Form Follows Function

“Whoever said that pleasure wasn’t functional?”

Architect Kevin Alter is quoting a magazine quoting Charles Eames. “I think I read that in a design magazine…but you understand the sentiment,” he explains. “There are things that add value to a home that don’t have to do with square feet; it has to do with how a space is used.”

And to borrow from the Eames’ famous sensibility, form absolutely follows function in the house Alter is referring to, a compact 1921 Clarksville residence he remodeled—and lived in for nearly a decade—before selling it to its current owner in 2010, graphic designer Molly Cumming.

The property, a cozy, unassuming home perched on a narrow lot, is modest at just under 1600 square feet, but inside feels much bigger. Walking in through the front door, the living, dining, and a small sitting room/office share an open space that is loosely delineated by pine half-walls, all parts of its original footprint. Occupied by a legal office before Alter bought the house, it was “an architect’s dream project,” he explains, referring to the fact that structurally, the house was very good, and the front half didn’t require major renovations at all. But as for the rest of the house, there was work to be done and room for Alter to flex his architectural prowess within a confined space.


First Lesson

Maximizing storage space is key

Walking clockwise as you enter, the dining room leads into a tidy kitchen, where heavy steel countertops and a deep sink meet tons of stacked cherry wood cabinets and thoughtful built-in details, like a small cookbook-sized shelf above the range and a deep, covered nook in the counter corner meant to hide appliances. Alter designed the home to have tons of storage, with more echoes of the same built-in, clutter-detracting cherry wood cabinets in the bathrooms, master bedroom, library, and guest room. It allows the entire space to feel exceptionally clean and airy, and Cumming has carried over the aesthetic sensibility, with very few of her personal affects on display aside from art objects and an extensive collection of books—from cookbooks to design tomes—peppering corners of each room.

Second Lesson

Seize every opportunity for natural light

Past the kitchen is the true focal point of the house: a 360-degree library occupying a rectangle smack in the middle of the home, with cherry floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a mounted ladder for accessing hard-to-reach books.

And what do you do to maximize light when you can’t build out? You build up. Alter designed the library ceiling so it extends through to the roof, where natural light streams in through two skylights. He also placed cut-outs on the short ends of the room so the light isn’t boxed into the library, but extends into other parts of the house, reaching into the kitchen, opposing hallway, and spilling into the living/dining rooms. And with big windows in the front and back, even on the dreary day we’re touring the space, it is awash with a particular glow, originating from the myriad ways outside light can penetrate and cross through the house.

Third Lesson

Define personal value

For Alter, the Clarksville home was both an opportunity to execute design ideas he hadn’t yet had the chance to implement and also a project requiring a (financial and spatial) budget. In turn, his design reflects the careful thought that went into making every inch livable. Subsequently, Cumming has made very minimal changes since she moved in, with one of the only modifications she cites painting the brick fireplace in the front room white (“I always wanted to do that when I lived here,” Alter laughs). Cumming’s own personal touches, however, add their own degree of warmth, with patterned area rugs, classic furniture pieces, and large, framed paintings and photographs—many gifts or trades from artist friends—adding splashy color to the otherwise neutral palette of white and wood.

“You can live really well in a small space,” Alter posits, and the care with which the home was put together is evident in the details he casually points out from room to room: perfectly flush corners on kitchen cabinets, an enamel tub he tracked down and scrubbed clean from a salvage furniture source in Gonzales, TX, and a row of pear trees he planted on the north side of the house, which when in bloom create a lush wall separating the house from its neighbors. So while the overall feeling of the house—natural light, integrated storage, the utilization of natural materials—are overt architectural decisions, what the house’s character largely comes from are the more subtle choices that, as Alter explains, don’t add overt “value” to the property but increase the quality of life in more intangible ways.

Or, to borrow again from Charles Eames: “The details are not the details. They make the design.”


Photgraphy by: Casey Dunn & Styling by Ann Lowe

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