Paging through a glossy design magazine filled with minimalist images fills almost anyone with a sense of calm-verging-on-euphoria. The cool, pristine perfection of it all is truly an inspiration — until reality intrudes. That dream house you covet is not a year-round home, you discover; the owners are rarely there. Or they don’t have children, whose shoes, artwork, sports trophies and contents of their backpacks seem to ooze into every corner. Or a dog, who considers the kitchen an extension of the mudroom.
That’s why it’s a relief to discover houses that manage to reconcile a certain spare beauty with the varied necessities and intrusions of everyday life — not to mention the sustainability issues that are on everyone’s radar these days. One designer of such houses is Meryl Kramer, who excels at combining a rigorous modern sensibility with a relaxed sense of comfort and ease.
A Brooklyn native, Kramer got her degree from Cornell University in 1987, and first practiced architecture in Washington, D.C. “I was trained in modern architecture,” she said. “I really appreciate modern design and greatly admire people who excel at that.” But on the North Fork, where she’s lived and worked since 1993, she’s shaped her aesthetic around the environment and communities she found there.
“What matters to me is that my clients share my design philosophy: Clarity. My primary goal in design is to derive uncomplicated solutions that solve spatial organization problems, both from usability and visual standpoints,” Kramer’s website states. In other words, what you get with Kramer is a point of view, not a particular style. And yes, a waiting list.
Her small, eponymous firm has settled into new digs on the second floor of a gracious late-19th-century Southold house. The staircase creaks in time-honored fashion and the wide-plank floors have retained their warm patina. But the layout is open and airy; the furnishings sleek, simple and ergonomically au courant. The focal point of the small kitchen area is a collection of gorgeous cobalt-blue bottles. They aren’t there merely for decorative effect, but to ferment a supply of kombucha. “We love it, so we brew it ourselves,” said Kramer.
Depending on a client’s design brief and the site analysis (which includes solar orientation, views and zoning), Kramer’s fluent, fluid “soft modern” approach to a project may result in the blurring of distinctions between exteriors and interiors when appropriate, as well as a reliance on indigenous materials (such as wood and stone) and forms that are reflective of the vernacular architecture in the area. Sustainable materials — high-efficiency insulation, for instance — and mechanical systems such as geothermal HVAC and solar power are factored into the equation as well.
Talking to potential clients about how they want to use their home is key, of course, but listening is even more important. “In our first meeting, she was really thoughtful,” said Bingka Leung, who chose Kramer to renovate a house in Peconic. “She was very interested in wanting to hear what our goals were. I had a road map of what I wanted for the house, both functionally and aesthetically. Meryl and her team took that and ran with it.”
Because Leung is a designer, she was particularly interested in materials, finishes and furnishings. Kramer was focused on spaces, light and flow, and knew when to stand her ground. “I didn’t want to move a bathroom,” Leung said. “But Meryl pushed back. ‘Otherwise, the space won’t work the way you want it to,’ she said.” It wasn’t a matter of ego, Leung went on to explain. Kramer just knew what the right call was.
“She is very meticulous,” Leung added. “And we would figure out solutions together. She really does fully engage with all her projects.”
Kramer was recommended to another client, Gloria Greco, by Greco’s landscaper, and Kramer’s blog gave Greco additional insights into the architect. “She had me when she posted about frying zucchini blossoms,” she said. “We both love to cook!” They met a few years ago, when Greco and her wife decided to do a major redo on their Mattituck house. “She brought lots of intellectual energy,” said Greco. “We could tell she was going to bring a passion and attention to detail, and a commitment to quality that would satisfy us.”
“We were trying to decide if we wanted to go much more modern or traditional beachy,” Greco continued. Kramer helped them find a happy medium, she said, and the end result was beautiful, innovative, energy-efficient and durable. “It was the whole package,” said Greco. “She made it seamless.”
Details matter. They’re one of the reasons, in fact, that most people, whether or not they have any knowledge of architecture, can “feel” that a house is designed well without being able to tell you exactly why. It can be the way a house presents itself on a small scale to the street yet opens out in back to gain maximum exposure to views of Long Island Sound. Or the way a lightwell is positioned over a kitchen island, flooding the work surface with natural light. Or the way there is a place for everything, from kayaks and bicycles to sandy towels.
“In summer, most people lead such active outdoor lives here,” Kramer said. “And everyone wants a place for everything. It’s helpful to have someone help them think about where things should go, and how you flow through spaces.” After all, there’s no place like home.