One North Pole couple softens the edges of modern living with warmth and whimsy

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Arctic Edge Photography

Contractor, Architect & Interior Designer
Big Street Construction
All Custom Woodwork & Sculpture
Big Street Construction, with materials from Superior Hardwoods
Primarily Ikea, Home Depot and Lowes
Cable-Style Handrail
Built by Big Street Construction with copper piping, and wood from Superior Hardwoods
Walnut hardwood flooring from MacCheyne's Carpets Plus
Porcelain tiles installed by Big Street Construction
Kitchen Countertops
Stainless steel, Holaday-Parks, Inc.
Bathroom Countertops
Home Depot, installed by Big Street Construction
Dewils cabinets in zebrawood from Spenard Builders Supply
Kenmore Elite from Sears
Plumbing Fixtures
Custom Paint & Texturing
Mc Pherson & Son Dry Wall Inc
The Woodway
This home, built by Big Street Construction, took first place in the 2008 Parade of Homes in Fairbanks in the following categories
Best Master Suite
Best Kitchen
Best Curb Appeal
Best Layout

North Pole, Alaska is not the first place you'd expect to find a modern gem of a home. So to come across Brian and Patty Flemming's house in one of the town's more established neighborhoods is an unexpected delight. Seeking to betray the stereotype that "modern" means cold and austere, the couple prove (with flying colors) that it can also mean inviting and playful.

"We wanted to expand people's horizons," says Brian, who owns Big Street Construction. "We wanted to say, 'Hey, check this out,' but not to make people uncomfortable."

The unique design with a Craftsman's feel to the exterior stands out from the neighborhood but does not conflict with it. "We didn't want to be too edgy," Brian says. "We wanted it to be new and refreshing but not stick out."

Taking the hospital out of hospitality

This is the third home that Patty and Brian have built together and definitely the most contemporary. "Our tastes have changed over the past few years," says Patty, who did all the interior design work on this and the couple's previous homes. "We've gone with a more modern feel," she says, "but we didn't want the look to be too sterile." Modern homes, Brian points out, can "feel too much like a hospital."

To mitigate the more severe aspects of modern design, Patty worked with a playful palette of colors that add cheer and warmth to the open and clean-lined home. Rich shades of orange, avocado green and salmon are bright oases for the eye throughout. The warmth of colorful rooms contrasts with bright whites that lighten hallways in between. Softer shades are layered – such as the three shades of gray that enrich the great room – and lend depth and interest to the fluid, linear space.

Upstairs in the family room, the colors are calming. The pale blue there lends a sky-like feel, especially in a room that in summer is flooded with sunlight. In the kitchen, the clean industrial feel of stainless steel is balanced by a lively citrus-y shade of green. "It brightens and lightens it up," says Patty, "and makes it look less commercial."

Industrial chic

The couple's use of materials – such as warm notes of maple in the base-trim and millwork ("jazzed-up" with two shades of stain, notes Brian) – add an inviting and organic element to the home and a congruity to its Alaska setting.

The handrail on the stunning staircase is particularly worth mentioning as it lends an air of playfulness to the drama of the open space it dominates. What appears to be cable rail is actually copper tubing. "We used regular half-inch pipe normally used for plumbing," explains Brian. "To use something that has an everyday use and turn it into something architecturally beautiful makes it kind of fun," he says. Douglas Fir "plain Jane" four by fours add additional contrast and complete the eclectic and witty look.

In the kitchen, the cool, sleek stainless steel countertops contrast with the warm and varied shades of wood that make up the cabinetry and the extraordinary kitchen range. The zebrawood of the cabinets echoes a patchwork of wood squares creating a unique checkerboard-ish covering over the towering range hood. Varying from blonde to almost black, the interplay of the wood makes the look entirely surprising but ultimately "homogenous," says Brian.

The countertops themselves have an organic quality as well, says Brian, despite their sense of industrial chic. "They scratch easily," he explains. They tell the story of the people who use them, he says, showing where most of the activity in the kitchen takes place. "It gives them a life of their own," he says, "and that's exciting for us."

Darwin's Theory of interior design

The couple says they find their inspiration from likely and unlikely places. Other homes they've worked on can obviously excite and inspire. But the idea for the range, for example, came to Brian in a dream. And a visit to a veterinary clinic led to the choice of stainless steel countertops. And other ideas simply evolve.

One of the most striking décor elements in the home is a perfect example of the home's design evolution – a dramatic wood sculpture that dominates the wall above their fireplace. Brian bought an enormous slab of redwood (3 inches by 4 feet by 8 feet) that he intended to use as a hearth for a friend. Ultimately it wasn't used, and one day Brian took a break from trim work and, using a chainsaw, began to shape the huge piece of redwood. "I had no plan of attack," he says, but using his experience as an ice sculptor, began to experiment. He used different router bits, sought out different textures, and soon, "it took on a life of its own," he recalls. The result was enigmatic and dynamic – suggestive of flames – and perfectly proportioned to hang on the vast wall in the home's great room.

The serious business of having fun

While the house is long on modern style, it's also long on old-fashioned fun. "It's a great space for kids," says Patty, noting that their two-year-old son appreciates the open layout and takes advantage of the pass-through under the stairway in order to do laps.

But kids come in all ages. "One of the things we always do is let people walk in ahead of us," says Brian. "Then we stand back and watch their facial expressions." The home always creates an impact. "It's like people are walking onto a playground," he says.

And the Flemmings take their playgrounds seriously. Brian mentions distant plans to build an indoor rock-climbing wall in the house. Is he being facetious? We'll just have to see what evolves.