An architect couple designs an oasis by the Atlanta BeltLine

Cara Cummins and Jose Tavel, of TaC Studios, tucked a modern house into the trees
“When we designed this house, we thought about the sun throughout the day and throughout the year,” says Jose Tavel. Their yard was recently certified as a wildlife habitat.

Photograph by Anthony-Masterson

Despite its busy location tucked between Freedom Parkway and the Atlanta BeltLine, the Old Fourth Ward home of married architects Cara Cummins and Jose Tavel feels like a peaceful urban spa. “We call this Jose’s island house,” Cara says jokingly, as Jose’s early childhood in Cuba seems to have inspired the tropical plants and lush outdoor living spaces. Massive oak trees, Japanese maples, and 25-foot-tall cryptomeria conifers envelop the LEED Silver-certified house, designed to nestle into its wooded environment.

The bamboo deck was designed for entertaining. Outdoor furniture isn’t just in the style of Kartell and Knoll, it’s the real thing. “I’m a bit of a snob,” says Cara. “I’m not a fan of the knockoffs . . . They don’t last as long, either.”

Photograph by Anthony-Masterson

The couple, who operate their architectural firm, TaC Studios, out of the house, pre­viously lived in a nearby contemporary abode once featured in Metropolitan Home magazine. The lure of a bigger lot—and hence a larger garden—motivated them to build this new structure. Simple in design, with metal panels and European stucco, the house was above all intended to be low-maintenance. “A big thing was longevity of materials,” says Jose. “We thought about what will age gracefully, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time on upkeep.”

Although the pair acknowledge that Atlanta, with its constant rebuilding, doesn’t have a distinct architectural vernacular like other cities, they believe a link to outdoor spaces is what comes closest to defining Atlanta style. At their residence, the preferred entry is through a garden gate rather than a front door. “We like that experience of a secret portal,” says Cara. “That transition of entering the garden and then hearing the fountain.”

Two water features distinguish the backyard: a narrow swimming pool and a traffic-muting fountain that splashes into a koi pond. Bamboo decking and a freestanding fireplace add interesting hardscapes, and borders are filled with heat-loving plants like an agave named after Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.

Large glass windows and doors make for a seamless transition from outdoors to in, where the dining area, kitchen, and sitting room flow along one axis. Light walnut floors and wood cabinets evoke the organic-modern style of the house. And the kitchen’s backsplash is glass—creating artful, ever-changing reflections as the sun passes over the garden during the day.

The dining room has a “stick chandelier” made on the fly one night when Cara and Jose were hosting a dinner party and needed a light fixture. After gathering branches and wiring them to lightbulbs (since improved with decorative bulbs and a more sculptural form), they realized this homemade version fit better than anything they could buy. The room’s assortment of art and sculpture—some collected during travels, some from Southern artisans—reflects an overall theme of universal harmony, say the owners.

In fact, the entire house echoes the dining room’s relaxed approach. “The biggest failure of modern design is when it takes itself too seriously,” says Cara. “Architecture needs to have a sense of playfulness.”

 

A large painting by Cara depicts twin churches in Rome; her love of architecture is rooted in classical style (she was the first recipient of the prestigious J. Neel Reid Prize from the Georgia Trust). The Wassily chair, Womb chair, and Arco lamp are midcentury classics. The couple have collected masks and figures from all over Africa. The primitive pieces exude a spiritual quality, much like Finster’s work, notes Cara. They also like that these beautiful sculptures were created to be functional rather than decorative.

Photograph by Anthony-Masterson

African Art at the High Museum
The High Museum of Art obtained its first African art in 1953, and now the collection has grown to occupy a permanent 4,000-square-foot space—filled with masks, figurative sculptures, textiles, beadwork, ceramics, metalwork, and more. Pieces on display range from a 19th-century Bamileke beaded headdress to contemporary paintings and works by renowned artists like El Anatsui, Kay Hassan, and Iba Ndiaye. Objects come from many nations, including Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast.

“To me, African art is like a well of fresh water that will never run dry,” says Carol Thompson, who became the department’s first full-time curator in 2001. “You can never get to the end of what African art is.” She adds that the genre’s sculptural qualities create a strong visual impact.

For beginning collectors, utilitarian objects such as jewelry, beadwork, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles may be more affordable than masks and figures, which can be pricey, particularly if they have been used in actual ceremonies. Work by street vendors may not represent a lasting investment, but it can still have decorative merit. Collectible pieces can be purchased through specialty dealers such as Fily Keita in Los Angeles, Bill Lowe in Atlanta, or Amyas Naegele in New York, who also makes mounts for African art.

Join the High Museum’s Friends of African Art ($1,000 plus museum membership) to enjoy educational programs and make connections with dealers.  —Becky Hardy

Resources
Architecture and design TaC Studios, 404-223-5565. Outdoors Bamboo decking: Dasso. Head sculpture: Martin Dawe. Leather lanterns, brown serving tray: Kolo. Pitcher, napkins, plates: Huff Harrington. Dining chairs: Kartell. Lounge chairs and chaises: Knoll. Kitchen Kitchen cabinetry: SieMatic. Barstools: Knoll. Appliances: Miele. Countertops: Silestone. Faucets: Vola, designed by Arne Jacobsen. Living spaces Flooring: Dex Industries. Dining table and Buddha head: Chip and Company. Basket on table: B.D. Jeffries. Stone serving tray on upstairs balcony, B.D. Jeffries. Womb chair and Wassily chair: Knoll. Master bath Bathroom tiles: Crossville. Bathtub: Americh. Faucets: Vola, designed by Arne Jacobsen. Master bedroom Headboard: Chip and Company. Chaise lounge: Context Gallery. Office Light fixture: Foscarini, distributed by Illuminations Lighting.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2015 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

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