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Light Magicby Rebecca Sherman | Modern Luxury Texas Interiors magazine | July 9, 2012
Neighbors in this far east Dallas neighborhood referred to it as the “Frank Lloyd Wrong” house. A little too horizontal, a little too low and clad in a dirty white cinderblock façade, the 1959 modern house was anything but sleek. “It looked like a Diamond Shamrock gas station,” says Michael Thomas, who bought the house in 2008 with partner Philip Groves. “It had 50 years of bad inside. Bad lava stone walls.
Layers of red and black paint in the kitchen. Bad vinyl tinting on the windows. Lavender Venetian plaster walls.” But for all it had going against it, the house had its attributes. Solid bones, for one. A long suite of windows overlooking Dixon Branch Creek out back, for another. And massive slabs of original terrazzo flooring throughout. “We saw something in it we could make something out of,” says Thomas, a former ad exec who moved to Dallas 20 years ago from Tennessee and now publishes and edits the fine art and photography magazine 1814.
Finding the right architect to elicit the house’s buried charms was a painstaking process. They interviewed 12 candidates before hiring Bentley Tibbs, a native of the Mississippi Delta who worked under architect Frank Welch in Dallas before hanging out his own shingle 15 years ago. The trio clicked instantly. “Bentley listened to us, and for two guys with definite opinions about everything, that was huge,” says Thomas.
So what did the clients want, exactly? “We wanted the essence of a Philip Johnson Glass House,” says Groves, a photo stylist who hails originally from El Paso. In other words, they wanted Tibbs to turn their midcentury mess of a house into a masterpiece of design. And he did.
Like the Glass House, which is small and horizontal, Thomas and Groves didn’t want to change their 2,100-square-foot home’s long footprint or make it bigger. But they did want to open it all up. “We wanted a glass pavilion that was 75 percent windows,” says Thomas, “and no matter what the temperature outside, we wanted to maintain the sense of being in nature.”
A gut job was obviously in order. Every piece of glass came off, replaced by new safety glass. Large columns blocking a wall of windows in the front were taken away. The roof came off, heavy beams were removed and ceilings were raised by a foot. The exterior’s dated cinderblock was replaced with fresh white stucco. Every bad surface inside was stripped, exchanged for hand-waxed, quarter-sawn white oak, white back-painted glass, simple white Sheetrock and Thassos marble.
Thomas and Groves, who researched the house’s history in public records and at the library, discovered that the house’s original architect, John Travis Jr., had built it for the past president of the Texas Furniture Association, a man with a Greek surname. Travis had paid homage to the man’s heritage not only with the columns he’d installed inside the entry, but by using the Greek architecture principle known as the Golden Section. Sometimes known as the Golden Mean or Ratio, it is the same element used in the Parthenon and incorporates perfectly proportioned rectangles to give a space beauty and comfort. Knowing this reinforced the couple’s decision to keep the house’s original footprint, which was essentially a long rectangle bookended by a pair of rectangles. “Everyone who comes in our house says it feels very peaceful,” says Thomas. “I do a lot of writing and editing in the house, and I can think much clearer in there.”
The fact they’d chosen to use white marble in the bathrooms imported from the Greek island of Thassos was also ironic, says Groves. Knowing the house’s history helped drive the idea of the space as a modern temple of peace and quiet that paid tribute to its natural surroundings. “Every room in the house opens onto a private courtyard or to the outside,” Groves says.
For architect Tibbs, it was a matter of reducing everything to the purest, most basic elements. There are no cabinet pulls or doorknobs anywhere. Custom doors open on a pivot and close with a magnet, eliminating hinges. Light switches, TVs and storage are hidden behind quarter-sawn white oak panels. The lack of moldings makes it impossible to hide mistakes, so walls had to line up perfectly and float exactly one-eighth inch off the ground. Almost everything had to be redone several times, until it was perfect, remembers Tibbs. “For Michael and Philip, it was never about using the latest this or that, or how much extra space they could get. It was about what can we create that functions beautifully?” he says. “The house wasn’t built as much as it was crafted.”
Tibbs traces his obsession with rigorous details to the Mississipi Delta, where his family has farmed since 1880. “All the spaces I end up creating are rich in materials and (are) tactile. I finally realized that’s the Delta, where luxury is not based on dollars, but a richness of space.” The farm’s hay barn, where he used to play on Saturday afternoons, is where he first fell in love with the way light can affect a room.
“You can take natural light and treat it as you would wood and glass. It’s the most dynamic material there is,” he says.
While light is in ample supply in this house, furniture and decoration are intentionally kept at a minimum. Thomas and Groves brought only a handful of pieces from their previous home, including a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair and a chrome and glass coffee table. In the living room, they added a B&B Italia sofa and a pair of fawn leather chairs from Williams-Sonoma Home. In the dining area, the only pieces are a custom-made, quarter-sawn white oak table surrounded by vintage chrome dining chairs, discovered at a hotel surplus store. The only art in the house is a large-scale canvas of two circles that Groves painted and propped unceremoniously behind the sofa. Walls are blank and closets are small. Seventy-five percent of their clothes went into storage. “We have made adjustments to our lifestyle because of the house,” says Groves. “I used to stay up late. Now, because of the way nature comes into the house, I go to bed early and I anticipate waking up early to see the sun come up and hear the birds. The house has really changed me as a person. It’s exhilarating.”