Dallas Architect Cliff Welch's Modern, Musical Masterpiece

Architect Cliff Welch designed this house based on a jazz tune from 1966

(Listen to a free sample of the tune, here.)

Text by Rebecca Sherman
Special Thanks to Photographer Mark McWilliams for use of his work

Simply Lyrical... The inspirations for this White Rock Lake area home designed by Dallas architect Cliff Welch are hip, jazzy, and totally unexpected, much like the house itself. Welch’s clients, a couple in their 40s with school age children, initially provided an exhaustive checklist for the design. The list stipulated the usual must-haves, such as square footage and the number of rooms. But it also contained a dozen or so cultural, stylistic, and musical inspirations from the 50s and 60s that they wanted Welch to keep in mind as he worked.

These mid-20th century touchstones included the Alfa Romeo Duetto (the car driven by Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie The Graduate); vintage military wristwatches; Hitchock’s 1959 stylish thriller North by Northwest; Blue Note jazz album covers from the 50s and 60s; and jazz pianist Jack Wilson’s dreamy 1966 tune, Harbor Freeway 5 PM.

Low stepped entry hall, designed by architect Cliff Welch

“I was incredibly excited with the inspirations on the list,” remembers Cliff Welch, who was contacted by the clients in 2003 after they were unsuccessful in finding a suitable mid-century modern house to buy and renovate. The clients had researched some of the best modern architecture in the country by the time they hired Welch.

Room designed by architect Cliff Welch. Burnt oranges and woodsy tones are evocative of colors taken from classic jazz album covers. The terrazzo stone floors harken back to houses from the mid-20th century; contemporary Ipe wood ceilings, a dark manganese ironspot brick fireplace, and steel beams keep things current

“It seems like the most successful modern houses, new or old, were ones where there was a strong relationship between the architect and owners,” says the homeowner, an avid collector of jazz recordings, including hundreds of original vinyl albums from the 50s and 60s.“My wife and I approached our relationship with Cliff in full disclosure mode, including everything that we were interested in and how we wanted to live,” he says.

Dining area designed by architect Cliff Welch. Exposed steel beams extend through glass windows and make the ceiling appear to float. Knoll dining table and chairs.

The homeowners weren’t interested in living in a sterile white box. "The object was to capture the romantic mood of the West Coast jazz scene and lifestyle,” says the husband, who had a preference for the woodsy, warm designs found in many mid-20th century California houses.

Bulthaup's B3 kitchen design and Fireslate countertops; Custom sapele wood cabinets by Lauren Marlow of Purcell Cabinets.

Welch culled through the list of his clients' list of design inspirations looking for one in particular to focus on. “They were all clean-lined, interesting and well-designed,” he says. “I was familiar with everything on the list, but when he handed me the CD of Harbor Freeway, that was something new and fresh. I’d never heard it before.”

The kitchen is Bulthaup's B3 line

The 7-minute, atmospheric melody, Harbor Freeway 5 PM., features Jack Wilson on piano and Roy Ayres on vibraphone. It soon had Cliff Welch hooked. “I played it over and over again,” he says. “There’s a richness to it, the way it starts out simple and builds in the middle, then softens towards the end.”

Almost immediately, Welch realized that Harbor Freeway had the potential to be more than inspiration. It could also become the house’s parti, an architectural term describing the unifying idea behind a building’s entire design.

(Listen to a free Amazon sample of Harbor Freeway 5 PM.)

Room designed by architect Cliff Welch. Custom cabinets by Purcell Cabinetry.

“I was after the feel of the song mostly, which is intangible,” says Welch, who played Harbor Freeway in the background for two and a half months as he sketched the house’s design. To his clients’ amazement, Welch also successfully borrowed musical elements of the song, dissecting its structure, rhythm, and notes.

“It was a challenge, but essentially we took the ordering system of the music and used it for the ordering system of the house.” Welch, who had never played a musical instrument, taught himself how to play the first few bars of Harbor Freeway on the piano.

Built-ins like this one eliminate the need for much furniture.
The sculpture is by local artist Veronica Montero.

Low steps connect rooms and levels throughout the house designed by architect Cliff Welch, and were inspired by mid-20th century home designs. The varying levels are also evocative of the bouncy, improvisational feelings inherent in jazz tunes, says Welch.

Bedroom designed by architect Cliff Welch. Custom sapele wood bed and night stands were made by Lauren Marlow of Purcell Cabinetry.

The design phase of the house was finished in a year, and they broke ground in 2005, explains Cliff Welch, who was given a new Blue Note jazz CD by the clients each time they met.

The bouncy rhythms inherent in jazz music not only influenced the way Welch laid out the rhythm of the house, but the mix of materials (terrazzo, Ipe wood, dark manganese ironspot brick, glass and steel) and the mix of colors (burnt oranges, grays, and greens), colors which were pulled directly from mid-century Blue Note album covers. “There’s a playfulness in jazz. It slows down and gets quiet, then pops up and goes wild. Jazz takes chances. You can feel that as you move through the house, with all the different layers and levels and the mix of multiple colors and palettes.”

A classic Eames-style chair is the only piece of furniture needed in this small music room, where the homeowners listen to their extensive collection of jazz, rock and pop recordings, which includes 1,000 classic vinyl records and about 2,500 CDs. Room designed by architect Cliff Welch

True to Harbor Freeway, the house starts out deceptively quiet, then builds. From the street, it appears to be a modest, one-story structure. But the spacious 4,700 square foot home opens up in back, following the slope of the 1/3 acre lot’s wooded terrain, with cantilevered rooms and a second story built below. Inside, low ceilinged hallways open onto big, higher ceilinged rooms with large windows. There are stepped levels throughout. “The house unfolds gradually. Nothing’s too obvious,” says Welch.

A glass balcony overlooking the pool. All landscaping, including then pool area, was designed by Kelly James

The homeowners have young children and wanted the house to be an easy, fun place for them to live in. "One of the things we discussed with Cliff in the design meetings is that we wanted a house you could get lost in. One that's good for hide and seek with lots of nooks and crannies. Houses that fit that criteria are always really cool," says the homeowner. "The kids think it's a really adventurous house."

A glass walkway connects one area of the house with another. Design by architect Cliff Welch.

Side angle of the house designed by architect Cliff Welch

Rear exterior of the house designed by architect Cliff Welch

The family moved into their new house in 2008. “The floor plan simply has great flow, as does [the song] Harbor Freeway,” says the homeowner, who notes that dinner party guests have commented on the house’s “intangible coolness” which they attribute not only to the layout, but the materials, design, and of course, the jazz music playing in the background. “We definitely nailed it.”

Listen to a free sample of Jack Wilson's tune that inspired
architect Cliff Welch's design for this house.

A version of my story also appears in the March 2011 issue of Modern Luxury magazine, here.