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Exploring Indigo
Architecture+Indigo-The Innovative Artistry of Debra Cedeno

By Gay Giordano

Debra Cedeno of Architecture+Indigo in Vineyard Haven named her firm for the color which only reaches its full, stunning spectrum after a myriad of elements are blended together. This process is consistently manifested in her work by fusing the client’s wishes, and directing how the sun arcs through the sky into the space and how colors and materials thoughtfully craft and situate a building on the land.

As an architect, it is clear from the moment you meet her that she is infused with theories and concepts – her hands describe shapes in the air while she vocalizes her thoughts. This mapping of shapes is one aspect of Debra’s holistic commitment to design and innovation as she transfers concepts from her visual imagination into sketches at first and then carefully studied details on the drawing board. An example: she was sitting in her office one day, working on ideas for her client’s modern farmhouse project, when the client Skyped her and said, “OK, let’s take a look at your latest sketches – even if they are rough ideas.” She obliged by maneuvering her phone over her desk, and when he caught sight of a new floor plan idea he said, “That’s it! That is the one. Don’t change a thing.”

What resulted from that sketch was a Z-shaped building with the classic farmhouse-style main living spaces in the center, and two new shingle-style wings attached. The Guest and Master wing are connected to opposite ends of the Main wing by floor-to-ceiling glass connectors. These connectors visually separate the “old” from the “new”. Outdoor terraces, a screened porch off the Kitchen and an elevated sun deck above lures you to the outdoors and a heavily wooded lot near the ocean with abundant nature paths and a freshwater pond. The large entrance doors are painted a bright European blue, an homage to family ancestry.

Through some truly stunning techniques, the house feels expansive even while respecting the client’s construction budget. On the main floor of the farmhouse wing, there are slightly stepped levels with staircases rising at each end of the building. You can see the stairs, but not where they go, resulting in an open and expansive floor plan and anticipation of where they lead. On one side, you go halfway up the stairs to the Master Suite and all the way up to the sun porch. This provides privacy for both the owners and their guests, each with their own access to the rooms, entertainment areas and outdoor terraces.

The cathedral-ceilinged Living Room is spanned by wood scissor trusses which literally go through the ceiling to the roof like hands thrust upward (Debra imitates this gesture). They help define each of the different spaces in rhythm with the clerestory windows to the South and provide a comfortable scale in the expansive room – anchored by a stone fireplace at one end.

One unique detail is the Master Bath shower. There are two showers connected that allow passage from one shower on the inside into another shower at the outside. This kind of architectural seduction appears in the details throughout. On an upper level, you can truly appreciate the beautifully crafted stone chimney that creates a point of interest at the Living Room on one side and the other at the Mud Room where one can see that even the back of a fireplace can be beautiful. This is something only Debra could have envisioned.

Immediately outside the house, gravel paths follow the line of the connectors and appear to slice through the building. The “slicing” of shapes at these points of transition defy the terms’ implications and are graceful features, connecting the home’s parts. There are efforts that at first may seem random until one realizes they have their own logic that always ends in a specific and fruitful destination.

One important point to note is that Architecture+Indigo is a smaller office – where they are able to offer a more stream-lined communication and focused personal attention to each of their clients. Designing a custom home for individuals requires taking the time to discuss what’s important – the details that transform a house into a home. “I’ve found that this is one of the great advantages in hiring a smaller office,” says Debra.

Debra’s family roots are in Central America and the Caribbean. Her sun-grabbing instincts and love of simple materials used in complicated and purposeful ways runs through her being. She always draws the details of a home first by hand, a now old-world process that keeps her mind and hands working in unison conjuring the architectural concepts. Her respect and admiration for building materials and the craftsmen who cut, nail, and arrange them is enormous. For her, it is important that they all enjoy the work and the process, from the clients to the contractors, stone carvers, carpenters and the many more will form a team dedicated to the meaning of the design.

She explains her love of materials that do what they were meant to do, where “the implied structure IS the structure.” She paraphrases Frank Lloyd Wright’s belief that, “Each material has its own message.”

By explaining “I strive to achieve a design incorporating details where there is a purpose or intrinsic reason behind every single thing I do.”

In the natural world, the concept “form and function follow the nature of the material” is a guiding principle for Debra. Stone holds buildings up; it wants, for instance, to be a column that carries weight. Trusses want to hold up a roof.” (She holds up her hands with fingers criss-crossed.) “Glass is a visual transition that allows you to see outside while protecting you inside. It is invisible; it carries no weight.” By “conversing” with organic materials, she gives them what they want–to bring the outside inside. They allow her to explore how structure can lend itself to artistry.

Debra holds degrees in Architecture and Fine Art from Rhode Island School of Design. Her loyalties lie in the complicated art of architecture. After graduating, she discovered that residential design offered a more personal approach, allowing her to custom design each space for her clients–their preferences, and lifestyles of their individual needs.

Following extended travel in Central America, Debra worked with a firm in Maryland, where she won the AIA Grand Design award in 1997 for a sustainable “green” project (prior to the global focus on these issues). Afterwards, she met owner and mentor Jim Cutler, of the prestigious West Coast firm Cutler Anderson Architects and was hired shortly thereafter. There, she was invited to explore new ways how structure can lend itself to artistry.

Debra eventually realized that only by opening her own firm, could she explore details and a design aesthetic as deeply and freely as she wanted. After moving to the Vineyard and working for a few local firms, she opened Architecture+Indigo in the Fall of 2009. Three weeks after opening, she landed what most architects would call the “dream client”.

This client, who purchased a Chilmark property many years prior, shared that she grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house. After purchasing the Vineyard property, she lived in what is Island’s last remaining brick barn (now a Guest House) and dreamed of building a home that would remind her of her childhood without copying it. The up-Island property had been built-up over the course of four centuries, including what was once a sheep’s path to the original downtown Chilmark. The land is bordered by 200 year-old hand-built stone walls that had become the classic Chilmark style.

The daunting task of referring to Frank Lloyd Wright yet making the home unique to the client came about through careful consideration of the site. The house was to be located in the center of three main site features – a large boulder, a vernal pond and a cluster of mature blueberry bushes. The stone walls, pastoral meadows, brick barn and a small grove of apple trees are all within view of the house and act as visual boundaries to the property.

The interior spaces of the building were designed with clean detail lines gracefully bringing the outside in. The floor plan is laid out in three areas which allow a flow between common and private spaces. One of these areas is situated on a slight upward grade and is the only one with a second floor which is a glass-lined Meditation Room. The height allows the client to view the property from slightly above through the windows on all four sides. Its roof is supported by stone piers with two points of contact on each side. The ingenuity of the design demanded careful contemplation.

The Master Suite looks out past glacial boulder to the meadow beyond. A beautiful wood wall divides the bedroom from the sitting room which has a 12 foot wide window seat which offering a connection to the tranquility of the landscape. Another optic delight is in the Kitchen, where the structural columns are battered half-an-inch per foot on 3 sides yet on the inside the window line is straight. Some of columns literally go through countertops. The house was detailed to have materials come together without trim at the inside or the outside, further exemplifying the importance of the builder’s skills and attention to detail.

The exterior of the building is a lesson in the peculiar logic of architectural verticality. By using natural materials in deceptively simple patterns the house does not create a jarring impact the way some houses appear to have landed from the sky. The low roof lines in conjunction with wood, granite, glass and metal features are soothing and appropriate. Like Wright, Debra loves to solve difficult structural and design issues that don’t sacrifice the home’s conceptual nature, such as setting the rain gutters into the roof so they don’t hang off the side.

One of the most interesting details of this home is Debra’s mastery of corralling interesting shadows. The trellis profile on the patio has a canted roof fascia at the same angle as the roof throughout. It casts vertebra-like shadows to catch the eye. Every window appears cut through the stonework, allowing light to land in stunning patterns that shame rugs. The expertise required to consider the way light falls is not easy and the results are a manifestation of Debra’s delight in showing how architecture, artistry and nature dovetail. One particular homage to Frank Lloyd Wright is the use of his invention, the mitered glass corner, which can been seen in the clerestory windows under the roof, elevating the experience of viewing the sky in all four directions. In Debra’s design, glass has found a beautiful purpose here.

Nothing in Debra’s work is careless or hectic. She has figured out how to create from her imagination a built entity that embraces a client’s wishes, and is a delight for craftsmen to build. As Wright says, “I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”

Hence, Architecture is Indigo.