Japanese Aesthetics in Modern Architecture: Discovering Elegance in Home Design

Midcentury Modern Meets Classic Japanese Architecture

In ground pool with lounge seating curvedroof Japaneseinspired home in backgroundFloor-to-ceiling windows and playful patterns, like the stripes of the awning, are balanced with traditional Japanese features—most notably, the home’s curved roofing—in this midcentury-modern Dutchess County dwelling. Photo: Nick Glimenakis

At the beginning of 2020, interior designer Brygida Michon and her husband, Neil Rajpal, had just moved back from Paris to New York, and were looking for a tranquil home away from home, outside of the city. Since they were frequently heading up to the Beacon area to rent a cabin for the weekend, they decided to search there. When they laid eyes on The Falls, a 1960s midcentury-modern home with Japanese architectural influences, they instantly fell in love.

“As soon as we walked into the house, the light was incredible,” Brygida recalls. “The house has full floor-to-ceiling windows all around, and there are many skylights. We first saw it on a late September afternoon, and the light was just so stunning. It almost felt like it was part of the design of the home.”

The house blends many textures, including stone floors, cedarwood walls, and curved wooden beams. Brygida and Neil were committed to preserving the unique character of the home, particularly its harmonious connection to nature. “We didn’t want to take away from the architectural intention of the house,” Brygida says. “We tried to keep renovations to a minimum and focus on furniture, making sure to respect what was already there, while adding to it in a way that we thought would complement the existing design of the house.” —J. Nailah Avery

An NBA Star’s Yakushima-Inspired Minneapolis Retreat

Living area with three rectangular windows black sofa stone fireplace“She brought peace into my home,” Russell says of designer Tiffany Thompson’s work on his zen, neutral-toned residence. The house also features a basketball court, with a lounge encased in floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the entire gym.        Photo: Marni Mervis

When NBA star D’Angelo Russell decided to renovate his rustic home outside of Minneapolis, he insisted on employing a very limited color palette. “He wanted everything in black and white,” says interior designer Tiffany Thompson, the founder and principal designer at Duett Interiors in Portland. She oversaw the redesign of the all-star’s two-level, 6,300-square-foot residence. “He was really into the contrasts that those two colors invite so we figured out a way to make that work.”

Thompson installed a black Italian leather sectional sofa in the living room alongside a cream colored Flag Halyard chair with Icelandic sheepskin designed by Hans Wegner. A dark Belvedere leathered quartzite countertop in the kitchen is surrounded by black leather and brass chairs. Cherry wood flooring runs throughout the home.

Combining the property’s rustic midwestern roots with a calm, seductive feel was the goal, Thompson says. She found inspiration for the color palette through a visit to Yakushima, an island in Japan that is deeply wooded and dense. “A Japanese inspiration and philosophy of openness and exploration,” she calls it. The result is an aesthetic that skillfully balances a variety of textures, including injecting shou sugi ban custom treatments inspired by Japanese principles of wabi-sabi that typically employ elements of asymmetry, roughness, and simplicity. The “mood board,” as Thompson describes the interior scheme, is meant to accentuate the very nature of fall, generating a distinctive emotional response to the seasonal shift.

“I loved working with Tiffany on this project,” says Russell, a Louisville, Kentucky, native who joined the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2020. “This is our second project together, so we have a really good dynamic. She understands my taste and what I wanted and takes chances with the design choices,” he says. —Troy J. McMullen

A California Remodel With Japanese and Coloradan Influences

Curved walkway with koi pond entryway lined with windowsA Japanese-inspired koi pond lines the curved walkway along the side of the house, leading up to its glassy entryway. “You get to experience this lovely moment of decompression and zen with water and nature,” designer Momoko Morton Wong says. Photo: Nils Timm

“There was no question that we’d do this together,” Momoko says of the remodel that the 1950s-era California property purchased by her sister Aiko required. Though the footprint of the home was there, most of it had to be reimagined. The house is largely divided into two sides, but since it was constructed in the middle of the last century, the layout didn’t feel appropriate for a contemporary lifestyle. Before, the home had a small kitchen and dining room on one side—which Aiko didn’t like (she’s a self-proclaimed foodie). Bedrooms and offices took up much of the larger side of the property.

The sisters began addressing these concerns at a 10,000-foot level. They created bubble diagrams to outline a new flow and layout of the home, which the architect and contractor quickly put into plan once brought on board. The result was, essentially, a flip-flopped version of how the project had started out. Now, the shared spaces—like the family room, dining room, and kitchen—take up the larger side of the house, and the private areas are on the smaller end. “But it saved a lot of schematic design time to already have that figured out,” Momoko says.

For the interiors, Momoko wanted to bring in Asian influences to honor Aiko’s years living in Japan and Singapore. “We were also born and raised in Colorado, so I wanted to integrate some of those elements—like beautiful stones, woods, and metals—into the project too.” Of course, the home’s incredible mountain views were taken into consideration as well. “Aiko loves natural light, so we wanted to capture the views in a way the whole family could enjoy.”

Overall, clean lines and a neutral color palette channel the calm and harmonious aesthetic of Japanese design while complementing the scenery just beyond. But that’s not to say there aren’t moments of surprise sprinkled throughout the home. “If you go into Aiko’s pantry, you find a really fun wallpaper,” Momoko says. “I like to put joyful things in utility areas since they’re often just for working.” Now, each time Aiko steps foot in this part of her home, she gets not only a moment of joy, but also a sweet reminder of her sister through her signature move. —Katherine McLaughlin

A Brutalist Abode Inspired by Tadao Ando

Boxy concrete and wood home exterior courtyard with minimalist design and large treeFor his family home in Houston, architect Christopher Robertson was inspired by the Tadao Ando–designed buildings he saw in Japan and decided to emulate their sequenced entries and concrete minimalism. Photo: Jack Thompson

Perhaps the most well-known example of an architect drawing inspiration from Japan is the late Frank Lloyd Wright. His unfolding, earthbound home designs owe much to Japanese modernism, though they have been dubbed distinctly “American” in the architectural canon. With that in mind, it only makes sense that a trip to Japan feels like a rite of passage for many architects in the United States. Certainly, when Christopher Robertson visited the country, it turned out to be—he based the design for his own home on what he observed.

“In Japan, we saw projects by architect Tadao Ando and we made the decision to do a concrete house, costs aside,” says architect Robertson, who runs the firm Robertson Design with his wife, Vivi Nguyen. “We love the slightly brutalist minimalist approach Ando takes and wanted to recreate some of the magic in his projects into ours.” The home, where they live with their young family, is essentially made up of two stacked volumes, one in wood and one in concrete, accessed via a sequenced entry that sends visitors through a rock-garden-style courtyard into a small entry, and then opened to a much larger open-plan kitchen/living room/dining room (“You don’t just walk into an Ando building; there’s a procession,” says Robertson). The sequence is very common in Japanese residential architecture and was emulated by Frank Lloyd Wright in his American home designs.

Surrounding the home is a concrete parapet that encloses the entry courtyard. And floating above is the bedroom level, which is wrapped in a façade of Siberian larch, a sustainable softwood that the architects chose to leave unfinished, “with no experiment,” he admits.

While the concrete volume shows very few windows from the front, it opens up to window walls and four-by-four-foot skylights on the interior that let in lots of (diffused) Texas sun. “From the outside, the house reads like a concrete bunker, but when you enter it’s open and filled with light,” explains Robertson. “We wanted to play up a sense of surprise.” —Elizabeth Fazzare

One Pasadena Indoor-Outdoor Oasis

Light wood entryway with stained glass darker wood flooring and gardenThe entrance of Robin Nanney and Christopher Norman’s Buff & Hensman–designed home in Pasadena, California, is an oasis-like area. The space is decorated with Japanese-influenced gardens, which include gingko and Japanese maple trees. The front door is flanked by stained-glass windows created by artist Judy Jansen. Photo: Emily Berl

“The space feels balanced between masculine and feminine qualities,” says architect Robin Nanney of the intimate residence in Pasadena, California, she shares with her husband, Christopher Norman, also an architect. “And the view from the bed in the mornings is a combination of gingko leaves and pure, abstract form—it’s like we’re living in a painting.”

This oasis-like home, constructed in 1976, is an enthusiastic exercise in Eastern-influenced modernism. Conrad Buff III and Donald Hensman, its architects, were students of Greene and Greene—the illustrious firm that has been credited with California’s introduction to the Arts and Crafts movement. Here, in Pasadena, Buff and Hensman have embraced a Japanese aesthetic and their warm brand of modernism.

Inside, the home breathes. Light is abundant. The interiors are fashioned from redwood (with the “tongue and groove” method), featuring oakwood floors and teakwood details. “The structure and the exterior have a slight roughness, and the millwork is smooth and refined,” comments Nanney. “The woods and the different finishes create a hierarchy together in a way that the many warm surfaces are differentiated and each serves its own tactile and functional role.”

The Japanese-style gardens have been maintained since the house was constructed. (Several of the plantings date to 1976.) These are tended to by a specialized team of experts who, Nanney says, “are trained in hand-pruning and go from modern house with Japanese garden to modern house with Japanese garden.” One of her and her husband’s favorite spaces is the indoor-outdoor entrance, which is punctuated with gingko and Japanese maple trees: “It’s remarkable to walk to the front door of the house with Judy Jansen’s stained-glass windows on either side. You step in, and you’re still outside. It’s sensational. It feels instantly peaceful to be in this threshold between the house and the world.” —Elizabeth Quinn Brown

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