A Modern Collaboration

Designing a streamlined home at ease in its pastoral up-Island setting.


For years, Kathy and Jerry Kauff were very happy summer renters. The New Yorkers had lucked into an annual rental of a spectacular house, designed by Harvard Five architect Eliot Noyes, overlooking Nashaquitsa Pond. As they saw it, they had all of the benefits of the Island without the bother of home ownership. “But every so often we’d look at a house or a piece of land just for fun,” Kathy says.

Then, in the fall of 2008, Chilmark real estate broker Jim Feiner called and told them he had some land that was not yet on the market, but might be. “One look,” Kathy says, gesturing to their extraordinary view of Menemsha Pond, “and we were sold.” And that started the Kauffs on what Kathy describes as an “amazing collaboration” with a dream team of talented designers and craftsmen.

The Kauffs began the building process knowing only that they wanted to build something modern. Kathy, who’s originally from Los Angeles, says, “I grew up with modern architecture around me. [The late California architect] John Lautner was a friend of my parents. And it just made sense to build something of this time, not trying to make something that could have been built at any time.” The Kauffs’ friend and fellow Chilmarker Edward Miller suggested architect Toshiko Mori, whom he had recently met while studying architecture at Harvard.

Kathy Jerry Kauff
Homeowners Kathy and Jerry Kauff.

Though the Kauffs considered other architects, it was quite clear from the outset that she was the one. Kathy says, “There was a simplicity about her designs that appealed to me.” Toshiko Mori was equally drawn to the project. She says, “The site itself has a sublime beauty. There was a harmony between the site and the Kauffs that I wanted to keep in balance throughout the design of the house.”

Toshiko, who is based in New York and whose early mentors include John Hejduk and Edward Larrabee Barnes, is one of the world’s most respected architects. Her recent projects include designing a biomedical research complex in Cambridge for Novartis, as well as helping New York University develop a twenty-five-year master plan for its Manhattan campus. She is also the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the practice of architecture and former architecture department chair at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Gary Maynard of Vineyard Haven’s Holmes Hole Builders built the Kauffs’ house and says, “Of all the incredible architects we have worked with, when other architects hear that we have worked with Toshiko Mori, they are impressed.”

Kathy describes the design process as being an easy one. They met with Toshiko, visited the four-and-a-half-acre site, talked, and as Kathy says, “Toshiko listened to how we lived.” One of their main priorities was that the cook in the kitchen or at the grill would not be isolated. “And she did this for us! It’s wonderful. Jerry can be at the grill, I can be in the kitchen, and friends who are visiting can be on the screened-in porch or in the living room, and we feel like we are all together. We can even be in one conversation if we want to.”

The interior décor echoes this idea of togetherness, comfort, and conversation. The inside feels clean and warm. Kathy furnished the house “with the help of my friend Monina [Von Opel, Edward Miller’s wife],” she says. “It’s a mixture of high and low. Most of the furniture I ordered from catalogues, Design Within Reach, Room & Board, that sort of thing.” She points out some of her favorite finds: a reading chair by Harry Bertoia, a Jens Risom lounge chair from Knoll, even the trash cans from Ikea. “I must admit that I was fairly intimidated at first. I wondered what Toshiko would think of my choices. But then she asked what I’d chosen for a dining room chair and I told her Vegetal chairs [designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec] and she said, ‘Oh, I love those.’”

Toshiko Mori
New York architect Toshiko Mori also teaches at Harvard University.

One design challenge they faced was cost. “The house was originally 20 percent larger – we just couldn’t afford a 5,000-square-foot home.” So they began editing, which both Kathy and Jerry enjoyed. “There was something so wonderful about the paring-down process – learning what we cared about. For instance, the original house had a sitting area upstairs for the guest bedrooms. Now our guests come down and hang out here [in the living room], which is so much better,” Kathy says. “Gary Maynard and Zach Clark [of Holmes Hole Builders] were also respectful of our need to keep costs down. We looked at materials, heating options, costed the house out, and recosted it until we got the number right. In fact, I think we only had one change order for the entire building process, and that was to bury the propane tank. We wanted the land to look as undisturbed as possible.”

Gary says, “One of the most remarkable things about Toshiko was that she would not release plans until everything was designed, all the materials were selected and costed out. That process took time. I think we bid against ourselves six times. But once it was a go, it made building the house a very efficient process. I really see our job as builders as executing the plans we are given. The only contribution I feel I can take credit for is pushing for yellow cedar, which has helped the house weather in beautifully.”

Favorite cookbooks and Vineyard guidebooks stand at the ready.

Another key collaborator, renowned landscape architect and Chilmark summer resident Michael Van Valkenburgh, helped make this modern house – replete with glass and steel – feel completely at home in its environment. Caleb Nicholson of Contemporary Landscapes in Vineyard Haven executed the landscape design and says, “The house looks like it has been dropped down into its environment by a helicopter.” Indeed, as you pull into the Kauffs’ driveway and see their house, it looks as though it has been there for decades, amid the stone walls, scrub oaks, blueberry bushes, grass, and ferns overlooking Menemsha Pond.

The approach to the house is a wonderful example of the way the land and the house have been sewn together. As you walk to the front door from the driveway, there is a welcoming look into the open kitchen and main living space – maybe even Kathy, Jerry, and their friends and family inside. But then the house’s walls, windows, and doors seem to recede, and your view becomes grass, trees, and Menemsha Pond.

Initially the walkway was going to be perpendicular to the front door. But Michael says, “Walking around, I realized the best way to see the house was from the corner. That is where I got the best presentation of the volumes of the house. So I moved the walkway to travel next to the house. I was very lucky to work with Caleb and Contemporary Landscapes. Caleb’s team executed my ideas in a way that was believable.”

Michael had known Toshiko for years, but this was the first project they worked on together. “When I came on board, the project was well underway,” he says. “The first time I saw the house, I thought it was incredible beyond belief. What intrigued me most was that the house is Toshiko: elegant, modest, lovely. And proper as well. It’s a three-dimensional self-portrait.”

Toshiko’s overall take on the home focuses on the homeowners. “The Kauffs are extremely open and welcoming people, and they are very fit and outdoorsy. I wanted to design a house that constantly engaged with nature and view, inside and outside.”

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