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Contemporary Treehouse

An Old Metairie couple blends classic and new designs for a unique living space.

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When local attorney Ned Kohnke decided to build the contemporary house in Old Metairie that he now shares with his wife Seanie Haik Kohnke and their lovable dog, Ian, a pleasant memory from one of New Orleans' best-known restaurants provided an important element of his inspiration. A decade and a half earlier, while enjoying a Sunday brunch in the Garden Room at Commander's Palace, Ned savored the view of an oak tree outside and never forgot the experience of being eye-level with a leafy panorama. "I felt as though as I was in a tree house," he recalls.

In 1998, after raising three sons and living Uptown in traditional houses for most of his life, Ned, then a bachelor, became interested in a more contemporary type of house. He initially set his sites on renovating a penthouse in the Warehouse District. But when he happened upon a lot in Metairie Club Gardens, he decided on the peace and quiet of a residential street instead.

"I found this odd-shaped lot and it fit my notion of an odd-shaped house," he says. Enlisting the help of his sister, designer Kathy Marrero, with whom he's worked on three houses, as well as contractor and long-time collaborator George Abry and architect Michael Bell, Ned began articulating a combination penthouse-tree house, which he now describes as "Neo-Tuscan."

"Tuscan houses are usually flat on the front and upside-down with a winery on the bottom and living quarters on top," says Marrero. "Since the lot was wedge-shaped and ran alongside a railroad track, we decided the thing to do was to put the master suite on the ground floor and the living quarters on the top where you have a view and terraces," she adds.

On the facade, rectangular mullioned windows and commercial-grade, double-sided concrete blocks made to look like quarried stone reference classical architecture, while stainless-steel doors across the entrance and garage add a cutting-edge modernity. The concrete and steel, along with double-insulated windows, wooden floors and the master bedroom's linen-covered walls padded with batting, also make the house a veritable fortress against the sound and motion of frequently passing trains.

Throughout the interior, smooth, streamlined surfaces, free-flowing angles and curves and a minimalist mix of contemporary furnishings give the house an open, yet surprisingly cozy atmosphere. "The idea was not to create the traditional spaces that are perfectly square or rectangle, but to let the house move more naturally into the shape that the lot, the views and the usage would dictate," says Ned. Abry executed the dramatic semi-circular staircase that follows the curve of the foyer's concave wall. At the top of the stairs, Marrero conceptualized the row of windows to provide views of trains silently gliding by.

In the central upstairs living area -- comprised of the kitchen, living and dining rooms -- Ned wanted a clean look, a monochromatic palette blending dark and warm tones and rooms that open onto one another. Glossy granite counter tops, ebonized floors and black leather furnishings pose a striking contrast to the kitchen's seamless walls of light-grained fir.

"I insisted on the stove with the counter so people could sit while you're cooking and chat," says Ned, who loves to cook. "Formal dining rooms don't get used today. People tend to congregate in the kitchen."

Above the living room, black metal beams extend from a cathedral ceiling sheathed in corrugated tin, recreating the look of an industrial space adapted to residential loft living. A terrace off the kitchen that receives morning sun is used for evening activities like barbecuing, while another off the dining room serves as a shaded morning spot. Inset into the rear wall of windows in the living room is a fireplace bordered with stainless steel.

Downstairs, "upholstered" walls and a view of the fenced yard lend a cocoon-like privacy to the master bedroom suite, where the couple spends the majority of their time. The adjoining master bath is outfitted with a large multiple-head shower, a bathtub that overlooks a private backyard, sleek wooden counters and a large, striped ottoman in the center of the room. Argentinean tiles found by Marrero are mixed with more light-grained wood to continue the use of dark and warm tones found upstairs.

Color was introduced into the house's otherwise neutral palette through the use of art. As fate would have it, the process, which posed the biggest challenge for Ned, also proved the best surprise.

"This house was a departure," says Ned, who married Seanie, an artist, less than a year ago. "I had never collected contemporary art. Meeting Seanie and finding and using her talent was the solution."

In addition to painting an impressive collection of canvases specifically for the house, Seanie softened some of its more masculine edges with subtle touches such as pillows and an occasional antique like the French buffet in the foyer. "It's so different from what I grew up with, but it's such a refreshing house," says Seanie. " Now that I've lived in one, I'm not sure I'd ever want to live in anything but a contemporary house. It's so low maintenance."

When building the house, Ned purposely opted for low-maintenance materials such as the concrete blocks that don't require painting, and is pleased with the outcome. "Visually, it's everything I wanted," he says. "It's unique but not outlandish, and when you're in the house, you have a sense of being cut off from the world outside. It's like being in the country." Unless it's raining. Then, as the raindrops hit the copper roof, Ned says, "It's like being in a tree house."

Caption: Argentinean tile and wood were combined in the large master bath off the bedroom. A roomy ottoman provides seating in the center of the room and two paintings by local artist Audra Kohout hang on the wall near the tub.

Caption: Granite counter tops, ebonized floors, black leather and chrome are mixed with warm wooden walls and cabinetry in the spacious kitchen.

Caption: Seanie, Ned and Ian lounge in the den, where a rustic wooden coffee table and an antler chair are mixed with sleek contemporary pieces and a cheetah carpet.

'There's an intentional mixing of old and new,' says Ned. 'I like country pieces as opposed to more finished pieces mixed with very contemporary things as well.'

Caption: The mix of materials used in the entrance -- wood, concrete and metal -- is found throughout the house. Contractor George Abry designed and built the upward-soaring curved staircase. Above the oak sawhorse table from Nantucket, one of Ned's favorite vacation spots, hangs an Ed Whiteman painting. On the wall below the stairs is a Robert Gordy monotype.

Caption: Above an antique French buffet in the foyer hangs a bold red abstract painted by Seanie Haik Kohnke. 'I thought bold would be great in the house,' she says. 'It kind of yells for art.'

Caption: Ned chose black furnishings in the living and dining areas for their comfort and durability. He discovered the office-cum-dining chairs while taking a deposition. Both the organic-shaped coffee table and the round dining table made of ebonized wood inset with stainless steel strips were designed by Ned's sister, Kathy Marrero, and made by George Abry. A painting by Seanie and a hand-colored mythology print by Walter Anderson hang near the dining table.

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