ZEN Associates Designs An Interior Focused On The Outside

A design firm with offices in Boston and Washington, D.C., ZEN Associates has become best known for effective and beautifully integrated landscape architecture, including a series of traditional Japanese gardens. 

But in a project located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, ZEN Associates did no landscape design work at all. Instead, it redesigned and reconfigured the interior of a house to make the outside the focus.  

Founded by Shin and Maho Abe in 1980, the company offers landscape architecture, construction and maintenance, as well as interior design services. Following Maho Abe’s retirement, Rina Okawa took over the interior design department and, in that position, headed up this project.

“The house is quite modern, with angled walls that make for unexpectedly-shaped rooms,” she says. “But while the architecture was interesting, it did not provide any connection to the outside, which is beautiful. The living room, for example, had small windows and was dark. Yet, the house is surrounded by lovely, unspoiled woods, with gorgeous mountain views.”

Okawa says that a series of small built-ins restricted flow.

“The lady of the house is very organized and wants everything clean. When we removed those little built-ins, we found storage space elsewhere and made the rooms far less cluttered. The challenge,” she continues, “Was to keep the architect’s original intention for a modern house that’s not square, with unexpected angles, but to make a peaceful, calm environment.”

To this end, the small original windows were replaced with several series of floor-to-ceiling windows. Insulated for energy efficiency, they provide solar gain that supplements radiant heat installed under tile floors. 

While the new windows flood the once-dark interior with light, they add another element: a house that previously was all about the architecture now presents uniquely angled rooms that focus on the outside. Each room is dominated by the view, whether that is composed of the gnarled trunks of a nearby tree or the profile of a distant mountain. In all seasons, nature takes center stage.

Sliding doors augment the floor to ceiling windows in the living room for greater connected to the outdoors. This did not exist at all in the original design: to get outside, the front and back doors provided the only access. 

Yet, with all the new fenestration, the interior is warm and embracing.

“We wanted to create a very simple, but not a cold house,” Okawa says. “So we used natural materials like wood and stone.”

Furnishings are kept to essential pieces in simple, modern shapes. Augmented by an occasional spark of warm yellow, the colors tend towards neutral earth tones that complement the colors of the earth outdoors. 

“It’s actually ironic that neither we, or anyone else, did any landscape design here,” Okawa says. “Especially since that is the discipline for which we are best known. But in truth, the outside is what this interior design is all about.”

Sometimes, there is no improving on what nature presents. There is simply making the most of it.

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