Story by Sky Barnhart | Photography by Tony Novak-Clifford
This luxury renovation reveals distinction in the details.
From the outside, it may look like an ordinary North Shore condominium set alongside a quiet cove. But step through the front door, and you enter an exquisite jewel box of handcrafted woodwork that could be 100 years old.
It’s the product of a Maui team—two architects, a general contractor, an interior designer, and some of the island’s most talented woodworkers and artisans—assembled on behalf of a visionary client with an unusual request: “Give us your most over-the-top detail, and then add more.”
Over a period of three years, that request took elaborate form, leaving no corner of this 2,030-square-foot home unembellished. From intricate stairs that seem to defy the laws of physics, to glossy wood floors soft as butter under bare feet, every detail was painstakingly fashioned by local craftsmen.
Why go to such great lengths to transform such a small space?
“The owners love wood,” says architect John Cassel. “They love detail, they love craftsmanship, they love Maui, and they love the incredible local talent. Instead of going big, they chose quality over quantity.”
The owners, whose primary residence is a Craftsman-style home in Canada, bought the condo almost a decade ago, planning to renovate its boxy, seventies-style interior. As avid windsurfers and the parents of three small children, they loved the oceanfront location, with its safe and secluded beach.
But it wasn’t until they walked into the Johnston Cassel Design Studio in Pa‘ia that their vision began to take shape.
“They walked in with their feet all sandy from windsurfing,” Cassel recalls. “They said, ‘We want to do a simple renovation; we’d like to hear your ideas on that.’”
Cassel, an award-winning former set designer for film and theater, and Dean Johnston, one of the top woodworkers on the island, had the perfect combination of skills for the job—especially as it morphed from a “simple renovation” into a work of art.
The owners’ fondness for the Craftsman style, with its focus on handmade elements and a natural feel, formed the basis for the architectural design. Cassel created a fusion of Craftsman and Asian detailing, drawing on Japanese temple architecture to shape the home’s signature joinery. Each timber joint contains two larger and three smaller pieces, reflecting the family unit itself.
Other elements, such as the reed ceilings in the bedrooms, reflect Hawaiian materials; while features such as the gently curved hardwood columns and hand-carved door panels simply celebrate local craftsmanship.
There is wood everywhere you look: walls, ceilings, floors, cabinets, furniture, nooks and crannies. The floors are red-gold Tarara Amarillo, and the doors, staircase, ceiling beams and trim are Santos Mahogany—all sustainably harvested. The wall and ceiling paneling was hand-picked for each room from fallen koa logs from Hawai‘i Island.
Led by master woodworker Ethan Fierro, a team of half-a-dozen Maui artisans fashioned the woodwork, and then distressed it for an antique effect. They rubbed glossy granite countertops to a matte finish, put up lazy overhead ceiling fans with broad palm-leaf designs in place of air conditioning, and installed soft, glowing lighting rather than harsh fluorescents. Per the owners’ instructions, the design featured “nothing shiny, or white, or with sharp edges.”
Interior designer Gail Simmons steered clear of the pastels found in many beach houses. “I used rich, earthy tones,” she says, “more jewel tones, more deep reds, oranges and rust-pinks, contrasted with ocean hues. The warm colors go so well with wood.”
With that much woodworking detail, anything less than the perfect team to put it together could’ve been a recipe for disaster. Instead, the artisans assembled by Cassel were “the dream team,” Simmons says. She and Cassel give a lot of credit to general contractor Bill Keele for keeping the project on track.
The original scope of the job was four or five months, Keele recalls. “Six months later, the project was becoming more complex, and it seemed we were further away from completion than when we began.”
As the design became more elaborate, the biggest challenge—and also the biggest opportunity—was the owners’ quest for more detail. “Whenever a decision rose to the surface, the answer was always, ‘Choose the path requiring more craftsmanship,’” Keele says. “In design and installation, people would come to me excited because they’d figured out a way to simplify something, when in fact, the goal was the opposite. We were not looking for complexity, but rather integration.”
Like a giant puzzle, the design was built on intricate layers, each of which fit into the next.
Keele recalls the finished beam wraps arriving at the jobsite after being “designed, planed, sanded, selected, joined, splined, routed, rubbed, oiled, sprayed, wrapped and delivered.”
“One of the finish carpenters asked me, ‘Are there any extras?’” Keele says. “Each piece was a one-of-a-kind being handled by a master craftsman, and no, there were no extras!”
Despite the challenges of such detailed work, the team kept the project moving forward, bolstered by Johnston and Cassel’s design savvy, Fierro’s artistic abilities, Simmons’s can-do attitude, and Keele’s calm and steady hand at the tiller.
The owners were involved with every decision, even from a distance. “I would hand-draw a detail full-scale, then scan it and send it to them, usually doing three versions,” Cassel says. “Once we landed on a detail they liked, the woodworker would do a maquette [scale model], and if [the owners] were in Hawai‘i, bring the piece to the unit so they could see it in the light there.”
Those details that weren’t hand-carved were specially imported. The drawer-pulls in the kitchen are custom Tansu hardware made by a jeweler in Israel. In the powder room, a carved wooden crocodile bench from Bali allows the children to reach the sink. The master bedroom and the boy’s room have eighteen-inch-high drapery valances handcrafted in China, inspired by old Japanese carvings.
The girls’ room is magical, featuring twin beds by Fierro, each so high a royal princess would need a step to climb up onto the thick, block-printed Indian bedspread. Adorned with round, hand-carved bedposts, the beds angle toward each other, inviting late-night storytelling long after the dark-pink, floor-length Indian drapes are pulled shut.
And then, there’s the staircase. Easily the centerpiece of the whole project, the smooth mahogany stairs are assembled in interconnected layers like a Chinese puzzle. “If you’re a woodworker and you look at those stairs, you think there’s no way they can hold up,” Cassel says. How it works is a closely guarded secret, borne out of Cassel’s film-set talent for building the impossible.
He designed the stairs with many uses in mind, “not just a way of moving up and down.” There’s a ledge where the children can perform for their parents sitting in the living room. From the landing, they can look out at the ocean. The house is full of little surprises like that.
The exquisite renovation won a 2008 Building Industry Association Hawai‘i Grand Award for Residential Remodeling.
It’s a victory of craftsmanship in a small space, where “you can’t add an element without tightening something else,” Cassel says. “It’s like designing a jewel box.”