Contemporary Doesn’t Have to Be Cold, Says Architect Enrique Montenegro

When some people think of contemporary homes, they think of a stark white box with a white interior — perhaps like the Rachofsky Residence by Richard Meier in Preston Hollow – essentially an art-museum-house-hybrid.

Enrique Montenegro, a principal at SHM Architects, says contemporary is really anything that’s not traditional in architecture, but it’s not necessarily a “classic white box.”

“Contemporary doesn’t have to be cold,” he says.

CandysDirt.com sat down with Enrique Montenegro of Dallas-based SHM Architects to discuss how to design a contemporary home that feels warm and comfortable.

CandysDirt: Let’s start with the criticisms. What are the stereotypes people have of contemporary-style homes?

Enrique Montenegro: Everybody’s got a different idea of what contemporary means. Clean lines is a term that people use a lot when they’re referring to contemporary homes, where everything’s super straight, with minimal details, and very crisp.

But we’ve all been in these kinds of spaces where you feel like you can’t put your feet up. They are rooms full of furniture that make you feel like you’ve got to sit straight up. The way the space is furnished and how the walls are finished can make it feel very cold and too formal.

There’s a Japanese term called Wabi Sabi that describes an acceptance of beauty in the imperfect. Think of a piece of old wood that has so much character because of its weathered patina. There’s a warmth, a layer of texture and color, you can only get from something that’s imperfect. We love to introduce this concept into a contemporary space, it transforms it into a more palatable and approachable aesthetic.

CD: Have you worked with clients who say they want a very contemporary home and end up a little close-minded about what contemporary design should be? Like it’s got to be white and black, and not brown, soft, and textured?

EM: We try to get to the bottom of this right from the start. We work hard not to force an agenda on the project too soon, and help our clients do the same. The most important part of our process is having a discussion about what their home really means for their lifestyle. We ask a lot of questions. This takes time but we believe it’s worth it. We ask things like, “Do you entertain often, or do you like to hunker down and get away from it all?” We focus on our client’s lifestyle because there are certain design devices we can apply to the house to make it function perfectly just for them. After we get this part right, then we can then talk about color and texture.

CD: What about building materials used in contemporary homes?

EM: We think about how building materials can thoughtfully come together, whether it’s steel, glass, wood, or concrete. We believe being thoughtful about how each material is composed in space, how it relates to the overall spatial vision, is the best way to achieve success. If the approach is to just use materials in a two-dimensional way as if they were all paint, it won’t work. We must give thought to how they interact with each other and the volumes, layout, and flow.

We believe all materials have inherent historic qualities that convey weight or lightness that apply to both traditional and contemporary designs. We use our keen sensitivity to what each material selection is saying to add warmth in subtle ways throughout the home.

CD: Are there building materials coming on the horizon that are being used more for contemporary design?

EM: There are some cool new materials that have come out recently and you can’t really tell what they are just by looking at them. For example, an aluminum panel that’s finished to look like wood, or a natural softwood, that’s been treated with a process that makes it behave like tropical hardwood. These hybrid or modified natural materials address all the perceived problems you have from natural wood products, like having to maintain them, keep them stained or painted over time. They require less maintenance but still have the beauty of the natural wood.

CD: So the look of classic materials is still very in. What about elements of interior design; are there tips for furnishing a contemporary home that can help soften up a space?

EM: For color schemes, we recommend people keep the palette fairly restrained. In other words, we like to avoid going from a blue room, to a green room, to a purple room. Keeping a consistent neutral color palette throughout the house helps tie the spaces together, especially if you have a really open floor plan, which we often do. This is not a new idea at all, but we still feel strongly about it.

The same thing applies for decorative lighting. A great lighting package has so much more impact if you show restraint in how often you have decorative fixtures, when, and where they’re placed. Also LED lights, for example, have come a long way in the last 10 years. We now have the technology to specify warm color temperatures in the whole house, and they even go amber when you dim them simulating an old incandescent light bulb.

We also focus on determining the perfect proportion of space relative to the furniture. We love it when people walk in a room and say, “This feels perfect” – and it feels that way because the room was made so that the furniture layout works and the scale is just right. We believe firmly that the interior of a contemporary house can feel just as warm as a traditional one. It’s all about getting the fundamentals right, and this is something we are passionate about and spend a lot of time working toward.