Why we love the rooms we love

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Ask people what rooms they love the most, and you’ll get answers ranging from favorite childhood hideouts to dreamhouse living rooms with fifty-mile views. But if you ask them why, they may not be able to explain that the first was an intimate refuge that made them feel safe and secure – while the second delivered a fantastic expansiveness that somehow took them beyond themselves.

To drive my point home (pun intended): It is precisely this interplay between intimate, small spaces and expansive big spaces that is the key to great home design.

Why do I say this? It’s because the parallel interplay in the human psyche is that between inward-directed reflection and integration, and outward-directed expansiveness and self-expression. We are not complete unless both of aspects are well-developed and in balance.

Therefore, the unique opportunity for the architect is to design physical structures that complement these structures of the psyche and actually help bring us into balance. Let’s test drive this idea with the Great Room and adjacent spaces in my most recent house design.

In this project, design was kickstarted by what is arguably the best view in Taos County, offering a breathtaking sweep from El Salto, to the Truchas peaks, and all the way to San Antonio. The challenge in the Great Room was to feature only the most treasured slice of this view (El Salto and Taos Mountain) and avoid the trap of creating a giant fishbowl.

We framed the main view with nine-foot high windows set in a radius wall that wraps the sitting area. At the far end of the room, the dining area enjoys the Truchas views as well as the best art walls in the house. From both spaces you can exit onto the big wraparound deck, stepping smack into the huge view. The progression is from big view to an even bigger view – the allure is irresistible!

Stepping back inside, you return to an interior that’s quite welcoming, despite its high ceilings and considerable expanse. A beautiful stone fireplace anchors the room, the distressed oak floors are organic and warm – and on three sides are smaller spaces that invite you to a more intimate experience.

First comes the foyer, a small transition space with a low ceiling of vigas and split cedar latillas. So, entering through the front door there’s a deliberate sense of compression, followed by a dramatic pop! as you step into Great Room with its twelve-foot ceilings and big views. The pop is accentuated by having to pass under a low roughcut beam and between two viga posts.

The process runs in reverse when approaching the den at the far end of the Great Room. Again, you pass through a narrow opening and under a low beam to reach a cozy room with a sofa and two chairs. The ceiling is three feet lower than the Great Room, and has spruce latillas that lend a warm, old-Taos feel that’s enhanced by tamarisk-paneled doors covering the recessed TV. This time, you’ve gone from the expansive, social space into a scaled-down retreat designed for a couple to enjoy rest, relaxation, and intimacy. Go back into the Great Room and, you guessed it: pop!

The kitchen, always the heart of the house, opens to the center of the Great Room. It has distressed pine cabinets and a tumbled marble splash to soften the dazzling quartzite countertops. From the working island, the cook can communicate with guests across the entire Great Room. Comfy chairs at the island feature the same fabric as the nearby dining set. It is a working space with an important relationship to the Great Room – so its proportions are only slightly scaled down. 

More than a year after construction ended, we’re still working on the fabrics, furnishings and décor that define the character of each room as well as highlight the dynamism between them. For example: The Great Room is formal (live-edge walnut dining table, blue Oaxacan rugs, leather sofa, and coved plaster ceilings), while the den has more color and texture (figured mesquite tables, a red Southwestern rug, an upholstered sofa, and the latilla ceiling). We applied the same approach to the bedrooms and bathrooms where intimacy rules. Each suite has a different color schemes, the textures are more sensual, and pillows and fabrics deliver the comfort factor.

It’ll be spring or summer before artwork completes the home. Will we ever be done? Probably not! A house is, to those of us who love it, a living thing that always changes.

Vishu Magee has designed homes in Taos since 1973 and may be reached at vishumagee@vishumagee.com

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