JULY 2011 » profile

Tailoring Tradition

A New Jersey firm puts the past in present tense.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

What's the most important element of every residential project? For the husband-and-wife team of Mary René Clawson and Marvin E. Clawson, it's the client, hands down. "This type of work is so highly personal, it's like custom tailoring," says Marvin. "People invite us to be participants in their lives, which allows us to develop architecture that's uniquely theirs." "The design enriches itself as the dialogue unfolds," adds René, "opening the door on their traditions."

The Clawsons have been bringing home this family-centric philosophy ever since they founded their eponymous architectural/interior design firm in Maplewood, NJ, more than a decade ago. The small suburban town gives them great access to their New York City clients and Marvin's teaching venues, the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

Marvin and René met while attending Louisiana Tech University. Several years after Marvin graduated and moved to New York City, he and René connected again and eventually married. Both fulfilled their dreams of working in New York City and working on high-profile projects with noteworthy architects. Marvin, however, still thirsted for more knowledge, and his passion for learning and teaching led him to Columbia University, where he earned a masters degree.

The most common comment they get as a professional couple is, "How do you work together? I could never work with my spouse." They attribute their great working relationship to the fact that they were friends for a long time, and they have a mutual respect for each other's talents. "We play off each other's strengths," says René. "We don't divide the work; we're more of a tag team."

Whether doing what Marvin terms "transformations, adaptations or manifestations," Clawson Architects' guiding principles, René says, "are grounded in excellence, ensuring results that are truly unique and beautiful."

Designing Maplewood
While Clawson Architects has completed residential, retail and institutional projects in the greater Northeast region, many of the firm's residential designs have taken shape in Maplewood. On one such project, for which René was called upon to assist with the renovation of the kitchen of a Victorian home, she immediately noticed the original side lites flanking the front door and the matching glass and caming pattern used on the windows in the parlor and stair landing. "That was the defining detail that set the tone for the house," she says.

The previous owners had restored the home over the years and added a family room addition; however, the one room that had not been restored or renovated since the 1970s was the kitchen. The challenge was to work within the existing space while expanding the opening into the family room, adding counter seating and simplifying the transition from the front parlor to the kitchen – areas that had some awkward angles and competing doors.

Once René communicated her vision for a new, larger, relocated window and the idea of custom cabinetry emulating freestanding hutches, "as it would have been in the 19th century," the clients were in. The window over the sink was crafted using a standard casement window. The lead caming was created by a stained-glass artisan and installed on the interior side of the window. The upper cabinets have brackets to draw the eye to the base, forming a complete piece, and the custom caming is repeated on the cabinet doors. The program was achieved within the existing space, and "they did not have to sacrifice details for convenience," says René.

In another project, the clients sought out Clawson Architects because of its reputation for creating seamless additions. It was important that everything from the original brick foundation to the wrought-iron railings on the house be matched. The beaded board of the mudroom ceiling and cabinetry complement that of the front wraparound porch ceiling, and the slate floor accents the bluestone pavers and patio outside. The antique door and light fixture, bought by the homeowner, were incorporated and represent the type of collaborative process the Clawsons use.

Perhaps the most innovative part of the addition is the one that was designed to go unnoticed. "The new addition extends only eight ft. to the rear," says Marvin, noting that the houses sit on 70x100-ft. lots, "aligning with the other homes on the block so all the back yards line up to create one common green space."

For a ca. 1908 house, the owners turned to Clawson Architects to renovate an addition that had been completed in the 1970s. Early on in the process, Marvin conveyed his ideas via a traditional method: hand sketches done on site with the clients. "The clients often can't visualize the ideas, so I started drawing perspectives right there," he says. "Having a conversation by pencil seems to be going by the wayside."

Clawson's design opened up the addition, which contained the kitchen, powder room and family room, without so much as adding an inch. Marvin and René raised the ceilings to 10 ft. to match those in the rest of the house, relocated the powder room to the back stair hall and put the stove in its place, opened up the wall between the kitchen and family room with columns and a beam and replaced the family room's sliding glass doors with nine-ft. French doors.

The central island, which is made of cherry and looks like a piece of furniture, lines up with the bay windows and sink windows. "We took a template of the top to the marble shop and laid it out so we could get the swirl of the Calcutta gold in exactly the right spot," says Marvin.

The volume of natural light increased so much that the owners don't need to turn lights on until nine at night in the summer, and in the winter, there's so much light they bring in their jasmine, orange and lemon trees to create what Marvin calls a "modern-day orangery."

In the powder room, old-world Tuscany touches set the tone. The Jerusalem gold marble on the counter and floor provide the setting for the dramatic carved Mankato Kasota stone sink and a custom, handcrafted window framing the view. "We were striving for authenticity," says Marvin. "The homeowner wanted the sink to be carved from stone referencing the public fonts around Rome as precedence. While carving the sink from marble was not in this budget, Mankato Kasota became a beautiful alternative."

For a 10x12-ft. kitchen in a 1924 Craftsman bungalow, the Clawsons were asked to integrate modern technologies and convenience into the existing space while maintaining the original charm. "This space is so efficient and functions like a Swiss Army knife," says Marvin.

To honor the scale and proportions of the style, the Clawsons did not increase the kitchen's footprint. However, the living space was extended into the garden by adding a porch off the kitchen. The proportions of the porch were based on the formal living space at the front of the house. The design of the kitchen is based on the owners' antique Gustav Stickley sideboard, which became the inspiration for the millwork profiles, wood species and stain color.

One of the more dramatic elements is the checkerboard backsplash, which was designed by the owner, a graphic artist. "It's like the perfect belt for the outfit," says Marvin, adding that "the collaborative process is amazing when the owners have an interest in the details."

Going Big and Fitting in
In a suburban neighborhood of Mountainside, NJ, where the houses are set out on quarter-acre lots, a developer came up with idea of building eight houses around a cul-de-sac on a three-acre wooded plot that housed a sad-looking 1960s home. The neighbors complained, and the planning commission caved.

A couple with five young children bought a plot and commissioned Clawson Architects to design a new home that responded to their needs. Several family members have allergies and are sensitive to environmental air quality. It was imperative that the home have an air filtration system and that the materials not give off gas or compromise the air quality. Because the Shingle Style house would be big (13,000 sq.ft.), the owners wanted it to be energy-efficient and eco-friendly. What's more, they wanted it to be ready in fewer than 22 months.

Keenly aware of the neighbors' objections to the first project, Clawson Architects sited the house without clear-cutting the trees. The design and final site location were selected to minimize the amount of earth that had to be moved and the number of trees that had to come down.

The house features five bedrooms, a master suite and a guest quarters, home offices and an octagon-shaped home theater, as well as a wine cellar and gym. Another gym with exposed scissor trusses is above the three-car garage. The house, which also features solar panels on the roof and a geothermal heating system, René says, "takes its architectural cues from the area and engages itself with the land by nestling into the topography."

"It slowly reveals itself through the woods," says Marvin. "It truly becomes one with the landscape."

A French Accent in Manhattan
With living space being a prime desire and scarce commodity in Manhattan, Clawson Architects was commissioned to make the most out of two connecting apartments on the Upper East Side. The owners lived in one 2,000-sq.ft. apartment and doubled their space when they purchased the apartment next door. The ideas flowed, and the owners settled on a traditional architectural division of sacred and profane, which also has roots in French sociology. The existing apartment was renovated into more gracious private bedrooms with baths and a master suite that includes a fireplace; the second apartment was renovated and transformed into entertaining spaces. The connection between the two became the family spaces and services.

Inspired by the Petit Trianon and the owners' French heritage, 18th-century French details abound and include new hardwood floors with stenciling and herringbone patterns, trim and door details, as well as furnishings.

"Because we were limited by the structural and mechanical systems typical of older New York City apartments, Marvin's command of Classical design and detailing enabled him to create a hybrid, where the proportions and scale were adapted to the volume of the existing space," says René. "The central air-conditioning system is cleverly hidden in the millwork." To accomplish this, the ceilings had to be lowered in service areas. "We were able to achieve some height in the ceilings in other areas by creating a beamed ceiling," says Marvin. "It was quite a challenge to integrate all of the technology while maintaining an authentic French period look."  


Nancy A. Ruhling is a New York City-based freelance writer.

 

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