A family indulges in the abundance of modern minimalism in a one-room house in upstate New York.
Living in a one-room house with two small children might not be everyone’s idea of living in abundance, but for Takaaki and Christina Kawabata it’s what makes life richly rewarding. Several years ago, Taka, a senior associate at Manhattan architecture firm Janson Goldstein, and Christina, an entrepreneur who runs the design consultancy TAKATINA, were living in an apartment in Brooklyn. After the birth of their son, Tozai, they realized they wanted to raise him somewhere he could be connected with nature at home. They embarked on a two-year search of properties in the New York City area: in Williamsburg, in Park Slope, in New Jersey. They extended their search, moving north of the city into the outlying towns. Yet nothing seemed quite right. Then Taka went to look at an old 1960s log cabin in Garrison.
Initially, Taka’s real estate agent apologized for wasting his time when they stepped into the rundown 1960s log cabin. It was outdated, dark with virtually no light penetration, and made up of a labyrinth of tiny rooms—yet Taka saw potential in the space. “We realized the Garrison area was known for good schools and for nature,” he says. Known as a vacation home area, Garrison is a community dedicated to preserving its picturesque woodlands. The beautiful river views that inspired 19th-century landscape painters persevere. Hundreds of acres of land are protected, accessible only by winding dirt roads. The community is also a hub for creative, home-based businesses—a fact that makes Christina, who runs TAKATINA from her home, fit in well.
Buying the cabin meant committing to a whole-house renovation, but the home’s location—70 minutes from Manhattan by train—out-of-date design and complete lack of winter weatherization meant it was within the couple’s budget. And, although they would be working within tight financial constraints, ripping out the whole interior gave them the opportunity to design the home as they saw fit and to prioritize the things that were most important to them.
Because their main concern was connecting the home to nature and bringing in light, Taka spent a lot of time analyzing the home’s relationship to the sun—this meant tracking its path over the 2.5-acre property and designing windows and skylights to take advantage of the light- and tree-filled views.
To stick to their budget, Christina and Taka took inspiration from traditional Japanese design, which leaves much of the structure exposed and uses basic materials. “We wanted to keep it bare minimum for monetary reasons, but we wanted to keep the design intent,” Taka says. “That’s when the Japanese influence and loft attitude came in.” A third-generation architect born and raised in a one-room farmhouse on the island of Ishikawa in Japan, Taka didn’t just draw inspiration from Japanese buildings in designing his home. He also took a cue from Japanese culture, where one-room homes are common and multiple generations often share the same space.
Rather than spending money on expensive design elements, Taka and Christina decided to emphasize the site’s natural beauty—and to make its connection with the outdoors the most remarkable element of their home. “We knew going into the construction we couldn’t afford expensive materials, but if we looked outside we had many beautiful things,” Taka says. “We kept most existing structures exposed, and many of the materials are easily available through the local hardware store—nothing fancy. What we spent time on was the proportion of the windows and the relationship of space and sun. The movement of the sun is really ideal in our house, and therefore we spent a bit of extra money on the windows and skylights.”
They wound up with a space that is beautiful in its simplicity. Having torn out the walls that formerly broke the 1,300-square-foot home into a multitude of tiny dark rooms, Christina and Taka decided not to install even one interior wall in the main living space. The only separations in the home are a partial wall enclosing the bathroom; metal-and-string dividers—a modernist, less-fragile take on shoji screens—that enclose a walk-in closet and the children’s “room”; and a sleeping loft accessible by ladder. The kitchen area is at the back of the house and is defined by an exposed-plumbing sink on an industrial table and a nook that houses the fridge and pantry. Dishes and kitchen tools are kept on open shelving and a rolling cart.
Living in a space with no walls means the Kawabata family, which includes 6-year-old Tozai and 3-year-old Akari, gets little in the way of privacy indoors, which Christina and Taka find has helped their family be more cohesive. “If I’m cooking in the kitchen, I can see what the children are doing at the table,” Christina says. “We constantly have a dialogue instead of them going into their rooms where I can’t see them. With the openness there’s constant communication. For us it’s worked out really well.”
Rather than relying on physical separations within the home, Christina, Taka and the kids take advantage of nature when they want some time away. “There are times when we don’t want to be with the kids,” Taka says. “And the kids have the same issue, too. There are times they don’t want to be with us. Then they have the chance to go outside or they have to figure out how to communicate that they want privacy—they might get permission to watch a movie on the iPad.” Walls of windows throughout the house mean even when some of them are outside, the family members are visually connected with one another. Christina conducts her business from an office in the partially finished basement, and a bank of windows looks out to the yard, where she can watch Tozai and Akari play. And the view goes both ways. “They look into the windows to see what we’re doing,” Christina says.
Living in a single space, communication becomes the most important element of family life. “Communication becomes the key activity,” Taka says. “That’s what we are hoping for. Everything we do they are not only seeing it, but we are communicating about it. We share the experience simultaneously in a way.” He says the children get to see their parents not only as they participate in family life, cook, clean, talk, make plans or even disagree, but also as they conduct business. “I’m not trying to teach them my business, but I want them to see what I do and how we make a living,” he says. “So if we are selecting a tile, they understand why we are selecting it. That is what my father did and it had an amazing impression on me. I respected him because I thought, ‘Wow, he knows a lot.’”
As the children get older (Tozai is in second grade), they have started to realize that their home isn’t the same as the homes of the other kids in their neighborhood. “It’s starting to dawn on my son that we live differently from average people,” Christina says. “I think in some ways they get a lot of creativity out of it. It’s a different way of thinking and living. I hope our children will grow up appreciating being surrounded by nature and the light coming into our house, which is at times dramatic and at times poetic.”
When Christina and Takaaki Kawabata moved out of a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment into their 1,300-square-foot, one-room home in Garrison, New York, they decided it was time to radically edit their belongings. In the home with no walls and few enclosed spaces, nearly every object—from knickknacks and books to plates and coffee mugs—is visible. That meant the couple must love every item, both decorative and functional, enough to keep it on display. They got rid of nearly half the things they owned before moving in, and now, Christina says, “we edit.” Not only are the couple’s belongings on display: Architectural elements also become part of the aesthetic, with exposed ceiling beams (traditional in Japanese structures because, Taka says, it’s the cheapest way to stabilize the roof), visible plumbing pipes and an unfinished ceiling. The simple way of building helped Taka and Christina stay on budget and pays homage to both the family’s Japanese heritage and the couple’s work in architectural and interior design.
It’s 5:00 Sunday evening. What is your family doing?
Playing a game of basketball in the backyard.
What is a favorite family outdoor activity in winter?
What three words best sum up family life in your home?
Communication, play and unity
What’s a go-to weeknight dinner?
Meat sauce pasta
What is your favorite item in your home?
A hanging mobile the children made with their dad
What’s one of your favorite aspects of your community?
The abundance of nature
Is there something you would do differently if you could redo your remodel?
I would add a soaking tub in the bathroom.
What is your family’s favorite type of music to enjoy listening to together?
Which season is most beautiful in your home?
What one tip would you offer others to simplify their homes/lives?
Less is more. Buy less. Live with the things you absolutely love.
Although there are few segregated rooms in the Kawabata home, the family members still carve out spaces for themselves. The children aren’t allowed into Christina and Taka’s sleeping loft, which is a designated adult space. Because they have no nearby neighbors, the skylights and windows in the sleeping loft require no curtains, which means Taka and Christina wake up naturally to sunlight pouring in the windows and spend a few quiet minutes together before the busy family day begins. Meanwhile, the children’s room is defined and somewhat separated by screens made of metal frames looped with white nylon string. In this space, the children are empowered to define the design, with an “art gallery” made up of black-and-white prints Taka makes of artwork the kids select out of various art books. Every so often the children choose new pictures to display in their personalized rotating art gallery. A large basket houses the kids’ toys currently “in rotation”; they occasionally swap out the toys in the basket with different ones from a bin of toys stored in the unfinished basement.
Editor-in-chief Jessica Kellner loved meeting Christina, Taka and their wonderful children while visiting the family’s fabulous home and the charming communities that surround it.