Chicken coop grows fine feathers

October 09, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff Writer

The Fixes' house doesn't look as if it started out as a chicken coop. Nestled in the woods north of Baltimore, the structure is a striking combination of country cottage and contemporary architecture.

Four years ago Dorothy and John Fix, professors of art at Towson State University, asked architect Frederick Hiser to renovate their one-bedroom home, which had originally been built around a chicken coop. It was small, dark and dreary, but they had remained there 13 years because they loved its site, 2 acres of woods and garden. Now they were ready to create a house that reflected their lifestyle and philosophy, while preserving the original structure -- what Mr. Hiser called "the archaeology of the house."

A visitor to the house will see immediately that Mr. Hiser designed it to be an art gallery. That's not to say it's not a comfortable living space, but every room and every hallway is covered with the Fixes' own work and their collection of arts and crafts from around the world. In fact, Mr. Hiser calls the front hallway "the gallery," and it's lined with pictures. He deliberately left walls solid where he might otherwise have put windows, so the Fixes could display their artwork.

Dorothy Fix is curator of the show "East Meets West," which is being held through Oct. 21 at the Asian Arts Center at Towson State, but she's had plenty of previous experience arranging exhibits in her own home. East does meet West there: Her extensive collection of kimonos is on display; there are hanging textiles from Indonesia, and Indian applique. Turkish tiles

decorate the kitchen. A wonderfully whimsical flying-frog sculpture from Indonesia hangs in the living room -- terrifying the Fixes' dogs until they got used to it.

The couple came to Mr. Hiser with three specific requests. First, they wanted the renovation to reflect their art. (Mr. Fix is a metal smith and Mrs. Fix a fiber artist.) Before he began designing, the architect spent time with his clients' portfolios and artwork. The result is architecture that gracefully embodies many of their ideas. A spiral staircase, for instance, reflects a frequent motif in Mrs. Fix's textiles. The geometric forms of Mr. Fix's metalwork can be found throughout the house.

Inspired by a chapter in Carl Jung's autobiography -- not required reading for most architects before they begin a project -- Dorothy Fix wanted her new house to have a tower. She was taken with the psychoanalyst's description of building his own house with a tower as a retreat. Enter the house from the ground floor now, and you go through a series of narrow hallways and small rooms that open out below a high-ceilinged living room. The effect is of a tower rising up into the trees -- without all the steps.

Finally, the Fixes asked their architect to be as respectful of the surrounding woods as possible. The house is designed to be very much part of its site. Carefully placed windows frame certain views of the woods so they truly become "picture" windows.

If all this sounds very serious, Mr. Fix is quick to add, "We gave Fred a lot of freedom to fool around."

You can see that in some of the whimsical touches -- a round window here (what Mr. Hiser calls a "Zen window"), a diamond-shaped one there, with a crystal hanging in it that casts a rainbow on the stairs.

You can see it in the surprising angles of the house. The living room, for instance, has been rotated 45 degrees so it juts out into the woods. "A number of contractors," says Mr. Fix with a laugh, "just looked at the design and shook their heads no."

The Fixes came to Mr. Hiser with a modest budget, which in some ways turned out to be an asset. The architect was forced to find imaginative ways to implement his design.

He took shingles from the original roof in back and put them on the front to help integrate the new with the old. The Fixes loved it. "I'm a recycler from the word go," says Mr. Fix.

The exterior of the house is covered with plywood, painted gray to resemble the weathered wood of country barns. Look closely and you'll see the vertical boards are different widths, creating interesting patterns on the surface of the walls. The concrete base is textured swirls -- a design you might find on Mrs. Fix's textiles.

The house reflects what John Fix calls "an Eastern reverence for the object. Art there is what people use." The Noguchi table in the living room falls into that category, as do the beautiful kilim rugs in subtle colors -- faded mauves, grayish greens and blues, and black. The coffee table displays only one object, a handsome pottery teapot from Japan.

The Fixes did their own interior design, with the help of their architect. "It's eclectic," Mrs. Fix admits, but it's an eclecticism that works beautifully. A contemporary Scandinavian buffet holds pride of place in the tiny dining room, next to the lion-claw oak table with turn-of-the-century oak chairs. On one side is a large oil painting by John Fix's father; opposite it is an abstract textile by Dorothy Fix.

Neither of the Fixes views their house as a finished work. Mrs. Fix says she sees the white walls as a blank canvas. She'd like to paint on them directly. She even has plans to paint designs on the exterior of the house. Mr. Fix is a little less ambitious; he's considering doing a sculptural piece for the stairwell.

But next on their agenda is the garden in front, which rises in a series of terraces to the road. John Fix has been gradually moving wildflowers and plants from the woods into the garden: ornamental plantings, ferns, bloodroot, wild ginger. It seems very much in keeping with the house itself, where the woods have become part of the interior design because of the architecture.

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