Feature Home: Living in a Box of Art

02 Oct 2015

This unique home took a huge leap from gloomily historic to pleasantly zany.

By Lisa Marshall photos by Alive Studios www.alivestudios.com Some homeowners remodel with resale in mind. Others do it to accommodate growing families or elderly parents. Artist Coco Gordon had a different objective. “I need to live in a house that delights me—that provides an aesthetic experience all the time,” says Gordon, 76, clad in spotted cat-eye glasses and a cheetah-print dress as she tours a visitor through her visually energizing bungalow in downtown Lyons. “My life has always been about my art, and my art has always been about my life. I just cannot stand to be in a drab space!” That clearly shows. Walk through her newly remodeled 1,700-square-foot house and you’ll find an eclectic, brightly lit reflection of a life that has been anything but ordinary. Walls are adorned with her oil and acrylic paintings, photo etchings and handmade paper, alongside works of famous fellow artists befriended during her years immersed in the thriving New York arts scene of the ’60s and ’70s. A self-portrait of Super Sky Woman, the alternate persona Gordon took on as a performance artist in Italy in the ’90s, hangs alongside a snarky political protest piece she made in the 2000s by transposing the head of George W. Bush onto an image of her own buttocks. Nearby hangs a handmade book she crafted entirely out of an old-fashioned rope mop. “I would do things that were just my ideas that nobody ever thought of doing,” she says. “They were just zany.” Mixed amid her red, zebra-striped dining room chairs and mid-century-modern white couch rest antique treasures passed down from a beloved mother who, in 1939, snuck Gordon—an Italian-born Jew—out of Europe as an infant just as World War II was heating up. (Her father, a classical pianist and medical researcher, made his way out to join them in New York two years later.) “I guess you could call it Coco style,” Gordon says, when asked to describe her design approach. “It’s a mash-up of old and new. And everything has a story behind it.” The house was first built in 1903 as a 650-square-foot railroader’s cottage. Over the decades, ungraceful additions boosted its size to 1,400 square feet of gloomy, chopped-up rooms with almost no natural light. Gordon stumbled upon it nine years ago, after leaving her New York life behind, bidding a sad goodbye to her 101-year-old mother upon her passing after a decade of serving as her caregiver. Moving to Lyons was the start of Gordon’s new life. “I actually made a list of what I wanted in my new home,” she recalls. It would be close to her children (two of three live in Colorado). It would be a small town for a change. And it would have a rich artistic ethos. Lyons seemed a perfect fit, and the cottage was the least expensive thing she could find. For seven years, Gordon made do with a house she wasn’t in love with, keeping many of her life’s treasures in storage, some at a loft in New York that took her years to sell. In 2013 with some money saved, she decided it was time to make her Lyons home a more fitting reflection of herself. So she reached out to Scott Rodwin, principal of the green design-build firm, Rodwin Architecture+Skycastle Construction, to help her make it happen. “Coco is the most unique client we have ever had, and this is the most unique house we have ever designed,” says Rodwin, who is also a painter and sculptor. “She is colorful and opinionated and has such a rich history and so many stories to share. We knew we had to give all that an opportunity to shine through.” [pp_gallery gallery_id="11831" width="180" height="160"]The yearlong project (prolonged slightly due to the flood of September 2013) evolved into a tight collaboration between Rodwin and Gordon—“one giant artistic opportunity,” as he puts it—to express her life story and creative essence within the walls of her home. As he pored over her old photos and listened to her stories, a vision for the house began to emerge. “She didn’t want a house that felt stodgy and finished,” he says. “She wanted an apparatus that she could hang her art on—like a Coco museum she could constantly add to and change.” The project evolved through three stages, Rodwin says. First they renovated the 1903 white-clapboard railroader cottage. Then they remodeled the generic 1990s ranch addition. Finally, they added a two-story detached “Art Box” studio and carport. To make the skin of the house reflect Gordon’s commitment to environmental sustainability and love of creative textures (she’s a master papermaker), they chose blue-hued beetle-kill pine siding with a rain screen underneath it to keep out moisture. To increase natural light, Rodwin added skylights, sun tubes and a front door made mostly of glass. To make the house feel spacious, while only adding about 300 square feet, they squeezed in outdoor living spaces—a meditation garden, a patio and water feature, and a collection of raised garden beds in the front yard. “We used every square inch of this property,” says Gordon of her one-eighth-acre parcel. “And we worked on every part of the property,” Rodwin says.

Old & New

Once the bones and skin of the house were finished, Gordon set herself loose on the interior, showing her commitment to repurposing and affinity for contemporary design. She transformed the drab kitchen cabinets into modern works of art by drilling decorative quarter-inch holes in them and adorning them with seemingly random knobs and occasional straight lines of primary colors. “It looks haphazard, but it’s actually very well planned,” she says. For the backsplash, she used a Mondrian-style pattern (squares of primary colors). White spherical lights from Lamps Plus and polished gray porcelain tile countertops enhance the distinctly modern look. Just a few feet away, in the section of the house that was once the original cottage, a reverence for history is evident. The walls are lined with hundreds of her father’s old records, and an inherited Bechstein mini-grand piano awaits near an antique chair (a favorite of her mother’s) that Gordon reupholstered in vibrant crimson. A half-complete puzzle sits on a table in the center of the room, a project sitting idle until the next rainy day. “Most people who come to this house just love this room,” she says. “You can think and play music and read and relax. It just gives you a good feeling.” Gordon’s “pride and joy” is her bedroom, which features a whimsical chaise longue covered with real pony hair (found at www.instylemodern.com), an oversized “fat-boy” beanbag from IKEA, and a functional electric fireplace she transformed into an artful wall hanging. Over the bed hangs a touching framed correspondence between herself and Ray Johnson, a well-known New York pop artist and close friend who committed suicide in the 1990s. “I have lived many incredible lives and met many incredible people,” Gordon says. But in many ways, she’s just getting started. Adjacent to her home rises her newly built, two-story art studio with the words “Art Box” emblazoned in bright colors on the front. Strategically placed windows draw in abundant light and views of the red-rock Lyons mountains. The ground floor features a large room filled with papermaking equipment and other artistic tools of the trade. And there’s plenty of space for the salons, exhibits and artist retreats she hopes to host in the future. “I am in a new phase of life now,” Gordon says, beaming, as she looks around her studio. “I have no idea what I’ll come up with next in here. It’s so exciting.”
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