Doug Zell wanted a house with a lived-in look, as effortless as it was uplifting. As anyone with an eye for design understands, a blend of simplicity and character is not easy to achieve. Unless you’re architect Barbara Bestor.
Zell, cofounder of Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee and Allied Cycle Works, a carbon fiber bike maker in Arkansas, first worked with Bestor in 2007. He hired the Los Angeles-based architect, who grew up in Cambridge, to design an Intelligentsia Coffee bar in LA’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood. Almost 10 years later, he asked Bestor to design the company’s Watertown outpost.
Zell also asked if she would reinvigorate the house he had just purchased in Cambridge’s Strawberry Hill neighborhood. “Her work has an optimism I really enjoy,” Zell says. “Her designs feel like places you can actually live in.”
The 3,110-square-foot house was in decent shape but needed warmth and better flow. Bestor, who refers to her style as “informal modernism,” enhanced what was there by adding color and texture. “We’re good at bridging the character of historical and modern,” she says. “We respect old, traditional details, then modernize them with color.”
The exterior, now a dark, moody blue-black hue punctuated by a vibrant red door, exemplifies her approach. Bestor, who cites the city of her 1970s childhood as an influence, says, “It’s dunked in a dark color as a reference to old Cambridge homes.”
Inside is light and bright, with new oak floors and off-white walls. Black doors and window sashes provide contrast, and clean-lined pieces keep the eye moving.
Bestor’s team handled the interior architecture and finishes, and brought in the bicoastal husband-and-wife designers Cy and Genevieve Carter to curate the furnishings. Cy Carter says, “We took the idea of an old Cambridge or London bachelor [pad], then flipped it on its ear, adding a punk rock vibe.” They drew on Zell’s love for mid-century modern as well as his attraction to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which embraces imperfect beauty. “Worn materials are very much an ingredient,” says Carter.
The entry, with its tole umbrella stand, vintage runner, bench made out of a nesting box from a French chicken coop, and retro liquor poster, suits Zell’s taste with nary a frill.
The living room is a tad more textured. A Persian rug, a George Smith kilim chair, and dignified drapes offset a Milo Baughman rosewood case sofa from Machine Age in Dorchester, reupholstered in rich green velvet. The living room opens to the dining room, furnished simply with a 19th-century French elm table and Shaker-style chairs.
Bestor widened the opening to the kitchen, where she added a custom oak banquette that Carter upholstered in cherry-red leather. She also raised the ceiling to a gabled peak, complete with skylights, and replaced French doors with a large slider that leads to a new deck, rectifying the home’s lack of connection to the outdoors.
The kitchen has a slight industrial vibe, with new Shaker-style cabinetry painted black, a farm sink, and a center island with a maple butcher-block countertop. Zell describes the copper suspension light by Piet Hein Eek that hangs above the island as “profound.” It’s one of his favorite features. “When I walk down the stairs to get coffee in the morning, it’s like ‘Whoa,’” he says. “I like that kind of impact.”
Another favorite is the tilework in the master bath, where Bestor installed encaustic cement tiles similar to the ones she used for the floor and counter at Intelligentsia Coffee in Silver Lake. Zell says, “Every time I see it, it’s fun.”
The bright mint vanity in the guest bath is also a surprise. Says Carter, “Doug was adamant that each bedroom and bath have its own personality.”
The master bedroom has the same classic restraint and humor-infused artwork as the public spaces, while the second-floor guest bedroom gets a brighter dose of color with contemporary textiles. Carter describes the blue-green attic bedroom, designed for Zell’s daughter, as “super cozy, like a place Nathaniel Hawthorne would have stayed.”
Zell divides his time between cities where his work is and shares his Cambridge home often with friends and family. He says he now truly feels a part of the Boston area’s exploding design and food culture and loves the way the house evolved. “They captured the quirky practicality of New England,” he says. “And let the everything-goes LA vibe seep in.”
■ Architect: Bestor Architecture, bestorarchitecture.com
■ Interior Design: Carter Design, carterdesignco.com
■ Landscape Architect: Patricia Van Buskirk, patriciavanbuskirk.com
■ Builder: John Palladino
■ Window Treatments: The Boston Shade Co., bostonshadecompany.com
■ Upholstery and Drapery: Carole Bruce Workroom, cbworkroom.com