FROM ART TO FINISH
A RETIRED COUPLE’S DIVERSE ART COLLECTION IS THE HEART OF THEIR NEW HOME IN SUNSET VALLEY
BY MAURI ELBEL | PHOTOGRAPHY BY CASEY DUNN
Published: December 15, 2016
Jo and Myles Fox have spent most of their lives living in lofts and apartments in New York City, but their stunning house floating at the base of an oak-studded lot in Sunset Valley embodies exactly what they’ve always wanted in a home.
Going from decades living in a city of 8.4 million to settling down in one with a population of more than 900,000 is inarguably a big change. But for the retired couple, who actually picked their architects (A Parallel Architecture) before they selected a lot, the move is one that’s yielded beautiful results—in both design and lifestyle.
“This is a little hidden gem in Sunset Valley—it has a rural feel yet with great proximity to South Austin and downtown,” Myles says of the voluminous home, which, on this evening, is set aglow by warm sunlight that splashes over white walls and illuminates the couple’s extensive art collection.
Three snow-white poodles that have been excitedly scampering around the open, light-dappled living room are now still and serious, assuming dutiful positions at their favorite lookout point: the generous glass panel at the entry that eyeballs a large heritage oak tree and allows the dogs to keep close watch on the deer that trespass through their lawn.
Standing anywhere in the window-wrapped house, you’re ensconced in leafy views. A rural oasis unexpectedly unfolds on this half-acre property sloping down from a quiet road lined with large country lots where neighboring horses graze. The Foxes say they love living in an area that is both private and neighborly—a place where residents all know each other and city officials by name—while remaining just minutes from downtown.
Walking through the home feels a bit like touring a contemporary art gallery, only cozier. And that’s exactly the point.
“Every space in the house is conceived around art,” Myles says. Their diverse collection includes pieces ranging from modern multimedia works and antiquities to black-and-white photography and sculpture.
Art has always been an important aspect of Jo’s life—she went to art school, spent her career as a graphic designer, was married to artist Peter Berg and has been collecting pieces for years. Since meeting and marrying Jo in 1999, Myles has adopted the passion, developing a deep appreciation for the artwork impeccably displayed throughout their home.
“Instead of showing us their previous houses or photos of their favorite designs, they were showing us something very personal—their art,” says Ryan Burke, co-principal of A Parallel, which digitized key pieces and incorporated them into the computer models, conceptualizing the home’s design around the couple’s collection.
Driven by a desire for a home that embodied a minimalist aesthetic with a warm, livable feel, the Foxes turned to A Parallel after an extensive study of Austin’s modern design talent. With Burke and co-principal Eric Barth on board from early on, collaboration began before the clients had ever decided which area of Austin they wanted to live in.
“They didn’t have one spot in particular like many people do—they had a lot of options they were looking at in very diverse parts of the city,” recalls Burke. “The Sunset Valley lot was just mentioned, and we checked it out.”
New construction isn’t common in the “old town” part of Sunset Valley, which basically consists of four dead-end streets lined with acre-plus lots that are rarely available. Myles says only three houses have been built in the last four years there, and this home was the second new build governed by the new Sunset Valley building code that included stricter impervious coverage guidelines.
“Trying to keep [the home] primarily on a single level was a challenge given the strict footprint restrictions in the building code,” Barth says. “But the great thing about having a single-story is it opened up a lot of possibilities on what you can do with the design.”
The site came with additional challenges ranging from difficult soils to steep grading. But in the end, the architects say, these challenges actually translated into a more interesting design. Expansive soils dictated that the pier-and-beam foundation be deepened, requiring builder Jason Miars of Miars Construction to sink the piers 28 feet below the ground—a move that makes the entire structure appear to float.
Two parallel gables remain the defining feature of the home, allowing for soaring 16-foot ceilings that make the home live larger than it really is—a feeling amplified by the light pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows. Spatially, the 2,717-square-foot home is a considerable downsize from the couple’s previous house, but Jo says the generous volume and use of glass keep spaces open and airy and prevent them from feeling cramped. Also, Myles appreciates the daylong light show created by the windows and skylights, which allow the home to transition into various moods throughout the day.
The home features a balanced composition of modern, cohesive materials that remain warm and livable. Chopped-face charcoal Lueders limestone and vertical-grain southern yellow pine wrap the exterior of the home while creating a connection with neutral interiors. Inside, the gabled kitchen and dining space feature fumed white oak floors, rift-sawn white oak cabinets and a sawn-face charcoal Lueders wall. That space forms the backdrop to a commanding 74-inch by 113-inch abstract photo by photographer Thomas Ruff, featuring whirling walls of color and shapes of neon halos manipulated from images of Japanese anime and manga. The prominent piece can be seen from 80 feet away as you come down the driveway and receives perfect lighting from the skylight above. So do the two adjacent companion pieces from Naoya Hatakeyama's Blast series that captures the drama and destruction of Japan’s limestone blasting operations.
Just beyond the main living area, a terraced deck and plunge pool lead to a sprawling backyard sprinkled with trees and native plants. The home’s tremendous pass-through vision allows spaces to engage with each other and with the landscape. From the light-filled master suite featuring a bathroom as enviable as it is expansive, views stretch down the hallway and through the other end of the house. A cozy light-filled nook flanked by built-in bookshelves features a window wall that looks out on the trees, serving as both an inviting reading space/library and a music room where Myles plays his guitar. The kitchen connects with the surrounding landscape and living space, boasting clean lines and timeless materials such as classic white subway tile and stainless steel counters that show the refreshing proof of life.
“I love the stainless steel—the weight is so useful, nothing stains it, and I love getting scratches in it which makes it looks lived in,” Jo says. “The first scratch is the hardest, but after that, it gives it a life that I like. I like to see the wear on things. It makes it feel better.”
With architects and builders involved in the project from early on, the team was able to tap into the clients' identities and desires. After living in New York and before moving to Austin, the Foxes spent seven years in Florida in a Mediterranean-style home that they had remodeled on the interior to suit their more modern tastes. But the Sunset Valley residence was the first home the couple ever built from the ground up, allowing them to control the exteriors in addition to the interiors.
“Because we have lived in lofts and apartments and houses, we could finally boil it down to what we really wanted to live in,” Jo says. “This is that space. We boiled it down to exactly what we wanted and needed, and this house is exactly that.”
More than anything, the house embodies the successful forever home of a couple who knew what they wanted but didn’t preconceive how it should take shape. As a result, there is a clarity to the home—one that comes from clients who brought a mature perspective to the process and weren’t willing to let indecisiveness clutter the design.
“Myles and Jo knew what they wanted,” says Barth. “But at the same time they were very open-minded about how we got there.”