A Modernist Treehouse
Resolutely minimalist in style, a home in Winter Park, Colorado, turns its back on tradition to focus on its Rocky Mountain setting
Tim Murphy/Foto Imagery
When artist and designer Ruth Hiller bought a quarter-acre plot in Winter Park, Colorado, almost nine years ago, she decided she wanted a living space that felt more like the interior of her New York City loft than the area’s prevailing mountain lodges and log cabins. So she hired Michael P. Johnson of Cave Creek, Arizona, a modernist architect with more than half a century of experience designing eloquently minimalist spaces, to create a residence that defied tradition.
MOUNTAIN LIVING: What inspired you to build a modern home in the mountains?
RUTH HILLER: I’m a minimalist and I’ve always wanted a modern house. That’s the only kind I would ever build.
MICHAEL P. JOHNSON: In fact, that’s the only kind of house that should ever be built in the mountains. We shouldn’t be living in the past in silly copies of Swiss chalets or log cabins that have no place in our society. After all, most people today drive BMWs, not Model T Fords.
ML: Tradition or modernity aside, was it important to you to maintain a sense of place?
RH: It’s not very Colorado, I’ll tell you that! But Michael followed every code, so when we went to the board to get the designs approved, they had to.
MPJ: I think the house is very appropriate for where it stands.
ML: It’s certainly a departure from a typical home in the area. What do your neighbors think?
RH: One of them thought it was a blight on the landscape. But everyone else likes it, and most say they never really liked modern homes before. One of the really cool things they like is that it feels like a treehouse.
ML: How did you come up with the design?
MPJ: I went with Ruth to view the site. There was an existing carpenter-built 1950s California-style ranch house on a slope surrounded by aspens. I said, “Let’s carve the house away but save the foundation.” We used the basement for Ruth’s painting studio and a guest bedroom, put two master suites on the entry level, and then elevated the living, dining and kitchen space up into the trees, cantilevering it out toward a view of the creek.
RH: The site is just a quarter of an acre, sloping with a huge drop-off to the creek below. So Michael designed something for that particular piece of land. I didn’t even know I had a view until I was up on the second floor.
ML: That deck looks translucent. What’s it made of?
RH: The floor is aluminum grating, so the snow falls through. And there’s a waist-high safety-glass railing.
ML: What was the vision behind the materials?
MPJ: In all of my work, I try to strip things down to the simplest essence.
In my designs, I don’t celebrate and I don’t decorate—I just build a sound building. And the materials are dictated by the setting.
RH: I look at a house as a neutral platform for art and furniture, so I stay with simple materials in neutral tones of white, black and gray. Michael suggested Glulam beams [engineered glued laminated timber], and we settled on white walls. Upstairs, I wanted a floor of black-stained 5-inch oak planks. Downstairs, the floors are Italian 18-inch gray porcelain tiles with radiant heat.
ML: Within that “neutral platform,” you somehow manage to achieve interiors that feel full of life and color. How did you pull that off?
RH: That’s how I work as a designer: Keep it super-simple, then add splashes of color to make it interesting. I wanted something bright in the kitchen, for example, and orange is my favorite color, so we put in that kitchen backsplash of orange tempered glass.
ML: And then there’s that vibrant furniture...
RH: I was very specific about picking out things like those bright-orange chairs and green couches. It felt like I must have looked at ten thousand couches!
MPJ: Ruth passed all the furniture by me, but she has very good taste.
ML: The staircase looks like a piece of sculpture. Tell us about it.
MPJ: I built the stairs out of the same Glulam beams as the house, so that it felt appropriate. It originally had a wall between the flights, but Ruth wanted to get rid of that.
RH: I looked for railings forever, and finally put in a “wall” of vertical stainless-steel cable wires.
ML: The bathrooms seem to be the sparest spaces in the house. Why is that?
RH: Everyone junks up their bathrooms with stuff. I find simple bathrooms very peaceful, and that’s the way Michael designs them.
MPJ: I like bathrooms to be large, and big tubs are so relaxing. In fact, I pay as much attention to bathrooms as I do to living rooms.
ML: With so much white and so many windows everywhere, does the house ever become too dazzling, like on a sunny, snowy day?
RH: It can get pretty bright upstairs. That’s why Michael installed translucent solar shades, which I can draw in the afternoon.
MPJ: When you’re up there in that glass box, you’re just experiencing the splendor of nature. It’s absolutely magnificent the way the seasons change, from lush green in summer to the aspens turning yellow in fall.
ML: What’s your best piece of advice for readers who want to achieve similar effects?
RH: First, hire a good modernist architect. Then, spend your money on good-quality big pieces of furniture and finishes.
MPJ: Hire someone who knows what they’re doing. Look at their portfolio, because that’s what you’re going to get.
ARCHITECTURE Michael P. Johnson Design Studio, Ltd., Cave Creek, AZ, 480-488-2691, mpjstudio.com INTERIOR DESIGN Michael Johnson, mpjstudio.com, and Ruth Hiller, ruthhiller.com STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING J.T. Engineering, Inc., Phoenix, AZ, 602-943-4599 MECHANICAL & PLUMBING ENGINEERING Lisa Koch, Ingenium Design, Scottsdale, AZ, 480-419-6450 METALWORK Railing and stairs, JP Boylan, 720-564-1128 EXTERIOR MATERIALS WALL SURFACE Efis stucco coatings, Senergy, senergy.com GLASS Fleetwood Aluminum Products Inc., fleetwoodusa.com INTERIOR MATERIALS FLOORING Ceramica Refintile DRYWALL TRIM Pittcon Industries, pittconindustries.com LIGHTING FIXTURES Rudd Lighting, Inc., ruddlighting.com KITCHEN CABINETRY Varenna, Poliform, New York, NY, poliform.it COUNTERTOPS Corian, Rick Randolf, 303-931-2562 CHAIRS Kartell, New York, NY, kartell.it REFRIGERATOR Sub-Zero, subzero.com CLOSETS Ikea, Phoenix, AZ, ikea.com LIVING ROOM GREEN SOFAS George, B&B Italia, New York, NY, bebitalia.it RUG Meridia FOYER RED CHAIRS Target, Boulder, CO, 303-449-3400, target.com BATHROOMS BATHTUBS & SINKS Wetstyle, Canada, wetstyle.ca BEDROOM BED Platform, West Elm, westelm.com FIREPLACE Follis