Poesis: Modern Design With a Bit of Whimsy
By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg
All photos by Robert Bristow and John Gruen, courtesy of Poesis Design
Who says that building a new home or doing interior renovations needs to be a hideous ordeal? With a talented team of architects on board, the tasks involved can actually be a journey toward self-discovery and fulfillment, a rewarding path to a great place to live, dine, and work. That’s the message and guiding principle of Robert Bristow and Pilar Proffitt, the husband and wife team of Poesis Design, who held court last month at The Moviehouse in Millerton, elucidating their process in a talk called “A His and Her Exploration of the Why of Design” to a full house of (perhaps surprised) home owners.
The name “Poesis” is derived from the Greek verb “to make.” The duo first came upon the word while studying architecture together at Virginia Tech. “It’s something that spoke of making and the roots of poetry,” Proffitt says. A series of photos in the screening room gallery at the Moviehouse, which will be up through October 31, conveys the duo’s philosophy. The first shows an antique metal bed bathed in patina. The shot bears the caption, “For we’re building the tactile memories of ourselves and our children.” (The couple has three bright-eyed children who not only benefit from the creative aura but are also encouraged to follow suit.) Chalk designs are scrawled on the wall behind the bed. Although the wall resembles the chalkboards of yesteryear, it is actually a surface covered with chalkboard paint. The caption below the photo of their home reads, “Architecture is the frame, the stage, the backdrop for the events of life.”
All of the homes Poesis have designed, while sophisticated and sleek, have an inviting quality to them in which luminosity plays a key role; large windows lead the eye to natural surroundings and draw in light. The chosen artwork and furniture, the latter designed and produced by the studio and now represented by Ralph Pucci, are interwoven in a playful manner. Formality is eschewed and casual elegance reigns.
“[Our work] transcends style. It’s timely and timeless,” Bristow muses. He mentions the influence of “understated modernism,” favored by the European faculty at Virginia Tech. Bristow also cites sculptors Michelangelo, Rodin, Brancusi, and Noguchi and architects Peter Zumthor and Rafael Moneo, while Proffitt chimes in with the name of the great Mexican architect, Luis Barragan, to add a bit of color to the palette.
Poesis’s home and showroom in Lakeville has proved to be one of their most vaunted and signature works. Here, clients can actually try out everything from accessories to furniture. Plopping down on a comfy chair affords guests the opportunity to see how well the designs function in real life. (Their furniture has found its way to numerous country homes, the Salomon Room at the New York Public Library, and the collection of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.)
A young-looking, 51-year-old Bristow recalls discovering his primary passion: “I was 29 before I had that “aha moment.” One night, while completing a project for a design course (a requirement for a degree in architecture history), he realized that the next day had already begun. (The process of working all night is something so ingrained in the architecture student’s psyche that it has a name: charrette.) This moment of “total immersion and engagement” convinced Bristow to change his studies to an architectural design program instead of one focused on history.
After apprenticing with the legendary Paul Rudolph and Aldo Rossi, among others, the couple opened their own firm in 1999. In 2006, Bristow and Proffitt transitioned from part-time to full-time residents in Litchfield County. They drew up plans for their dream house in Lakeville and discovered that the price to have it conventionally framed on site (think wooden supports and Tyvek covering) would be too expensive. They chose an innovative solution: a frame of their own design made in a factory and delivered. This proved to be much more cost effective and was completed in a timely fashion, unhindered by Mother Nature. Once the frame arrived, it received the design professionals’ imprint. Bristow describes several methods of customization on the firm’s blog: “I decided to go with shiplap siding, hung atypically in horizontal fashion, with the smooth side out. This way, painting would be a snap. After the house boxes were set, we re-imagined the carport relative to the new building. We lowered its ridge line to bring the height of the house down closer to grade. We still left it pretty tall, monumental in fact, so I could hit tennis balls and shoot basketballs within its cavernous space.” The concrete foundation is masked with stone. Inside, a fireplace - replete with niche for storing wood - is covered in leftover stones, of which there were enough for a tiny fireplace in the kitchen. Upstairs, reasonably-priced southern yellow pine is used for flooring. It’s painted with white enamel, “which makes the long winters pass a bit easier.”
Poesis’s designs in the country reflect the desire to compliment existing architecture and the area’s rich history. “We want to do things that are sensitive to the historic context of the area but we want to push forward,” Bristow muses. A prime example of this mindset is evident in the recent changes at Simmons’ Way, home to the restaurant No. 9, in the heart of Millerton. Part of the interior of this 1854 Greek Revival-style building now exudes a heartfelt welcome with a contemporary feel. Proffitt describes her stunning choice of wallpaper in the foyer as “beautiful and subtle yet powerful and warm.” Original artwork by the designers is displayed on the walls of the sitting room and the new dining rooms in the front. In the sitting room, chairs, replete with cuddly throws, inspire repose, while a cubic table with diagonal legs crafted by Bristow seems to defy gravity. In response to a query on the genesis of the table’s design, Bristow says, “It could’ve been that I wanted a bit more whimsy.”
120 Limerock Road
Appointments to view the showroom and house may be booked at email@example.com or by phone: 860-435-0530.