll table. In the kitchen, Peck designed all the custom walnut cabinetry and specified granite counters with a leather finish, then topped the island with a trio of Poul Henningsen’s PH5 pendants.
The overall midcentury vibe, however, is also spiked with subtle tongue-in-cheek references to the locale and lifestyle. Faux fur pillows on furniture and the owners’ bed’s custom headboard, as well as horn sconces in a powder room, allude to the local hunting culture (though Messer and Peck are not themselves hunters). A plaid-dressed chair and a woodgrain-look porcelain tile wall in the owners’ bedroom, in addition to the guest bath’s faux bois–style wall tile, suggest the area’s history of great camps. And in the owners’ bath, highly figured green and gray veining mimics the landscape outside generously proportioned plate-glass windows.
For all the beautiful surfaces, fabrics, and furnishings, however, it is Peck’s sensitivity to design psychology that comes through most palpably. Everything is meant to invoke a specific feeling of enveloping embrace, of comfort and relaxation. Essentially, it all comes back to the path. “How does it feel walking the boardwalk?” asks Peck. “I want you to feel like I felt hiking through the woods. It’s humility before nature. I want you to be humbled and arrested by its beauty.”