Style Home: Modern Life
A simple repainting leads to one thing, which leads to another...
all home photographs by Thom Thompson
It’s 10:30 on a blue-sky morning, sunshine is cascading through the windows, and Marc Ham is scrutinizing his newly installed Brazilian cherry floors.
“They’re beautiful, except they really show the dust,” he says, indicating a swatch of white powder with the toe of his black sneaker.
Ham is near the end of an ambitious, whole-house renovation that has stretched over four months. Within a week, he will bid farewell to the dust, the noise and the inconvenience that accompany a whole-house overhaul.
“I love the process of seeing my ideas take shape,” he says. “And I love it when everything is done.”
Days later, after the dust has been swept away, Ham is enjoying his home, a fresh, hip California-style house with a Japanese aesthetic.
He didn’t think he would find such a house in the Pennsylvania countryside north of Wilmington. He first spotted it from the air about 10 years ago, when he was making frequent business trips via helicopter from Newark to New York City.
“I remember flying over it and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a different house for the Brandywine Valley,’” he recalls.
As a teenager in Sussex County, Ham resided in a traditional, colonial-style home. As a young man, he lived in a circa 1850 house in Newark that was contemporary on the inside but retained its 19th-century stone facade.
When the house he had admired from the helicopter went on the market, Ham bought it, certain he had found the thoroughly modern home that matched his artistic vibe. He figured he would repaint the interior of the 8,000-square-foot main house, spiff up the nearby guest house, then move in with his two teenage children, Lily, 18, and Mason, 14.
“It was supposed to be so simple,” he says. “Then I decided to redo the kitchen, which led to redoing the baths, and then I realized I might as well do the whole house.”
The renovation allowed Ham to integrate more of the comforts of home into the design. For his family, that includes such amenities as a lower-level home theater, a designated wing for poolside entertaining and a sushi bar.
“I spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on the design of the house,” he says. “I like the flow of the house, the way it works.”
A large foyer provides a dramatic place for Ham to display his collection of contemporary paintings, African sculpture and Dale Chihuly studio glass. The foyer spills into a trio of open rooms, with two sitting areas flanking a central, raised living room.
The focal point of the living room is a pool table with a sculptural base crafted from 450 stainless steel rods set in arcs.
“Having a pool table in the middle of the living room is practical for us—and it’s fun,” he says.
The Italian chandelier over the pool table provides a shower of light reminiscent of a sparkler, held upside down. Each of the 96 individual lights is adjustable.
“You’re not supposed to put it on a dimmer,” Ham says. “But you can change the intensity of the light by turning some of the lights toward the ceiling, like uplights.”
Swatches of fabrics and drawings of women’s blouses lay in a cheerful tumble of yellow and blue on a freeform cocktail table with a black granite top. The designs are a new project for Ham, a founder of Flapdoodles, the successful Newark-born children’s clothing company.
His sensibility for clear, vibrant color is reflected throughout the room. A curved orange sofa recalls a slice of tangerine. Soft, beach ball-size spheres offer mobile, impromptu seating. A towering sculptural perch called “the living tower” is upholstered in bright turquoise.
“I think it looks good with the orange,” he says.
Ham didn’t bring much furniture with him, choosing to decorate the house from the ground up. An exception was a pair of orange-tinged leather chairs with chrome frames and insets crafted in the 1940s. He was smitten by the chairs years ago after spying them in a vintage shop.
“I love the lines of the post modern furniture, the great edges,” he says. “Plus, they are super comfortable.”
Ham provided the vision and did most of the shopping for the project, gathering ideas during his travels or exploring resources online.
“I kept files on plumbing, lighting, whatever I was interested in,” he says. “The Internet makes shopping so much easier because you can find what you want, as well as the specifications.”
He also consulted with professionals, working with Kim Petronas of Cornerstone Design in Hockessin, as well as designers Bruce Palmer of Wilmington and Amanda Maier of Philadelphia.
“I’m probably not the typical client, and they were very helpful,” he says.
Craftway Kitchens of Newark designed and installed a large, open kitchen in modern materials better known on the West Coast. Trim banks of cabinetry are veneered in bamboo; an accent wall is tiled in shimmering mother of pearl, a technique Ham had been yearning to try for years. The floors are concrete, with radiant heat.
“It provides a lot of the heat for the house, too,” Ham says.
The sushi bar includes a beverage center that provides wine storage, refrigerator drawers and an ice maker.
“It’s great for guys’ card night,” he says.
The master bedroom is furnished simply, with a bed, a chair and a wood-burning stainless steel fireplace—known as the fire orb—suspended from the ceiling.
“This I found at a show in New York and I’ve been waiting for a place to put it for 10 years,” Ham says.
The walk-in closet is lined with hanging storage and shelving to accommodate his extensive wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts. The closet also is outfitted with a washer and dryer.
The sprawling and sumptuous master bath incorporates such diverse materials as a urinal imported from England and an Asian-inspired soaking tub with a CaesarStone quartz composite deck with a trough for river rocks. The centerpiece of the space is an open shower with a rain head manufactured by Dornbracht, a German maker of precision fittings.
“It’s like being outside, with rain coming down all around you,” he says.
Throughout the house are unexpected delights for the eye. The sparkling glass tiles above the sink in Lily’s bath are set in an undulating wave pattern. In the shower stall, there’s a glistening accent band of crushed abalone shells. A circular window of opaque bubble glass is set into the tile.
The house is surrounded by 35 verdant acres, so large banks of windows are left undressed to maximize views of trees and deer. Creating that simplistic backdrop requires painstaking precision.
“It’s harder to have no trim and do it well than it is to cover surfaces with molding,” he says.
Yet Ham’s interpretation of contemporary style isn’t stark. The walls in the public spaces are inviting vanilla rather than icy white. Architectural columns are highlighted in the palest beige.
“Five years ago, I wouldn’t have had any wood in the house,” he says. “Today, I’m modern, but not as minimal.”
Ham retained the original entry doors and sidelights, fabricated in alternating bands of clear and frosted glass. He had matching doors made for the entrance to the pool area.
“It provides a sense of privacy, yet lets the light through,” he says.
To give the exterior of the house an organic, 21st-century feel, Ham masked wood siding—set on the diagonal in 1980s style—with earthy gray stucco. The deck behind the house is freshly sheathed in ipe, also known as iron wood, a sustainable species grown in South America that can withstand the elements.
“We’ll leave it untreated so it can go gray along with the rest of the house,” he says. “Soon it will look as if it’s always been there.” D