An artist recasts the home of a Mies van der Rohe student as a minimalist haven.
Eva Kowalow leans over a table in her Lake Forest, Illinois, painting studio, paging through a sheaf of architectural plans. The plans, each drawn in pencil on yellowing tracing paper and dated 1959 to 1964, depict the 2,960-square-foot house that stands on the same five-acre wooded lot as the studio. On paper, it looks like two neatly stacked rectangles, the top one exactly twice as large as the bottom. In real life, it is a sleek glass-and-steel box floating amid the trees on a wood-paneled pedestal.
Eva, an artist, pauses over one of the sheets and points out a never-constructed skylight atop the steel spiral staircase that pierces the building’s core. “We should think about that,” she says as she traces the lines with her finger. “That would be really beautiful.”
The plans were drawn by Jack Viks, the architect and engineer who designed both the studio and the house and lived in the latter from the early 1960s until some years before his death in 2011. By then, the property was severely dilapidated. Eva and her husband, Paul, a senior systems analyst, purchased it from Viks’s family in 2013, but they knew little about the architect. They never spoke with his wife or son, and the Internet revealed only tantalizing traces of his life (the 1963 theft of a thousand-dollar mink coat from the home, for instance).
Yet through the meticulous architectural records Viks left behind, Eva was able to forge a creative connection with her home’s original designer. Working with Chicago-based architect and family friend Victor Drapszo, of
“The glass box was lifted off the ground and you could see nature all around you. That struck me very deeply.”
—Victor Dapszo, architect
Eva discovered the house in an online real estate listing. She and Paul were looking to move from their Chicago apartment to a larger home, and they had zeroed in on the wealthy North Shore suburb of Lake Forest because they wanted good schools for their son, Nikko, and daughter, Giselle. The listing caught her eye immediately. “I was like, God, it looks like the Farnsworth House,” she says.
As it happens, she had toured Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois masterpiece just two weeks before and had loved the floor-to-ceiling windows and feeling of being “in a treehouse,” as she puts it. Here were the same 360-degree glass walls—albeit in a two-story black building rather than a single-story white one—and the same striking steel frame. She dug a little further and discovered that Viks had studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where the former Bauhaus director had headed the architecture department from 1938 to 1958.
Her first visit to the house was part shock, part inspiration. “It was dark,” she recalls, with forest growing right up to the walls, and “everything was green with algae and mold.” The living room was littered with buckets to catch rain dripping through the age-battered roof, and the whole house smelled of wet wood. The parquet floors were damaged, the wood paneling was warped, and the other finishes were too vintage for the family’s minimalist tastes. “We knew that we’d like to have everything new, not just hide what was wrong,” says Eva, who studied art and design in her native Poland.
“The first time we saw the house, it was dark and everything was covered with algae and mold. But I knew what I could do with it.”
—Eva Kowalow, resident
Eva and Drapszo decided to remove everything except the external yellow brick walls on the first floor, which they suspected played a structural role, and the steel frame, which includes floors and ceilings made up of double-layered steel decking running lengthwise through the house. They tore out the pool, replaced the septic tank with a sewer connection, and took down many of the trees growing dangerously close to the home and the studio. The next step was to restore the exterior by adding a new roof, Prodema wood paneling over the brick, windows from the same local company Viks had used 50 years earlier, and a Farnsworth-inspired white paint job.
Inside, Eva wanted to retain the expansive second-floor living room but create more individual rooms for her family and eliminate the hassle of carrying groceries up those spiral stairs to the small existing kitchen on the second floor. So she and Drapszo turned the first-floor garage into a large kitchen with radiant floor heating and transformed the former kitchen into a master suite, creating a total of three bedrooms upstairs.
Drapszo says the unusual steel decking and wraparound windows posed a number of design challenges. All the electrical wiring and plumbing had to be hidden in newly constructed interior walls, and there’s little privacy or room to display artwork. He never considered modifying the windows, however. “We did not want any walls against the glass because that would obscure the beautiful view,” Drapszo says. “I believe Viks wanted to have this feeling of voyeurism, because you’re in there all exposed, yet your drapes are nature.”
Eva handled the interior design work herself and also served as general contractor to save money. While she traded Viks’s warm black-and-brown scheme for a very different and minimalist white one, the change only serves to highlight his most important design element: the natural world outside. Among the documents Viks left behind, Eva has found several folders labeled “Big Trees.” She believes this was his nickname for the home. That, at least, is how she has interpreted his vision.