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Ooh! What a House

By Rebecca Rolfes

The winning design for the sixth annual IIDA Residential Design competition had the advantage of spectacular scenery. Interiors that look out onto acres of northern California vineyards can look beautiful as long as the windows are large enough.

The design, however, had the disadvantage of an existing nondescript 1960s California ranch house that constricted that view. To reconnect the two and remain true to her clients’ deep connection to the land, ZumaOOH! Founder Michelle Wempe made use of some of the latest thinking in residential and commercial interior design.

Interior designers have long worked to “bring the outside in” but in recent years, the concept of transparency has taken that to new heights. “The original idea of bringing the outside in was a bit more literal,” says Wempe, a designer for 20 years. “What we were trying to do was make that more sophisticated. There were spaces in this house that did that, but not in a very gracious way. There were transitional spaces that were covered but open. What we wanted was to have individual spaces but with this sense of what’s around the corner.”

The use of transparency makes people “want to get to the next space,” Wempe says. “You put things in places that are turning point—at the end of a hall or between two spaces—to draw people to that space, make them want to move through the space. There are things you can place that let you know that there is a space behind without letting you know exactly what it is. You’re intriguing people with what lies beyond.”

The use of transparency and opacity has largely been made possible by advances in materials. “We’ve always had glass, of course, but it’s not just about glazing.” Transparent materials will “let you build something out of them,” Wempe says. “Materials you can see through, you can also now move through. Glass has come a long way, as have plastics. The same is true of fabric.”

California designers in particular have been impelled to make maximum use of transparent and opaque materials, coming principally from the commercial side but having a lasting effect on residential design. State environmental laws limit how much artificial light can be used in commercial spaces, so designers have gotten smarter about ways to let natural light penetrate spaces while minimizing solar gain and glare and ensuring privacy.

At the same time, transparency and opacity make the smaller spaces in which we live and work look and feel larger. Transparency gives you “visual access to a larger space” that isn’t part of the space itself.

In the case of the wine country residence, that “larger space” is a 109-acre vineyard. “The owner is a second generation wine maker,” Wempe says, “and his connection to the land is a big part of who he is. He’s a farmer at heart. He didn’t want any window treatments because he wanted to wake up and see the land.”

Natural and Neutral

To avoid the glass box look of many houses that have transparent skins, Wempe incorporated only natural materials in the interior, echoing the great outdoors beyond the windows. The floors are either French lime-stone or Australian boxwood. One of the three fireplaces is oak, another is Beauharnais limestone. All of the cabinetry is maple. Throughout she looked for materials that were “very neutral, soft and yet not.”

An almost grid-like pattern of squares and rectangles pulls the house together. From the extensive wine rack in the kitchen to the hickory mullions, the fireplace surrounds to the built-in bookcases, the design is held together by geometric right angles.

The birth of a kinder, gentler minimalism allows designers such as Wempe to “edit” without creating interiors that are stark. “Stark feels too empty, too cold,” she says. “I like designs that are modern but not so modern that it hurts. I could easily go over that edge, but I couldn’t live over that edge. You have to create a space that people can live in.”

In a search for livable spaces with a clean, just-short-of-minimal look, designers increasingly use pattern and texture to enliven otherwise neutral interiors. The design never screams to be noticed, and yet the textures and patterns not only define the space but also make you look at it. “Texture is very important to design. You’re not quite certain what’s happening. It does make you look but a very subtle look.”

Omitting the window mullions, for instance, would have eliminated the line between interior and exterior—a much more minimalist approach. But “we needed a pattern that defined the glass in a way that softened it.” The natural world outside was invited in without compromising the clean-lines of the design.

Materials define the space both through their color and the line they draw through otherwise wall-less rooms—further evidence of the blurring of the line between interior design and architecture. “How do you create a room that is comfortable but that provides structure?” Wempe says. “Don’t just sit bookcases against the wall; make them a piece of millwork, make them the wall.”

Long-Term Relationship

As Wempe worked on the house, the project on which she founded her own practice five years ago, the owners were beginning a collection of Asian art. The clean lines of the design, the low profile of the house and the preference for furniture as architecture fit perfectly with this newfound passion. It also led to an even greater use of built-ins throughout the residence.

Allowing space for those pieces to float in the interior means that the owners, and Wempe on their behalf, can continue to build the collection. “If I find lovely, strong pieces, it’s a shame to put a lot of other stuff around them. You want them to really shine, but then you do need a place to store stuff.”

Wempe has been involved with these clients for 12 years. This project alone, done in phases while they occupied the house, took five years to get to this point. The Asian-influenced landscaping is just now going in—another design element that will change the interior view of the exterior.

Wempe has worked on their other residence and is now talking to them about another project. She continues to look for furniture and art for the house. In the process of establishing such long-term relationships, she has never lost a client and considers most of them her friends. “Design is not just about making something beautiful,” she says. “It’s about taking care of people. You get to know people pretty intimately, share knowledge and information with each other and get to be friends. And it’s not just the client, it’s the contractor, the millworkers, everyone. If you’re going to spend a year or more working with each other, you must have that bond.”

In her 20-year design career, clients have become “smarter or more savvy about design than they used to be,” Wempe says. “They’re better able to communicate what they want than they used to be. It makes a big difference, but it does mean that you have to collaborate more. Listen, pay attention, take what they’re telling you and extrapolate that into a three-dimensional thing.”

Wempe had the advantage on this project of a longstanding relationship with clients, a thorough understanding of their design aesthetic and what they wanted from this particular residence. To categorize the design, visitors have mentioned the “urban-meets-rural” look, but “it’s not commercial meets residential,” she says. “It’s not Asian art collection, not California wine country aesthetic. It’s them. It’s who they are."


Firm: ZumaOOH!
Designer: Michelle Wempe
Firm Location: Oakland, Calif.
Award: 2003 Residential Design Competition Winner
Winning Design: Wine Country Residence
Residence Location: Hopland, Calif.


  • Sophisticated use of transparency and opacity
  • A “kinder, gentler” minimalism
  • Furniture as architecture
  • Collaborative, long-term relationships


Imagine a house in the wine country that is luxurious in its simplicity, with a transparency that creates a connection for the owners between their living space and the land.

The design celebrated its owners’ new marriage, new business and new lifestyle while combining a sense of sophisticated, urban and simple country style. The uncomplicated, clean-lined architecture creates an open, spacious feel while color, texture and contrast are used to define specific areas within the house. Vineyards frame the large, open rooms of the house for an ambiance of natural luxury.