For 30 years, Michael Berg sought a home for his eight-piece suite of Karel Appel lithographs. He carried the art, which he had purchased as a college student, in a velvet-lined presentation bag as he moved around the world, but never found a house that offered the space needed to display it. Then he walked into 11604 Fairfax Station Road and knew his search was over.
The 6,400 square-foot contemporary, built in 2000 by local architect and builder Jack Willmore, features a two-story central gallery as its “grand foyer.” The gallery, with floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding a huge indoor koi pond and a waterfall fountain, also has a two-story wall large enough to perfectly display the Appel art. Further, the koi pond wakened Berg’s memories of living in Japan and feeding the fish at the Imperial Gardens with his sons. It was as if the house were made for him.
Berg, general counsel of a large communications company, was looking for a contemporary home with ample space for entertaining when he relocated to Virginia from New Jersey in 2001. “In New Jersey we lived in a very traditional colonial,” he noted. “Here, we wanted a home that was open, full of light, windows, and nature.”
On the outside, the International Modern style house, which sits on eight acres of sloping woods, looks as if it were created by Frank Lloyd Wright in the tradition of Fallingwater. The imposing, horizontally focused structure is covered with cement plaster toned gray-brown to blend into the wooded setting, and its five cantilevered balconies seem to hover among the trees.
On the inside, the front of the house has high-on-the-wall, horizontal windows to provide privacy. But the rear is filled with walls of windows that draw the outside in and flood the house with natural light, following the simplicity of design by Austrian architect Richard Neutra. “Neutra was known for building homes on a pinwheel design,” Berg said. “This house is like that. Everything is built around the central koi area so that you have to walk past the koi pond no matter where you go in the house. All the spaces flow from there.”
The main and second level of the koi gallery (the second floor is like a wide catwalk overlooking the koi pond), as well as the other rooms, are filled with art that Berg has amassed over the years. The eclectic collection ranges from lithographs by Alexander Calder and Victor Vasarely to ceramics by R.C. Gorman, glass sculptures by Manscour, and native headdresses from the Amazon. Light from the five square skylights above the koi pond skims the water and glass sculptures to create an ever-changing display of reflected and refracted light on the gallery walls and ceiling.
“I grew up in Roosevelt, New Jersey, a WPA project—a cooperative town—that became almost an art colony,” said Berg, in explaining his love for art. Roosevelt, founded in 1936 as a government-sponsored agricultural-industrial cooperative for Jewish garment workers and farmers, has a school with a large fresco mural by Ben Shahn, a political activist and artist who settled in Roosevelt.
Berg felt a connection with Shahn, and has many of Shahn’s works displayed through his house, along with furniture made by George Nakashima, a Japanese-American furniture maker who was Shahn’s close friend. Berg has twice had busloads of supporters of the Renwick Gallery tour his house to view his collection of art.
With the koi gallery as the center, the main level of the home has two large rooms to the right: a gourmet kitchen and dining area, and a step-down living room with a floor-to-ceiling stainless steel fireplace and two balconies. To the left of the gallery are a carpeted family/TV room and another balcony, along with two side-by-side half-baths. “So, there’s no line if you are entertaining,” Berg laughed.
The second floor has a master bedroom suite with private balcony to the left, and a trio of bedrooms (each with its own bath) to the right. One of those bedrooms, used by Berg as an office, opens to a large “dining balcony,” so named because it is close to a dumb waiter that runs from the kitchen area to the second floor, and is often used for outdoor dining. “I love sitting on the balcony and looking into the koi pond from outside,” noted Berg.
The house offers unexpected features. Floors in some of the bathrooms are tumbled granite with imbedded garnets. All of the five fireplaces are different designs in stainless steel; the fireplace in the family room has a sea-green glass mantel crafted to look like dripping water, with a quartet of glass diamond-shaped insets down one side to echo the color. All of the hearths are raised slate, cantilevered to reflect the exterior of the house. Balcony floors are also slate.
The grounds are kept natural, but feature a variety of trees and plantings, including Japanese Cherry, Weeping Pear, Redbud, and Japanese Maples, along with dozens of peonies. In 2004, the house was on the Clifton Community Women’s Club House Tour.
In a handout that Berg prepared to welcome a tour, he wrote that he “often contemplate[s] …the uncluttered geometry of concrete, glass and copper; the clearly articulated large interior spaces on the first floor; the massive windows looking out at the open space that is so difficult to find in Northern Virginia; and, most of all, the soaring balconies that appear to be suspended among the trees. A house that inspires such endless contemplation is itself ‘art.’”
And, with all that, Berg’s home also affects him in a more tangible way. “This house is totally serene,” Berg said. “As I round the curve of my driveway and come toward the house my blood pressure drops 10 points.”