All photos/art by Hornick/Rivlin
It couldn’t be more Vermont if you poured maple syrup over it: the winding dirt road, arching shade trees, fields sloping right and left, shaggy apple orchard, and finally, of course, the bent-over red barn, faded to a rosy blush.
Midsummer afternoon in the hills of Putney, the light sharpens and spreads out, insects hum, and there’s an indolent, lazy breeze stirring. Just barely. All is as it should be, almost.
The land curves down and away, and there, just below, sits another barn, this one white, rising out of the landscape like a single Alp: one barn echoing the other, each distinct and separate, yet in proximity and related. It’s the key to this entire story, really, and a recurring theme.
“It was so strange to have another barn,” says Penelope Wurr, whose contemporary glasswork appears in publications from Elle Decor to New York to The Boston Globe Magazine. But in some ways, having a surplus of barns was no less strange than the path that brought this innovative British-born designer to the backfields of Vermont via Manhattan–towing a family, a barn, and a thriving artistic career.
No strangers to Vermont, for years Penelope and her husband, Michael Wilner, a commodities trader at that time–and eventually with sons Tammas and Jem–would escape their SoHo loft on the weekends to stay at their Wardsboro house, a few miles from Mount Snow. Back in the city, Penelope’s unusual glasswork–a product of her background as a printmaker, incorporating proprietary sandblasting and enamel techniques–was in demand at upscale places such as Barneys and the Museum of Modern Art. “We’d already talked about moving up here,” Penelope recalls, “but one of the things that finally initiated us into moving up full-time was that our car was blown up in the first World Trade Center attack [in 1993].”
With the compass pointing north, the family began searching for a barn. “At that point, we decided we were going to live in a barn because we lived in a loft and really liked being in an open space,” Penelope explains. “Michael traced someone who sold barns, and he found this one in Massachusetts. We bought it right then and there.” In a month it was packed up and stored in a big container. They now had a barn to keep, a loft to sell, and land to find. “I’m one of those people who finds four-leaf clovers all the time,” says Penelope. “I said to Michael, ‘Well, we’ll buy a piece of land that I find a four-leaf clover on.’ I went for a walk on this piece of land and I found three four-leaf clovers.”
The new land had an old barn that was the exact footprint of the barn they’d already bought and put into storage. With an eye to both structures, architect Tim Smith chose a location for the one that would become the family’s home. “I remember Tim’s trying very hard to make sure that there was a relationship between them,” says Penelope. Now, pieces and patterns began weaving together, not unlike the process Penelope undertakes to develop a new design for her gorgeous glass. “Designing is the part I really like,” she says, “and I’ve also got a bit of the scientist in me–I like working things out.”
So how to bring together a 200-year-old barn, a modern sensibility, a family, and an artistic career? Stand in the middle of the barn’s open, two-story great room, glass rising up the wall to let in all of Vermont, and you begin to get a clue. Old beams crisscross the space and an original built-in barn ladder climbs the interior, while a crisp brushed-steel wire and maple railing looks down from the second floor. Artwork from Penelope’s printmaking days crowds the walls, and just off the soaring great room, a low-ceilinged, cozy dining area arcs around to the kitchen. Downstairs, there’s a dream of an artist’s studio as well; upstairs, bedrooms and a play area that most boys only dream of. Smith defined the general spaces and Penelope did the rest, focusing on details that came easily to her designer’s mind. She planned a kitchen wall around a rugged antique plate rack that was a gift from a friend in England, created the lighting, and designed the fireplace, an expanse of brick that climbs two stories to the ceiling. “It’s very much like my glasswork,” she notes, “because I do a lot of herringbone and checkerboard designs.”
If Penelope’s design sensibility is evident in the house, her color sense is on display in the garden. Profuse and mature, it’s a collaborative effort based on a design by garden expert and author Gordon Hayward. Edwin de Bruijn of Holland’s Bloom in Brattleboro also contributed design elements and landscaped the property. “I like very structural gardens, lots of views, and symmetry,” says Penelope. Archways and arbors frame ever-changing views; the sundial is from her grandmother’s rose garden in England.
Penelope’s overriding artistic philosophy applies equally well to home, garden, and family life: “I do always feel with my work that it’s very important to read it as a group. It’s not just about one piece; it’s about the continuity of the whole package. Mixing the contemporary with the traditional is a part of my eclectic English temperament.”
Penelope Wurr’s retail shop, featuring her glasswork and prints, is located at 12 Kimball Hill in Putney’s village center. For hours of operation, call 802-579-5130 or visit: penelopewurr.com