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Work Life Balance: How to Design a Home Fit for an Artist

Atelier Aberto Sao Paulo AR Arquitetos

This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s lifestyle blog, Luxury Defined.

All artists need somewhere to make their art, where creative urges can be explored and energies expended — these inspiring spaces reside happily within domestic interiors, proving that it is possible to combine home with work successfully.

Many of us work from home, often in a dedicated study or home office. But what do you do if your work involves paints and canvases, or cameras, tripods, and lighting? When it comes to residential workspaces, artists and creatives have quite specific requirements. Architects working in this sphere find themselves juggling the needs for functional spaces with a highly developed aesthetic. And, of course, they also need to blend these areas seamlessly into a home.

Over the past 20 years, UK-based architect Mike Rundell has designed properties for many world-renowned artists, including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and Keith Tyson. He says that, from his experience, an artist’s combined home and studio needs spaces that fulfill many different roles: “Most people like to keep the various parts of their lives separate, so home and work are often very different. Bright studios dominate, while even the most minimal contemporary artist requires warmth in their home environment.”

AR Arquitetos’ unique artist’s studio, Atelier Aberto in São Paulo, Brazil is made up of a series of indoor and outdoor spaces, which include an entrance plaza, a private courtyard, and glazed double-height atrium with pendant lamps, providing a light-filled room for painting at all times.

This echoes the experience of Australian architect Adam Kane. The rural Victoria studio and exhibition space he designed for artist Lawrence Walsh has “a sense of separation from the existing house, but without isolation—a space free of distraction,” Kane explains. “Window placement within the studio was critical, and the incorporation of a large south-facing window provided an indirect light source, suited to painting.” This light is enhanced with an integrated LED strip light at the ceiling’s ridge, “designed to mimic a thin slice of sunlight, while providing a wide spread of functional diffused light.”

At an artists’ retreat on the Mexican coast, meanwhile, Japanese architect Tadao Ando articulated the need for separation succinctly: with a concrete wall measuring 1,023 feet long by 12 feet high (312 m by 3.6 m). The barrier divides the private and public elements of the Casa Wabi Foundation, established by artist Bosco Sodi and directed by Patricia Martín, founding curator of Latin America’s Colección Jumex.

And, in Brazil, as in Victoria, natural light may require an artificial boost. In a double-height studio space in São Paulo designed by local firm AR Arquitetos, a wall of glazing is supplemented by pendant lamps suspended from the ceiling.

Lofty Ambitions

High ceilings are not just good for letting the natural light flood in. For artists working at scale, height is paramount for access. “Most [professional] artists aspire to create large and important works suitable for exhibiting in leading museums and galleries,” explains Rundell. “This means that studios have to be large enough to replicate the viewing conditions of those galleries.” And, of course, to get finished works of art out of the studios in one piece.

On the Essex coast in the UK, Lisa Shell transformed a derelict holiday home into a house-cum-studio on stilts for artist Marcus Taylor. The salt marsh it sits on floods every high tide, leading Shell to have a little fun with materials. “The idea of using cork, due to its buoyancy, started as a joke,” she says. “But the more we explored its characteristics, the more appropriate it became.”

Casa Wabi Tadao Ando Puerto Escondido
Casa Wabi by Japanese architect Tadao Ando is located in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

In an even more remote spot, Olson Kundig architects created Outpost, a live/work studio and sculpture garden in the high desert of Idaho in the United States, shielded from the wild landscape by thick masonry walls. The structure is designed around one open, multifunctional room overlooked by a mezzanine bedroom, both with 360-degree views of the surroundings.

Back in Victoria, Kane played with the local vernacular, referencing the gable roofs and construction methods of barns and sheds built locally by past generations. “With unnecessary ornamentation stripped from the façades, the building’s contemporary exterior is clad in a compressed cement sheet cladding and corrugated metal,” he says.

 “Most people like to keep the various parts of their lives separate, so home and work are often very different.” Mike Rundell

When embarking on a project in Beijing, China, German firm Knowspace’s choice of materials were in part driven by local legislation and labor issues, in the form of unskilled, seasonal construction workers. The compound they designed for two painters in the artists’ colony of Songzhuang is constructed from brick. “Even though the limitations were constraining, they turned out to be very generative and inspiring for the final design,” says Knowspace architect Erhard An-He Kinzelbach.R

Scavenger Studio Eerkes Architects Puget Sound
Scavenger Studio by Olson Kundig architects is located in rural Washington State, and was built using as much up-cycled materials as possible. Image: Benjamin Benschneider

Like the Songzhuang project, a brief in The Hamptons also had to accommodate two artistic minds. Architect Josh Weiselberg of TBD Design Studio in New York used disparate materials as a way of distinguishing the disciplines of his married clients Jeffrey and Lynn Leff. The studio comprises two intersecting volumes: one is a steel frame with a translucent polycarbonate curtain wall, and the other is a wood frame with cedar siding and punched windows. The first volume houses Jeffrey’s collage studio; the second is a ceramic studio run by Lynn.

“The two uses of the space were somewhat at odds with each other,” admits Weiselberg. “One involves a relatively sterile environment of paper and glue, while the other was likely to be filled with moisture and dust. The collage studio was conceived as a very still environment with lots of diffused natural light, hence the polycarbonate cladding. The ceramic studio, meanwhile, was conceived as a more open-air environment with lots of operable windows.”

The common thread running through all these projects? They demonstrate the imaginative solutions required to fulfill the requirements of artist clients. According to the architects, they’re often knowledgeable, keen to be involved, and happy to push boundaries. “Artists are generally visually very well-informed and enjoy the overall creative process,” observes Rundell.

Scavenger Studio Puget Sound Eerkes Architects
Olson Kundig’s Scavenger Studio was designed for an artist/activist and built mostly with materials scavenged from homes slated for demolition. Photography: Benjamin Benschneider

Shell’s experience backs this up. Taylor “brought skills to the table that are rare in most clients. He is a maker and doer, rather than a talker and worrier.” Likewise, Knowspace’s painters “were open-minded in terms of how they could imagine living, helping to create unconventional spaces and spatial connections.”

Shell, meanwhile, thinks that this approach could inform other residences: “Homes always have spaces with the potential to stimulate or accommodate creativity, and this consideration should always be part of residential design.”R

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Private Waterfront Residence in Quebec, Canada
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A bright loft art studio is just one highlight of this four-bedroom, three-bath home located in a peaceful cul-de-sac. Views of the Lake of Two Mountains meet top-quality design over 7,500 sq ft (697 sq m) of interiors, which include polished travertine floors. There is also a spectacular gourmet kitchen and main-floor master suite with walk-in closet.

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