Hutker Architects’ “Heirlooms to Live in”

“Heirlooms To Live In: Homes in a New Regional Vernacular,” by Hutker Architects. Oscar Riera Ojeda, Philadelphia. Hardcover/packaged. 523 pp. $75. Available at Island bookstores.

Books that celebrate 25 years of a company’s history tend to be paeans of self-praise. This one isn’t. This is a good book. It’s about what the people who make up this company believe in, rather than a recounting of what they’ve accomplished. We seldom encounter successful people with restrained egos, but reading “Heirlooms To Live In” made me want to meet its authors.

“Heirlooms” is a real life story referencing the importance of integrity generally. It talks about New England values and culture visualized in the work that a company, Hutker Architects, based in Vineyard Haven, does. In this case, the design of buildings in which people live and work. A well-done metaphor, in a sense.

“God-winks” seem to be at work in this assignment. I didn’t know the company, had not seen the book, didn’t think I was headed for a good time. My editor assigned the review late one afternoon just before I went to a friend’s home for the first time. Upon entering her home, I was struck by its sense of character and serenity. Suitably sized, not ostentatious, painstaking attention to detail. A home that suited her character.

On her living room coffee table in this house, based, I learned later, on the Hutker family of design, was a copy of “Heirlooms.” Hmm. After a quick scan, I remembered, yet again, that prejudging is a fool’s errand.

The physical architecture of the book is eerily similar to the character of the structures that Hutker Architects builds. For example, margins are precise, artwork is centered, page copy is presented in the column width that best accommodates retention of the material. By design, the book is less dependent on words and heavier on several hundred pages of color photos of 25 of the 200 Hutker-designed homes. Every Island town is represented.

“Heirlooms To Live In” is beautifully constructed and simply presented. Works of this sort tend to be tendentious and self-serving. Not so here, I found. The table of contents page, for example, outlines its four chapters with these titles: Build once, well; Outside; Inside; Toward a new regional vernacular. Hundreds of color photos of the insides and outsides of Hutker designs along with a floor plan for each, illustrate the thesis.

The editors, Leo A.W. Wiegman and Oscar Riera Ojeda, were thoughtful enough to begin and end the book with 26 pages of Island photographer Alison Shaw’s classic black and white photographs. That fillip intends to describe the Island environment and culture in which architects work. Like my friend’s house, the book is designed and constructed with attention to detail. Its finish work is appealing, tight, and plumb.

Hutker Associates is located on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, in The Tisbury Marketplace shopping complex. Its founder is Mark A. Hutker. Philip J. Regan and Charles e. (sic) Orr are the principals. The design group includes nearly three-dozen people and the company has offices in Falmouth and on Nantucket, thanks to a recent association with high-profile architect Lyman Perry.

Hutker is a high-end firm, no question. But, Mr. Hutker is careful to point out that the company is not a McMansion architectural firm. In fact, in the Forward, architectural fellow travelers Marlon Blackwell and David Buege lament “the soulless, poorly built mega-mansions of recent vintage.” In comparison, they say, Hutker’s work is “rock solid and durable.”

Make no mistake, Hutker has designed some big ones and they are included in the book alongside average and modestly sized dwellings. The point seems to be that size doesn’t matter; it’s all about suitability for living.

In fact, you’ll read the musings of Thoreau, Emerson, Matisse, and Oliver Wendell Holmes on living suitably and you’ll read homespun comments from house painters, and you’ll learn that down-to-earth people such as Island artist Doug Kent have informed Hutker’s work.

Mr. Hutker explains his design viewpoint in chapter four, Toward a new regional vernacular. He briefly describes the centuries-long development of a distinctly regional, utilitarian approach to building homes in New England. His takeaway is that homes should be built to last for use by more than one generation. He borrows the Wampanoag dictum that “We don’t inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

He advises that home design should “learn the local dialect. Fit into the landscape first by not standing out. Smaller volumes of higher quality will stand the test of time. Let the bones of the house reveal themselves.”

To call this a coffee-table book does it a disservice. There is as much information about how to design your dream life as there is about designing your dream house.