Home Tour: A Teahouse, Upstate
Designer Josie Natori and her husband, Ken, built a refuge an hour north of New York City that is as Zen as Zen can be.
"I’m not really a country girl. I always said, ‘If I need to see trees, I can go to Central Park—I don’t need to come here,’” says Josie Natori. The fashion designer started her namesake lifestyle brand 40 years ago after a brief career in finance that culminated with her being named the first female vice president of investment banking at Merrill Lynch. Today, the Filipino native’s mini-empire includes lingerie, ready-to-wear, and couture, as well as beauty products and home decor. The “here” the avowed city girl—she moved to Manhattan after college in the late 1960s—is referring to is Pound Ridge, a town about an hour north of New York City where she and her husband, Ken, bought a mid-18th-century home sitting on 23 acres in 1984.
They made an offer the same day they toured the property, but neither of them ever really loved the house, which dates to 1741. “It was the sight lines that captivated us,” Josie recalls of the land surrounding the home, which included a pond and “a great, old barn” that her husband was fond of. At first, they tried to make the colonial cottage their own by adding colorful decorative accents like Asian textiles and antiques, but it still didn’t feel quite right, and tearing down the historic home was never a consideration. The couple thought about renovating yet never pulled the trigger. More than a decade ago, they decided to build their dream house just up the hill from the cottage.
“But first, they needed to reconcile their two different personalities, in terms of perspective of living,” says Calvin Tsao of Tsao & McKown Architects, who designed the home. Tsao and his partner, Zack McKown, are an award-winning team whose projects range from private homes for Meryl Streep and hotelier Ian Schrager to a sanctuary for Buddhist monks in Bhutan. They knew the Natoris well and had designed their Manhattan and Palm Beach apartments, as well as the Natori company’s offices, showroom, and two boutiques in Saks Fifth Avenue. Josie has described Tsao as “like a soul mate,” who understands the couple’s “East meets West” sensibility. Ken, who grew up in Seattle, is a third-generation Japanese American. “We had to give the place a sense of rural coziness but with an urbane sophistication,” says Tsao, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in California.
What Tsao ultimately designed fulfilled Ken’s desire to have a modern Japanese-style home and Josie’s need for air and light in a single-story structure. Tsao took inspiration from Japanese teahouse architecture and from Philip Johnson’s Glass House. (Meanwhile, the Natoris’ son, Kenneth, who grew up spending weekends at the aforementioned cottage, now does so with his own family.)
The house’s 2,900 glass-enclosed square feet seem to float on the landscape, surrounded by vast expanses of greenery—an existing old-growth pine forest, groves of birch and hemlock trees, Japanese species of maple and pine, and, closer to the home, a proper Japanese garden, complete with bonsai. Every room has sliding-glass doors allowing for easy access to multiple decks and verandas, where Josie likes to take the sun.
The most obvious Asian touches are accessories: antique kiaki-wood temple gates at the entry, antique sliding doors from Japan installed above the headboard in the bedroom; a Chinese bronze vessel outside near the Japanese soaking tub; and Ken’s desk, by fellow Japanese American George Nakashima. Not as obvious are the kusari-doi, or Japanese rain chains, hung vertically around the exterior of the home, which guide water from the roof to the ground, eliminating the need for gutters and also creating a tinkling-water feature.
Tsao chose furnishings in a relatively neutral color palette, accented by shades of purple, gold, and chartreuse historically found in Japanese teahouses; the colors also complement the surrounding landscape. When it came to designing the furniture, Tsao created pieces that would stand on their own, separate from what he calls the orthogonal home’s “architectural envelope.” “Every piece occupies a space in the room,” he says, “and its presence, its proportion, its size, really plays an important role.” Inspiration for the (mostly) curvaceous pieces came from Josie’s fashion designs, which Tsao describes as “feminine without the frippery.”
Today, the woman who once considered weekends in the country a chore says she comes up weekly when not traveling, and actually looks forward to it. “It’s very special,” she says. “I can come up here, even for just a night, and feel renewed.”