Thousands of Americans build their own homes, but retired residential contractor Larry Pett built his own mid-century modern house in Virginia-Highland. He also designed and built much of the wood furniture inside.
With wife, Adele, they scoured world artist markets and the internet to select “just so” fabrics and trimmings to evoke the 1950s in melon tones with amber accents. Self-deprecating and a no-frills type of guy, Larry tells a story with each plank of wood, matching and contrasting the lustrous grains. In one table, he incorporates six types of wood with symmetry, using his head and hands in one of the most primitive forms of art.
He said, “Wood crafting is honest and forgiving, where perfect is the enemy of good.” Architectural Digest (April, 2020) expounded on re-creating the lost art of making one’s own wood furniture that “lasts longer and gives the artist an adrenaline rush, using blades and whirring machines…a few inches lost there, a wonky corner here.”
To Larry, the texture of an unrefined plank is an unknown challenge and a tactile experience.
New Yorker Larry met Adele Cohen, from Murfreesboro, Tenn., in Atlanta, where they both worked in public health. Larry retired in 2015 after running Housewright, a residential remodeling firm. Adele laughed, “Growing up in Murfreesboro was not so bad, as we attended services in Nashville.”
Marcia: Explain how you “hands-on” build the furniture.
Larry: The wood is already rough-sawn when I get it. I make a rough design, then plane, cut, join, sand, shape, and finish…I’m at my happiest creating. The kitchen table is cherry wood, dining table is mahogany, the den coffee table is a mixture of wood I had from leftovers.
Adele: It’s fascinating. He often starts with not much of a plan. He’s just creative and a problem solver combined…talented in that way. He even made the picture frames in here.
About the only wood structure here that Larry did not build is the twisted oak pedestal with the canary glass sculpture under the Yayoi Kusama, “Pumpkin,” photograph.
Marcia: What are some special mid-century modern touches you incorporated?
Larry: The three levels of hickory wood open stairs have glass panels and stainless-steel handrails (southern staircase). As an afterthought, we fitted the elevator into the plan.
Furniture-wise, we ordered these custom ultra suede chairs by Joybird, in lime and salmon sherbet hues. We framed the fireplace with ochre porcelain tiles, then mirrored that in the kitchen backsplash.
The soffit fireplace hearth is raised from the floor and finished with cement panels. The fireplace “surround” is forged black sheet metal. Flooring throughout is bamboo. Dining and a few accent seats are from By Design for their clean lines. It sort of all fits together.
The upper level is not mid-century, but rather, prairie style with antique craftsman furniture.
Adele: Funny story about rugs. We were in Turkey, and undecided about whether to buy rugs which might not have worked in our house. Surprisingly, six months later, the rug dealer from Istanbul showed up here with a variety of rugs, so we made a deal and purchased two.
Marcia: What kind of art do you collect?
Adele: I am self-appointed “chief of arts festivals.” I’ve been to almost every local festival over the past 20 years. We have this Jules Burt original, “Six Painted Ladies,” from when Jules had a shop in Virginia Highlands. The steel guitar in the kitchen is by Kathy Walter from Marietta.
I collect snake and shark sculptures, Larry acquired masks from Indonesia, Guam, Mexico, Micronesia and South America.
We have prints by Fernando Botero, a famous Colombian artist who sculpted and painted depictions of obese people. One of my favorites is an original oil painting from Cuzco, Peru, in the Inca style of building stones and regional gold flecks. We like to support the locals wherever we go.
Larry: I have panoramic photographs by the late Ray Herbert, “Panorama Ray,” of Times Square in the 1980s and “Virginia at Highland” in 1981. We have a framed collection of photos of covered bridges, taken on our trip to New England. We commissioned a painting by Marietta artist Paul Flack, when we saw his work at Paris on Ponce. Basically, we are folk-art focused and can’t be put in a box.
Years ago we had a memorable visit to Summerville, Ga., and spent a few hours with Baptist minister-turned folk artist Howard Finster. We purchased a piece, which he inscribed, “You left your cradle on a trip through this world. Come back to that cradle.” While there, he happened to be conducting a wedding, and we were invited to serve as witnesses.
We buy weird stuff wherever we find it, in the U.S. or abroad. I can’t always remember where everything comes from. It’s what we enjoy.
Marcia: You have a strong opinion about lighting?
Larry: We don’t care for ceiling lighting. We prefer wall sconces and have a variety which we collected over time. We have one very authentic craftsman prairie-style table lamp. The lighting fixture in the kitchen is from Lucca, Italy. There is an “ugly” hanging light in the screen porch which most people laugh at, but which Adele and I like.
Marcia: What tips can we glean undertaking building a home?
Larry: Plan on it costing more than you budgeted and taking more time. We figured this was our last house, so, OK. We have thicker walls than most houses with foam insulation, 22 solar panels on the roof to reduce the power bill substantially. As contractor, I subbed out the things I can’t do (plumbing, etc.) but did the interior trim and carpentry.
Finally, do it the way you want. Don’t worry about selling it years in the future. By then, everything changes anyway.