There’s a contemporary notion going on in American architecture. It resurges every few years, and the movement is afoot right now,” architect Marc Camens says. When Camens is inclined to expound on the intersection of history, philosophy, psychology and architecture, we’re going to learn something, and one of those magic moments is about to happen.
“My theory is the contemporary world is always in our sight; it’s always on our computers, so it’s appealing now. But you have to be careful with it; though it’s current and fresh, it’s also a moment in time,” Camens says. “Contemporary design can feel cold and sterile if you leave out elements that humans are hardwired to love. For example, if you draw your hand classically, you’d draw all the lines and creases. If you draw your hand in a contemporary way, you’d only draw the outline. Our psyches need the lines and creases, we need the texture, but contemporary design takes that out.”
Camens is giving us this lesson because we’re visiting his latest project, a 5,000-square-foot coastal shingle-style home on Kiawah Island with some prominent contemporary elements. This is a bit of a surprise. Almost from its inception, Kiawah Island had stringent ARB regulations about architectural style; in the past, contemporary elements were not allowed. Recently, the ARB relaxed its position, and more and more islanders are asking for contemporary design when they build.
Contemporary design, by definition, “belongs to the present.” It doesn’t refer to a specific period; instead, it’s constantly evolving to incorporate what’s popular at the moment. In its current iteration, it’s primarily informed by simplicity, function, nature and sustainability—sometimes with a bit of bling. However, simplicity and functionality have also been interpreted as “only the bare essentials,” which is when a home feels sterile or institutional.
As an architect, Camens has a wide range but is best known for his graceful Adirondack or camp-style estate homes that embrace family, friends and nature. His signature elements, such as symmetry, elegant wood beams and refined woodwork, are decidedly classical. To Camens, simplicity—even the barest of essentials—means the mind and the eye are pleased with every detail.
For this project, his clients wanted a contemporary spin on the traditional Kiawah home. Embracing nature was a must, and they liked the clean lines of contemporary style, but they also wanted comfort and charm. “We wanted to figure out how to get the contemporary aesthetic but have it feel warm and inviting at the same time,” the homeowner says.
Camens understood the request and was able to translate it. “Everyone loves classical buildings because they share symmetry with nature,” he says. “It’s emotional, it comes from the heart, and it’s passed down through generations. It has a heart and soul that people identify with, even if they don’t know why. We all love Downtown Charleston architecture because it’s classical; it hits your soul and will continue to stand the test of time. If a building is too contemporary, it won’t matter in a few years, and you won’t be able to relate to it. You can have a balance, though.”
To say that Camens takes his design seriously is an understatement. He’s been known to camp out on empty plots to see how it feels at different times of the day or spend the weekend with clients in their current homes so he can see how they live in a house. Going the extra mile pays off because his finished projects have the classical heart and soul that we’re hardwired to feel good around, regardless of architectural style or materiality.
Besides contemporary elements, the clients like to entertain and wanted a home with the right scale for two people but that could grow into many visitors. A quiet office away from more public areas was essential, as was a billiard room. They also wanted to maximize the view and have lots of natural light. The dilemma of the house is it sits on a very narrow lot that comes to a point, providing a few design challenges for the architect to solve.
With all this in mind, Camens designed a traditional Kiawah shingle-style home with internal and external transitional elements, four bedrooms and five baths, a wine cellar, an outdoor living room, a billiard room and a magnificent home office. Though the lot is narrow, there’s a sparkling pool tucked in the back. Built by Jedd McLuen of Bennett-McLuen Homes with interior design by Katy Massam of Katy Massam Design Consulting, this home is different but will stand the test of time.
The interior and exterior architecture lands somewhere between classical and contemporary, with transitional elements that gently blur the lines. Many rooms have floor-to-ceiling panes of glass, and throughout the home, texture comes from horizontal lines and layers of trim—though they aren’t as curvy as that of classical design. “Buildings need texture,” Camens says. “We cleaned up the lines but added texture back in clean layers. There are glass panes that provide a view of the marsh, and there is the ceiling. We blurred the two by cleaning up the detail with simple shapes and less movement. You end up transitioning to contemporary, but when you’re in the building, it feels like you’re sitting in the marsh.”
Outside, Camens used synthetic shingles made from ceramic with a PVC backing. “Synthetic shingles are really environmentally appropriate,” he says. “They’re the best I’ve ever seen. They look like cedar shakes with variegation in color, and the way the light reflects off them, they’re identical.” Other exterior considerations for the environment include impact-rated glass and a metal roof, all of which can withstand the salt and humidity of a coastal environment. The organic, neutral material palette inside and out is indigenous to the island.
To enter the home, we climb a set of stairs up the side, bringing us to a glass wall and a wide glass door framed in black steel. From the foyer, we’re welcomed with a view of a crisp white-on-white living room, the pool and the verdant marsh beyond. Interiors throughout the home are consistently designed with chalky whites, grays and beige with pops of black. The effect is calming and a little bit glamorous, sophisticated and comfortable. The homeowners have a dog and like to invite friends for annual outings, so interior designer Katy Massam ensured everything in the home was elevated but not too precious.
In the bright living room, a horizontal shiplap on the fireplace wall adds movement and texture to the limited palette. Overhead, warm wood beams are layered in front of a white coffered ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling windows framed in black steel admit views of the pool and the marsh, which is so close that the marsh view transforms to oceanfront during king tides. To the left of the living room, the streamlined white kitchen is anchored by wood tones with accents of brass and black. In the dining area, an artful brass and glass pendant is suspended over a dark wood table with seating for 10.
Beyond the dining area, the marble-topped kitchen island has seating for five, with plenty of space left for prep work. To the left of the island, an inviting sofa is tucked into a nook in front of another wide set of glass windows. Behind the kitchen, a doorway leads to a beautiful, enclosed scullery, which corrals small appliances and staples and is a handy place for a caterer to set up shop. To the left of the dining area, an expansive, temperature-controlled wine cellar displays a robust collection and keeps bottles nearby for serving.
Behind the kitchen and scullery, a staircase framed by a wall of glass to the left and a black steel railing to the right makes a dramatic entrance from the garage. At the top of the stairs, an open room with wooded views is home to a seating area and a billiard table. This room is wrapped in honey-toned horizontal slats that are narrow at the ceiling and get wider as they approach the baseboard. To the left, a contemporary bar with gold accents, a marble backsplash and an arched opening is home to a beverage cooler, ice maker and storage for glassware.
Overhead, a dramatic barrel-vaulted ceiling with recessed LED lighting makes this room one of the homeowners’ favorites. “My husband wanted that room because he loves to play billiards, and we wanted a casual place to hang out with friends and family,” the homeowner says. “We joke that you can’t come to our house for a meal without playing a round of billiards, whether you want to or not. But we do always end up in that room, and then it spills out onto the porch.”
The screened porch, accessed from doors off the billiard room and kitchen, is a proper outdoor living space and a favorite hangout for the couple and guests. Camens took advantage of the narrow lot to create a dramatic turret at the smallest point. In the turret, the architect designed a semicircular banquet with a custom table to mirror the shape of the exterior.
A long bar runs the length of the back wall, providing seating and a place to put your drink while you take in the views of the pool and marsh. A large stone fireplace and a comfortable seating area anchor this room. Overhead, Camens’ signature beams give the space a cozy mountain vibe. Beyond the curved screened porch is an outdoor patio with endless views and an open seating area hovering over the marsh.
If you can tear yourself away from the scenery, let’s go back inside and check out the primary bedroom and bathroom suite. The white-on-white bedroom is right-sized, so it’s cozy, but it has a dramatic wall of windows that frame the view. “They didn’t want a big space,” Camens says. “Just enough room for a king bed and floor-to-ceiling glass windows so they can wake up to the marsh.”
The marsh plays such a vital role in this home that there are moments that feel like we’re in a grand open-air safari lodge. The primary bathroom suite is one of those moments. Through a sliding barn door, we find a glass shower, double vanities, a soaking tub and a laundry. From the doorway, we can look through the glass shower enclosure to the soaking tub in front of a glass wall that frames a floor-to-ceiling marsh view. Double vanities are settled to the left side of the room so there’s nothing to obstruct the view of the birds and marsh grass. Camens promised the homeowners an outdoor shower and delivered with a design that’s wide open to the marsh.
Upstairs, the homeowner’s office is a masterpiece of architecture and design. Situated in the turret at the narrow end of the house, a custom semicircular desk in front of 180-degree windows provides endless views of the ever-changing marsh. Overhead, a grand cupola is a nod to all of the classical architecture we love, while the streamlined white walls and furnishings provide visual peace. The second floor also has a cozy bunk room with two built-in bunk beds and a barrel-vaulted ceiling.
“This is just an incredible house,” Camens says. “Jedd and I have done more than 20 houses together, and every one of them has been a success. He’s very talented in design and understands trim just as well as we do, if not better. He did a phenomenal job. Sid Mullins was the lead project architect and did a fantastic job, as did my whole staff. It’s called a group on purpose, and this was a team project. I start with the lead design, and my team enables it.”
“It’s exactly what I thought and hoped it would be,” the homeowner says. “Marc really listened to us, and it was a real collaboration. We loved working with Marc and his team, Jedd and Katy. There were no big surprises, and we had so much fun together.” *
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.