Cabin on the range

How a tiny backyard studio lives large with rustic materials and simple, well-crafted design
Jennifer Matlack

Sweeping grasslands, browned by the summer sun, lead to the foothills of the Absaroka Range in Montana's aptly named Paradise Valley. When photographer Audrey Hall ― who specializes in shooting art, culture, and travel images ― decided she needed wide-open space to live and work, she chose this breathtaking setting in which to build her home and, most important, a separate photo studio.

After working for 10 years out of a spare bedroom in a historic Victorian in downtown Livingston, Hall finally decided it was time to draw some boundaries. "Work constantly encroached on my living space," she says. (By then, the darkroom had taken over a second bedroom, with film finding its way into the kitchen.) Hall also felt ready to ditch her in-town digs entirely and move to the country. "I wanted to experience life in a more remote area," she says.

Paradise Valley had lured Hall for years ― she made the 12-mile trip there almost daily to hike, run trails, and think. She began searching for land in the area, turning up a 1-acre parcel in a small development. The spectacular views couldn't be beat, and an easement guaranteed that the abutting prairie could only be used for agricultural purposes such as grazing animals. "It's close enough to town to duck in for a latte, but I wake to coyotes and deer rambling through my yard and an environment that gets my creative juices flowing," Hall says. She immediately got started on the yearlong simultaneous construction of a 2,000-square-foot house, a 400-square-foot garage, and this 750-square-foot studio (in which she lived for six months until the house was complete).

The studio makes a good visual companion to the bucolic panorama. "I wanted it to feel agrarian on the landscape but also to have a modern edge," Hall says. That was one of two directives she gave to designers/builders Lori Ryker and Brett W. Nave. The other was to create optimum storage space for her digital equipment and archive of negatives and slides. "I believe in allowing people to do what they do best and to meddle as little as possible, so I tried to provide very broad parameters," Hall says.

 

Ryker and Nave chose a stark oblong shape for the layout, then opted for simple materials so the studio would blend (but not entirely disappear) into the vast surroundings. Cedar siding echoes the golden hues of the prairie grass. A corrugated-metal roof, evocative of agricultural sheds, slopes south, and a metal overhang protects a small flagstone porch where Hall often takes breaks. She likens the space to a beautiful box. "Its simplistic design is what makes it so appealing to me," she says.

The placement of windows appears somewhat arbitrary from the outside, but once indoors the plan is clear. Smaller windows staggered around the top of the structure fill the studio with soft, indirect light; as the sun moves across the sky, ever-changing patterns of daylight dance across the interior walls. "Lori arranged them like musical notes on a staff," Hall says. Larger expanses of glass on the east side of the building, near Hall's main workstation, avert glaring midday rays and offer a wide aperture to the wild outdoors.

Hanging shelves, built-in file drawers, and cabinets keep books, personal effects, and film in order, while a spacious closet nestled under the stairs houses large photography equipment. The bookshelves and cabinet fronts are made from wood salvaged from a friend's garage teardown. Sustainable wheatboard is used for cabinet interiors.

When not being used for work, the studio can serve as a guesthouse for visitors, thanks to a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a sleeping loft framed with a rustic railing of driftwood collected from the Yellowstone River. The radiant-heated floor warms up the space when temperatures plummet.

During her six-month residence in the structure, while she was awaiting completion of the main house (which she calls a "grown-up version of the studio"), Hall admits she was eager for her home to be finished. "Living in the studio was comfortable ― it's so warm and inviting," she says. "But the scenery around it is so compelling, I couldn't wait to get back to work."

 

HOW TO CREATE THE NEW RUSTIC LOOK

Simple materials and a few design tweaks give the interior of this backyard studio a unique sensibility that homeowner Audrey Hall describes as "barn meets New York City loft." Here are four ways to make the mix work.

Use organic materials with texture
Knotty timber on the stairs and ceiling contributes a rough-hewn look that lends warmth to the open space.

Keep colors light
White walls reflect natural light and convey a clean, contemporary feel.

Add a sleek element
The polished two-tone concrete floor in "cola" brown and black provides a shiny yet earthy surface.

Display meaningful photos
The space is infused with personality through groupings of Hall's images.

Design: Lori Ryker and Brett W. Nave, Ryker/Nave Design, Livingston, MT (406/222-7488).

Resources: Outdoor light fixture from Hi-Lite Mfg. Co. (item H-15108-B-77; 800/465-0211). Orbit chair from Pier 1 Imports ($89 each; 800/245-4595). Light fixture over windows from from Hi-Lite Mfg. Co. (item H-15106-B-96; 800/465-0211).