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Mark Hutker designs on Martha's Vineyard earn national acclaim

More than sandcastles

by Deborah Rieselman

Alumnus Mark Hutker likes to get personal. Very personal.

Even if he hardly knew you, he would be likely to ask on which side of the bed you sleep. Then he would want to know if you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Sooner or later, he would get around to discussing dining habits, laundry routines, favorite pastimes and how many friends you have.

But don't take it personally. With Hutker, it's all business -- the business of creating homes that fit a person to perfection.

Of course, the word "home" seems absurdly simplistic for works of art worth millions and and graced with breathtaking waterfront vistas on Martha's Vineyard. To some, the word "castle" might seem more appropriate, yet that term would surely cause Hutker to bristle.

"Castle" connotes imposing dominance, even stand-offishness, and those characteristics directly oppose what the well-known architect achieves for his clients. "We're looking to do mature but somewhat recessive buildings that are happy to settle into the landscape rather than dominate it," Hutker says.

Hiding 12,000 square feet in the landscape and making it feel inviting are actually hallmarks that have attracted clients like composer/conductor Andre Previn to Mark Hutker and Associates, an architecture and interior design firm that the '82 DAAP grad developed on the Massachusetts island in the late '80s.

Hutker's homes are the kind that the average person only dreams about -- with guest houses, carriage houses, Juliet balconies, courtyards and enclosed patios; dormers, turrets, tennis courts and hot tubs; sun-soaked bathtubs, fieldstone fireplaces, slate counter tops and imported tiles. Even though Hutker deals with the reality of budgets, serious corners are not cut. Never.

More than sandcastles

First and foremost, the homes are designed to match the owners' personalities, Hutker says, hence his long list of probing questions. "After an initial client meeting, people are sometimes surprised at how much I know about them," he says with a grin. "There are things you don't think about until you kick your shin on the bed in the middle of the night. When you don't have a bruise in the morning, it's because the way in which the house flows so beautifully allows you to relax.

"We look for seeds of inspiration in what people say. Artists and investment bankers think differently. In the end, their environments should be different."

Hutker is a pro at making environments different. Out of the eight to 12 major houses that the firm designs annually, no two have enough in common to categorize a Hutker "style."

"What I'm most proud of is our diversity," Hutker says. And it's diverse because we seek the particularities of each project and tend to magnify them, not to be peculiar, but to pull out that which is special about each project."

Hutker planned, for example, an inverted rooftop on the addition to the Previns' home. The V-shaped outline might look odd elsewhere, but on the island, it quickly connotes the image of a conductor's outstretched arms.

Hutker's homes always have a "feel" to them, suggesting that there's more than simple aesthetics at work. Some residences, for instance, suggest the island's strong shipbuilding history. A screened-in porch resembles a ship's bow, exterior-exposed beams imply a whale's backbone and ribs, and a plethora of interior-exposed rafters and beams, fitted exclusively with wooden pegs, favor a captain's quarters.

For a house situated on a former farm, he sustains an agrarian feel by using a New England post-and-beam frame, weathered cedar shingles, windows shuttered with sliding panels resembling barn doors and interior Shaker simplicity. The surrounding fields and a tall silo frame the house with a "windswept view" that could have come straight from an Andrew Wyeth painting, he likes to say.

"Actually, a barn used to sit right on this site," Hutker adds. "It burned in the '50s, but we've used the original corner posts."

The posts do look aged, though not quite 50 years old, and the building's interior certainly lends credence to the story, but the smirk creeping across Hutker's face suddenly belies the tale. "That's a fantasy," he says, breaking into a full grin. "But it works, doesn't it?

"We want these homes to have stories of their own. We're creating heirlooms, houses that capture people's spirit in some way. Homes have to have an emotional connection, and we have to instill these emotional qualities and feelings into our homes."

More than sandcastles

To determine the emotional quality of the land, Mark Hutker's staff of architects routinely gathers items from a site and, while they are working on a project, decorate their desks with leaves, bark, pine cones, wild flowers, weeds, even lichen from the north side of oak trees. "We look deeply at the site -- the vegetation, the topography, the way the path of the sun goes around, where the views are located, where the entry approach comes from. All of these things affect the cadence."

Even though the famed writer Goethe called architecture "frozen music," few people think in terms of their home's cadence. Hutker, however, approaches his profession as an artist would, thinking in broader terms than the simple elements of wood, stone and mortar on his palette.

In the end, the architect artistically integrates materials that match the environment, a style that reflects the owners and a design that nestles into the land. "It's very subtle," he admits.

The buildings may recede into the landscape, yet his talent does anything but. This summer, a House and Garden magazine article will feature his work and Residential Architect is putting him on the cover. He also nabbed the Custom Home Project of the Year Award in March, a Builder's Choice Design and Planning Award in '99, a feature article in Architectural Digest in '99, the Custom Home Design Award in '98, plus stories in 20 other publications since '94.

Awards are nice, of course, but even more impressive are the comments from colleagues on the Vineyard. "Mark is a great architect, one I have the highest respect for, professionally and personally," says Andrew Flake, a prominent builder who has completed one or two projects a year with him since Hutker came to town.

"I've worked with architects from around the world, and I've watched Mark's star rise since he first stepped foot on the island. You don't suddenly become a brilliant architect because of luck or one really great job. Mark offers enthusiasm, good design, and a sincere and honest approach to making clients happy."

"Mark is doing wonderful work here," agrees resident David Pritchard, a Dartmouth grad who minored in architecture. "We often get nervous when new homes go up on the island, but no one is concerned when it's Mark's. His homes look like they belong."

While architect Mark Hutker talks passionately about making his designs fit the history and topography of the 100-square miles of Martha's Vineyard, his fervor is not native, but transplanted from the Midwest. Before coming to the University of Cincinnati, he lived in Indiana. After graduation, he moved to Boston for his first job.

What better way to view the ocean than from a porch enclosed to resemble the bow of a ship. --photos/Brian Vanden Brink

What better way to view the ocean than from a porch enclosed to resemble the bow of a ship. --photos/Brian Vanden Brink

He soon married fashion design grad Carla Harlan, DAAP '81, and the two moved to the Vineyard in '85 when he landed a job to manage a local office for Dunn Brady Associates, an out-of-town firm starting work on the island.

"But by the time I got here, the initial commission we were counting on had gone elsewhere," he recalls. "When I came to work the first day, we had no jobs. I thought this was a 'going' enterprise, but all I had was a legal pad listing possible clients."

It was a bit of a shock, but Carla says she and Mark figured they would hang in for at least a year. He started digging up work and with the support of the principals got the business rolling.

In fact, it rolled so well that in '87, he bought half the firm. Two years later, he purchased the balance. Since then, he has added staff each year, while always participating in the UC co-op program.

"Dunn and Brady gave me the opportunity to come in here and create the kind of situation I thought would work," he says. "I was essentially starting my own firm at age 26, though I got to do so with the confidence of two wonderful architects supporting me. That made the work a lot of fun."

During those years, Mark and Carla bought a five-acre wooded plot of land and built their own dream home -- in seven stages, expanding to accommodate a growing family (Evan, 11; Harly, 7; and four cats), then adding on a guest house, garage and two studios.

In '99, with the help of Carla, he expanded the company to incorporate interior design, thereby establishing the Vineyard's only integrated architecture/interior design firm. Today, he estimates the staff of 20 has nearly 50 active projects, including renovations, additions and need-studies.

There is no talk of moving anymore, but Mark has plans for corporate expansion. He has already completed jobs as far away as Washington state, but hopes to develop additional business outside of the Cape Cod area.

The firm has also accepted some commercial projects, including a pottery studio, a synagogue, a town hall and a 22-acre retreat center renovation. Nevertheless, Hutker insists on retaining a residential focus. Habitats have a special lure.

"Building dwellings is so optimistic," Hutker says earnestly. "It's a joy. One of the most rewarding things you can do is design someone's personal living environment."

Even if you must resort to asking a few intimate questions.


Hutker Architects Web site