Salmela Architects Designs Artful Afton Abode

by | March 2018

A lipstick-red Valcucine buffet separates the kitchen from the low-ceilinged, blue-walled dining room. (Paul Crosby)

It was the view that captured the Koosmanns. On a sunny day, the St. Croix River glimmers 150 feet below the forested ridge in Afton, Minnesota.

“We hardly looked at the house that was there,” says Jill, CEO of a wealth management firm. “When we walked into the yard, we knew this was where we wanted to be.”

Jill and her husband, Chuck, an architect, also knew they would eventually rebuild. When the time arrived 18 years later, they hired Duluth architect David Salmela, known for his crisp, Nordic-inspired houses and the memorable Wild Rice Restaurant outside Bayfield, Wisconsin.

“The best decision we made was to work with someone,” says Chuck, who by then had retired as founder and president of Koosmann Project Management Services.

The end product of their lively interactive design process: a house of sophisticated simplicity, built by Streeter & Associates.

Nestled among among wildflowers and pines, the house is quiet and straighforward: three zinc-clad boxes and a garage of dark Richlite.

Nestled among among wildflowers and pines, the house is quiet and straighforward: three zinc-clad boxes and a garage of dark Richlite. (Paul Crosby)

The exterior is quiet and straightforward: three zinc-clad boxes line up behind a garage covered in dark Richlite, a durable material whose exterior use Salmela has pioneered. “We always try to choose materials that let things age,” says Salmela. “Zinc, Richlite—you don’t have to do anything to them.”

A stone walkway topped by a Richlite roof leads to the glass front door, which opens to a two-story skylit entry. The skylight, one of five, isn’t ordinary: it is enclosed in a box with cut-outs that modulate the light.

A very low, 7-foot-4-inch, ceiling over the dining table and kitchen directs the eye to the bucolic view of pines and river, and accentuates the drama of the soaring living room.

While the aesthetic is contemporary, with crisp white walls and windows, color is used for maximum punch: one intensely dark blue wall in the living/dining space, a pungent yellow wall when the bedroom door opens, and a glowing light canopy over the dining table that is painted red with a gold-leaf overlay. And then there is the lipstick-red glass Valcucine buffet that divides the living room and the ultra-streamlined black-and-white kitchen. 

“We did the kitchen,” Chuck says. “We have a tradition in our family. Santa always brings a cookbook for each person. They draw one of six courses out of a hat, choose a recipe from their cookbook and go to the store and buy the ingredients.

Then the cooking begins.”

The all-glass Valcucine counters and backsplash are simple and functional.

The all-glass Valcucine counters and backsplash are simple and functional. (Paul Crosby)

Salmela calls the Valcucine kitchen with its 13-foot-long island with two cooktops “the Ferrari of kitchens.” It has a double Gaggenau oven, a Sub-Zero fridge, a Gaggenau steam oven rather than a microwave, and yes, truly enough counter space for six people to cook at the same time. Chuck particularly loves the all-glass counters and backsplash. (No water splashing on wood here, as in their old woodsy house.)

Triple-glazed Norwegian-designed H windows complete the stunning and functional space. (They push open with one hand to flip over for cleaning from inside.)

Chuck and Jill often joked that they would build a kitchen with bedrooms, and the 3,600-square-foot house isn’t far from that. The master bedroom suite is on the main floor, just off the dining room. “We live on this floor, which is 1,400 square feet,” says Chuck. “You think about that as you get older.”

The whimsical bedstead and yellow wall lighten the mood in the master bedroom suite.

The whimsical bedstead and yellow wall lighten the mood in the master bedroom suite. (Paul Crosby)

The bedroom is neither large nor sumptuous, but every inch is carefully designed. Two yellow walls punctuate the warm gray background of walls, floor, and ceiling. A wall of cabinets rather than a closet provides storage. A board-on-board ceiling and another skybox create visual interest while a bedstead with carved birds on the four posts adds a whimsical touch. An outdoor terrace enlarges the space.

“Why is this so doggone nice?” Salmela asks. “You plan something and you think it out but if you do it right, it’s way beyond your expectations.”

The connected bathroom opens to western corner windows. And the gray porcelain floor tile simply extends up the wall around the shower and oval Agape tub.

Soaring 22-feet high and embracing the view, the living room is the visual centerpiece of the house.

Soaring 22-feet high and embracing the view, the living room is the visual centerpiece of the house. (Paul Crosby)

But still, the living room is the main floor’s visual centerpiece. A white-walled fireplace on one side and white wall on the other frame the 22-foot-high space and its artful composition of three large south windows. The holes cut in the skybox make art of sunlight itself. A slatted basswood screen spanning the 40-foot space modulates the western light.

Salmela often uses slatted screens but had never done one this long. It’s tricky to get it just right, he says, but “the Prairie School did slats, the Japanese put slatted screens on their windows for privacy. It’s just an elegant detail.”

The holes punched in the skyboxes create a play of light and shadow throughout the day.

The skylight looms over the living room. (Paul Crosby)

The slats reappear to screen the stairway that runs from the basement to the second floor, where two small guest rooms share a skylit bathroom and Jill and Chuck share a bridge-like office looking over the living room—and out those large south windows.

The holes punched in the skyboxes create a play of light and shadow throughout the day.

The holes punched in the skyboxes create a play of light and shadow throughout the day. (Paul Crosby)

The dark brown supports for the stair treads—again of Richlite—stick through the slatted screen, creating a pattern of light and dark that makes an artwork of an otherwise purely functional element.

Indeed, artful function could be the theme for the Koosmann house. Unlike houses of a hundred years ago, it is not embellished with ornate decorative elements. But the attention given to the play of light and shadow and space and color makes art of every inch.

“Our job is to make living enjoyable,” says Salmela. “And you did!” says Jill.

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