When Diane and Tim Thompson want to invite friends to their Baltimore County home, they don't have to send up a flare. They don't even have to worry about street numbers.
"We just say, 'Look for the very modern, multicolored four-story on the left. You can't miss it,' " says Mr. Thompson, a 38-year-old graphic designer who wanted a house that made a strong visual impact.
His description may not be going far enough. Miami-Vice-comes-to-Maryland is more like it. California-contemporary-on-steroids is closer still.
Ever since the exterior renovation was completed last year, the once-nondescript Stevenson-area residence literally pops out from its neighbors.
Previously dark cedar siding has been clad with synthetic stucco in shades of white, turquoise, terra cotta and dark blue, with accent trim in golden yellow and lime green. Sculptural appendages make reference to everything from a '50s Cadillac fin to sushi with chopsticks.
But there's more to this house than bold geometry and striking graphics.
The Thompson house, by Travis Price Architects of Takoma Park, exemplifies a design trend that is taking hold in Maryland and around the country. After years in which the retro look reigned, modernism is making a comeback.
Decorating maven Martha Stewart, whose name had become synonymous with traditionalism, surprised many of her faithful followers earlier this year when she spent $3 million to buy a modernist gem of a house in East Hampton, N.Y., designed by Gordon Bunshaft.
Town elders in Madison, Wis., broke ground this year for a convention center that was designed more than 30 years ago by modern master Frank Lloyd Wright. And a current Maryland Historical Society exhibit pays tribute to the late Alexander Cochran, a local architect who helped introduce modernism to postwar Baltimore.
The Thompson house is one of the best examples to date of the way modern architecture is reasserting itself in the local landscape.
It actually represents modernism in two ways:
First, it is the renovation of a modern dwelling that was fairly adventurous for Maryland when it was constructed in 1974, although it had faded in recent years.
Second, it reflects an effort to reinvigorate modernism for the 1990s. Instead of restoring the house to its original appearance, the Thompsons and their architect sought to infuse it with new vitality by experimenting with colors, forms and textures.
The change was so dramatic that it looks like a completely new building.
"If you drive by, you wouldn't be able to tell it's a renovation," said Travis Price. "When people see the model in our office, they think it's new construction."
This is not the stripped-down, Bauhaus-style modernism of the 1930s and 1940s. This is modernism with meaning. It's evocatecture: architecture intended to evoke strong feelings in those who experience it. Mr. Price calls it "emotional modernism."
The design was the result of a close collaboration between Mr. Price, who is known for his no-holds-barred approach to design, and Mr. Thompson, vice president and senior creative director for two graphic design and multimedia communications firms in Baltimore, Graffito and Active8. His clients include MCI, AT&T;, Urban Outfitters, SkyTel and the American Red Cross.
The renovation project began in 1991. That's when Mr. Thompson began looking for a new residence for himself, his then-fiance, Diane, and her three children from a previous marriage.
Afraid that building a house from the ground up would take too long for his instant family, Mr. Thompson scoured the region for homes he could buy and tailor to his liking.
Mr. Thompson said he ended up buying the house he did because the interior was in move-in condition and he liked the way it sat on its site, opening to woods in the back.
The cedar siding had weathered poorly over the years -- a turnoff to many prospective buyers. But Mr. Thompson saw the need to upgrade the exterior as an opportunity to put his imprint on the house.
Fortunately for him, the house was in a community that did not have restrictive covenants that might have limited what he could do to the exterior. With houses dating from the 1940s to the 1990s, "this is a pretty eclectic neighborhood," Mr. Thompson said. "It's tolerant. You see one of everything."
For professional advice Mr. Thompson turned to Mr. Price, who seems at his most expressive when working in a modern idiom.
Mr. Thompson said he hired Mr. Price because the architect's three-dimensional work reminded him of his own approach to graphic design. "He was on the same wavelength."
The Thompson house is one of the first residential commissions Mr. Price has had in the Baltimore area in a while, and it gave him a chance to pursue his ideas about modern design.
"The early modernists were revolutionaries," he said. "They were trying to solve social problems, get rid of all the baggage of classical design, make houses that were machines for living. But there was no soul to it. It got souled out."
As Mr. Price sees it, the sterility of modern design ultimately forced people to turn away from it. Trying to find meaning and substance in architecture, he said, many clients embraced post-modern designers such as Michael Graves and Robert Stern, who didn't hesitate to treat history as a grab bag of ideas for projects.
That ran its course, too, as people tired of historicist cliches, and "now we're in a transitional stage," Mr. Price said. "We haven't figured out what the driving images of our culture are, except that they involve complexity and contradiction, as [architect] Robert Venturi put it."
But having been subjected in recent years to conflicting design movements ranging from deconstructivism on one end of the spectrum to classicism on the other, Mr. Price said, many clients are more open to the idea of experimenting with sensual materials and bold colors to create designs that elicit an emotional response.
"What's good about postmodernism is that it freed up our design vocabulary," he said. "From now on, every house can be a combination of Bauhaus and postmodern and Cadillac fins, if you want them. People are freer to mix and match any way they want -- machine parts, natural parts. Any of it can be beautiful. The problem for the architect is not 'anything goes.' It's finding the order."
Mr. Thompson was an ideal client for this newly liberated design climate. A fan of Philippe Starck, Frank Gehry, Arquitectonica and the Memphis design movement from Italy, among others, he knew he didn't want to live in a "McMansion." But he had no preconceived notions of what the house should look like. He said he simply wanted the transformed house to have the same impact he strives for in his graphic designs.
At work, "we're always trying to stay ahead of the curve, come up with something that's never been done before," he said. "I wanted this house to reflect my design ideals. I wanted it to be about my vision of a house."
Hip granola shed
As Mr. Price tells it, the Thompson house was progressive for its time -- a "hip granola shed." Designed by Maryland architects Mark McInturff and Steve Parker, it was an oversized tree fort that vaguely recalled the wood-clad houses of Sea Ranch in Northern California. "I call it early Buckeroo," Mr. Price said.
Mr. Thompson said it reminded him of "something by the Rouse Co. in the 1970s. It had a feeling of Rousey-ness."
With its badly weathered siding, the house looked as if it had been in a fire. As a result, Mr. Thompson's first step was to cover up the damage by recladding the exterior to give the house a new look.
From the beginning, Mr. Price said, Mr. Thompson wanted the surface to have "a lot of color," and he didn't want anything that looked historical.
"He didn't want it to be brick or clapboard or shingle. He wanted it to be sculptural, without any trim. The more mono-textural the surface, the better."
Mr. Price said he also knew that Mr. Thompson likes curving shapes, that he wanted to incorporate metal on the exterior, that he was excited by the work of Philippe Starck. "For me, that set a direction."
At the same time, Mr. Thompson "had a fairly conventional set of requirements," Mr. Price said. "He said: I need a major entry statement, something that tells you where the front door is. I like light, color, sculpture. I want a deck. Those were some of the basic decisions."
The Thompsons also had an extremely tight budget for the exterior, the architect said. "Every step was: What can we do with ordinary materials? What can we use in a different way? Tim and I were both looking at it as an exercise in questioning assumptions, playing with materials. It was almost a game of resculpting [the house]. We wanted to take it beyond the ordinary."
Mr. Thompson also didn't want it to be too serious. "I wanted it to be fun," he said. "This is a house where kids live. Some modern houses are glass boxes where you can't do anything. I didn't want that."
The collaborators reclad the house with Drivit, a stuccolike material that has a relatively smooth and scaleless finish and can be impregnated with a variety of colors.
This synthetic stucco was applied directly over the cedar siding, providing a new layer of insulation for the house. It was also used sculpturally around windows and doors to create the curvaceous forms that gave the house a more pumped-up look.
Mr. Thompson chose the colors: white for the basic shell of the house and then shades of turquoise, terra cotta and dark blue to accentuate certain walls and volumes. The lime green used on a metal stair on the side was a reference to spring, and the color of leaves when they first appear. The golden yellow trim on the porch is a reference to autumn, and the color the leaves turn at that time of the year.
Mr. Thompson said it was important to him that the entire house be treated as a work of sculpture, rather than a box with a front more important than the back. "This is a 360-degree design."
To get to the front door from the street, visitors follow a path that meanders down a hillside reminiscent of a Japanese garden. To mark the main entrance, the architect designed a curving metal canopy supported by four thin posts splayed in different directions. The shape was inspired by a dinner he had with Mr. Thompson at a sushi restaurant.
"The entry canopy flew off a sushi napkin one night as the chopsticks became columns and seaweed was sheared into a stainless-steel entry shield," the architect recalled.
A deck was added on the side facing the woods to provide more outdoor living space. To signify that the area beneath the deck is a carport, the architect created a giant fin that evokes a tail fin from a 1950s Cadillac. Made of brushed stainless steel, the fin also looks from some angles like the prow of a ship. Mr. Thompson added two cobalt-blue "gazing balls," which are used as lawn ornaments in some neighborhoods but might here be a reference to headlights for a car.
Mr. Price and Mr. Thompson both praised the general contractor, Bill Lupton of Bay City Builders. They said Bay City bid when others were scared off by the unusual design, and that Mr. Lupton's practical advice was instrumental in keeping the project on budget.
Out on a limb
Mr. and Mrs. Thompson are now moving ahead with plans to redesign their home's interior. But already, the abstract boldness of the exterior seems appropriate for the home of a graphic artist.
The exterior is Mr. Thompson's calling card, a suggestion of what he does for a living, sound-bite architecture.
What keeps the house from being a one-liner are the many design details that can be appreciated only with repeat viewings. Mr. Thompson said that as a resident, he sees the house from all angles, such as from the upper balconies looking down, and is constantly amazed by the geometric formations he is seeing for the first time.
"I'm not an architect. But I had fun playing one, with Travis," he said. "Maybe in 20 years, some of these ideas will be popping up on the McMansions. You never know."
Mr. Price said he is gratified that the house continues to evolve a year after the exterior was finished. Every time he visits, he said, he notices something is different -- an indication to him that the Thompsons are making good use of it. "That's a lot better than coming back to a neotraditional house that never changes," he ** said.
"It has been said that I take more clients out on a limb than any other architect," he added. "But my response is: 'I don't take them out there. I meet them there.' That's how mind makes matter."