It was the sheer beauty of the Hudson Valley that brought Leslie Stephenson and Radha Tabak from Manhattan to 10 wooded acres in Ulster County. Stephenson, founder of Element Interiors, a full-service design-and-build firm, is no stranger to scenic landscapes.With a hefty portfolio that includes projects in the US Virgin islands and New York, Stephenson is an expert at designing spaces to blend into their beautiful locale. The key? Less is more. That, and Element Interiors specializes in being nimble. "We have the ability to stop and turn on a dime if clients request changes or adding onto a project," explains Stephenson, who is a carpenter by trade and a self-described "construction nerd." Working mainly with architects and designers, and the occasional homeowner, Stephenson limits the number of large projects Element takes on at one time to ensure top-notch service to his clients.
One of the designer's most recent projects—his own 2,800-square-foot modernist home in Olivebridge—epitomizes his aesthetic. Comprised of elegantly simple shapes—a square stacked on top of a rectangle—the angular architecture is softened by wood plank siding and skirted by a wooden deck. Completed in 2016, the home blends gracefully into the surrounding Catskills wild forest while retaining all the charms of the modernist vernacular.
With his own home, the goal was to use materials and construction methods that lent themselves to a modern aesthetic, while being as energy-efficient as possible. Stephenson used ICFs —or insulated concrete forms—to construct the first floor (as well as the pool outside). With few interior walls, the ground floor flows from kitchen to dining area to living room and, in the warmer months, through oversized glass sliders onto the deck.
Stephenson's wife Radha Tabak, a personal chef specializing in natural food and vegetarian cuisine, was the inspiration for the home's centrally located kitchen. "Radha had always wanted to have an easeful kitchen where she'd be able to create her wonderful meals while having conversations with our friends in the living and dining rooms," he explains. The expansive, open space features Corian countertops and stained walnut cabinetry, double ovens, as well as an "incognito" refrigerator and Miele dishwasher. The kitchen's piece de resistance, however, is a fixed-glass panel that begins at counter height and serves as a backsplash.
The living and dining room are separated by a see-through gas fireplace. Stephenson envisioned the fireplace as a way to divide the spaces while keeping the spirit of openness. To "calm down" the stark nature of the modern interior, Stephenson drew from his extensive experience with exotic wood, adding wood trim throughout the home as well as polished concrete floors. "I felt that being in the country, woods such as walnut, clear cedar, and rift-sawn oak would be appropriate," he says. A floating staircase—Radha's idea—was constructed of rift-sawn oak, which has a grain that remains stable over the poured concrete radiant heat floors.
- A see-through fireplace serves as a divider between the dining and living areas.
The smaller second story, which overhangs half of the first floor, is clad in horizontal planks of ipe, a tropical hardwood chosen for its hardiness. The upstairs master bedroom and bath are also trimmed with rift-sawn oak and feature rectangular Marvin windows. Throughout upstairs and down, Stephenson kept the home's minimalist theme by installing recessed LED "lighting coves." Along with two additional guest bedrooms downstairs, and another full and half bath, the home has a gym, office, sauna, and meditation room. It's ample space to keep the former city couple comfortably ensconced for days at a time.
The design feature that most thrills Stephenson is the way the home's interior practically melts into the surrounding landscape. "I always felt happiest when walking our two dogs in Riverside and Central Park," Stephenson explains. "Now we essentially wake up in a park. How could I not be immensely grateful?"
Since moving his base of operations upstate, Stephenson looks forward to designing and building more Hudson Valley homes that seep seamlessly into their surroundings, blending the evolving vernacular of the region with its rustic roots and modern technology. "Getting to be part of this community has been amazing," Stephenson says. "And having the opportunity to build and design up here is the cherry on top."