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Challenging the status quo
Lake Country home synthesizes with its surroundings

Photos by John J. Macaulay

July 2016

Tucked between spec colonials along the Lower Nemahbin Lake shoreline is a private residence roused to challenge the status quo. In an area branded for its sprawling suburbanism, the contemporary pied-à-terre both acknowledges and defies its surroundings. But that doesn’t mean this dwelling sticks out like a sore thumb.

The Redaction House, as it’s called, is a grand study in modern eco-conscious design. The brainchild of Milwaukee architects Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling of Johnsen Schmaling Architects, the home epitomizes the owners’ increasing desire to individualize their digs, all the while embracing contemporary and environmental contexts.

"We’re trying to blend our architecture to make our buildings more synthesized," says Schmaling. "The (buildings) are pieces of art, but they are not trying to mimic nature — we are artistically trying to interpret it."

The Redaction House is a clear example of the duo’s design efforts. Constructed for a fiber artist, doctor and their young family in 2014, the home stands as a stunning work of cubistic art. Its simple yet meticulous wood exterior is crafted from Wisconsin cedar, the base of which rests atop a brick podium. The façade planks alternate between horizontal and vertical placement and are stippled with painted boards, giving the exterior abstract appeal — as well as a nod to the artist homeowner.

A streamlined look continues throughout the home’s more personal spaces. Dual vanities, a curbless shower and strategically positioned overhead lighting add modern-day conveniences.


With such close neighbors, the architects sought to create a feeling of seclusion on the small parcel of lakeland forest.

"We wanted to focus the attention to the lake and block off the view into the neighborhood," Schmaling says. "You can’t really see (the house) from a distance, until you approach it."


An open-concept floor plan allows for seamless transitioning between indoor and outdoor living spaces.

To deflect from the area’s tight quarters, a path to the front door of the home lies ensconced in a brick courtyard flanked by a perforated brick wall. As a visitor moves toward the large glass front door, the perforations on the wall decrease, creating a "visual redaction" effect — hence the name of the project. Inside the home, floor-to-ceiling apertures serve as a gracious invitation to natural light, as well as strategic blockades against the neighborhood’s less appealing sights.


Far left: Floor-to-ceiling apertures alternate with solid walls, maximizing the home’s lake views.


With the rooms of the home gathered around a two-story living area, long clean lines, an abundance of natural materials and minimalist design, the home evokes the tranquility of a true lake dwelling.

A home this contemporary is still unusual among southeast Wisconsin’s residential landscape; the firm’s propensity for blending contemporary buildings into the surrounding landscape, even more so. While it would be easy to cast Johnsen Schmaling Architects as a specialized firm, their portfolio, which ranges from commercial design to high-end residential projects, here and across the country, is too broad to be encased in "über-modernism."


A transparent front door, offering views through the home and to the lake, combined with a linear entryway begin the "visual redaction" process.

Their signature style has everything to do with a strong site program, a knack for details, and the execution of a client’s vision, Schmaling says.

"The marriage of art and technology is very important to aesthetic, but it has to be usable, workable and safe," Schmaling says. "Architecture is very rooted in physics. The art-to-science transformation is what we find interesting."

Standing in the showroom replete with 3-D models on Astor Street, and dressed in all black, the pair admit they revile labels.


A 3-D model depicts how the architects played off the property’s sloped site when designing the home.

"We can’t control what kind of mental images come across when people say we’re ‘modern,’" Johnsen says. "Milwaukee has pretty deep architectural roots — a lot of good architecture has been produced here. It just gets delivered with all of the other stuff, the mediocre and the mundane."

When the two met as students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the self-proclaimed "outsiders" (Schmaling is from Berlin; Johnsen is from Chicago) dreamed of careers that reached beyond designing buildings for the drab, corporate projects taken on by many public firms. After school, they got their feet wet by working for the same firm.


Narrow boards painted in unexpected pops of color appear throughout the exterior — a subtle nod to threads used by the homeowner, who is a fiber artist by trade.

Eventually, they took a leap of faith and launched their own firm. Today the founding principals and their small team offer a wide range of architectural and design services, including master planning, schematic design and construction administration, furniture design and graphics. The firm has received more than 70 professional design awards and countless mentions in prestigious architectural publications.

"One of the key things we were trying to accomplish with our buildings was, ‘How do we take a brick building, do something out of context, and translate that into more contemporary language?’" says Schmaling. "Nobody was really doing contemporary work; it was really corporate."

This year marks Johnsen Schmaling Architects’ 13th anniversary. Over that time, the duo says they’ve benefited from a changing aesthetic, largely driven by younger home and business owners.

Remarkably, there’s been little backlash from the public or the area’s local municipalities.

"When we come into public meetings, we are documenting what led us to make certain decisions so they understand that these ideas aren’t just out of the blue," says Schmaling.

Architecture needs diversity, adds Johnsen.

"Milwaukee has a desire to be a contemporary city, as much as it values its heritage," says Schmaling. "It’s important to keep adding to the urban fabric and keep evolving, culturally and socially." M



This story ran in the July 2016 issue of: