A Silhouette in the Sky

Spacious yet secluded, this Wisconsin farmhouse by TEA2 Architects both inspires and delights

Photos by Corey Gaffer & David Benrud

Featuring wildflowers, acres of restored prairie, and breathtaking views of the surrounding treescape, this Pepin, Wisconsin, property is made perfect with a modern yet agrarian home by Minneapolis-based TEA2 Architects.

Twenty years ago, David Benrud and Greg Foster built themselves a modern cottage in Minneapolis’ bustling Linden Hills neighborhood. Although rich in architectural details and teeming with beauty, this metro-locked abode was missing one meaningful piece of their lifelong dream: the functionality for farming, crafting, building furniture, boating, and nurturing their shared passion for the outdoors and nature. They didn’t crave an escape or weekend getaway, per se—their sights were set on a second home.

This desire was deeply rooted in their identities as makers and “project people.” Benrud, a photo stylist for Pottery Barn, has an affinity for leather and crafts, while Foster, a financial advisor, is a furniture maker, beekeeper, and baker (who is known to make a mean English muffin).

In the kitchen, Carrara marble, polished concrete floors, and sleek trim create a minimal, modern aesthetic that complements the open shelving, iron work, and high-end appliances.

To find a permanent sense of place that better mirrored what “home” looked like in their hearts, the pair perused properties for two years—hoping to stumble upon a listing that offered a mix of wooded areas, open spaces, and dramatic landscaping. It was 2008 when they finally found it perched on a tall bluff one mile from the Lake Pepin marina in Pepin, Wisconsin. An eager Benrud and Foster placed a competitive bid on the plot but, disappointingly, lost to a developer with plans to split the land into 40 lots—that is, until the financing fell through.

The news blew in a second wind of hope, and the two purchased the property a year later. Soon after, they called Dan Nepp, principal at TEA2 Architects, who knew their design styles inside and out. After all, he was the one who designed their Linden Hills home two decades prior.

“When we approached TEA2 about the second project, we knew we wanted a different experience from the other house—one more minimal and modern,” Benrud says. “It was important to us that the house was not a ‘cold’ modern, but filled with natural materials. Having restraint with details and embellishments was also important to us, and we had to remind ourselves to be OK with clean and simple.”

Although it required six long years, spent combining their own design-build sensibilities with those of the Minneapolis firm, the finished product reflects their wishes: iconic, calm, and married with the site, boasting brilliant architecture that complements the topography of the area. “We had a lot of conversations and sketches about what this house could truly mean—in itself and on the hill, with its imagery and configuration,” says TEA2 senior project manager Matthew Erickson.

Every inch of the home speaks for itself—even in the way it gradually reveals itself to approaching visitors. “As you’re coming up the driveway, you only get a glance of it through the trees,” Nepp explains. “We intentionally held off on showing the landscape so you can see framed views in person versus through your car windows.
We wanted to reveal this slowly and whet the appetite.”

Atop the three-quarter-mile driveway, a collection of Cotswold-inspired, agrarian-type structures comes directly into view. Strategically positioned on the bluff, the home (with the exception of a spacious guest wing) consists of three main forms: one flat “connecting” structure and two larger spaces with unique, chopped-off A-line roofs. The rooflines were designed to not only create architectural conversation between the forms, Nepp and Erickson explain, but also give a subtle historical nod to their English origins.

This country-modern home is comprised of three distinct forms, where chopped a-line roofs, trellises, and over-grouted limestone columns add character to the exterior.

More than 30 acres of restored prairie, dotted with wildflowers and 120 apple trees, soften the clean, modern shapes of the façade. The exterior becomes an experience when slivers of sunlight dance through thoughtfully placed windows, and overhanging trellises cast mysterious shadows from the south. Over-grouted limestone columns add character and a rustic, aged thickness visible from within the home.

In the farthest west form, a functional living room features a wall-to-wall Kasota stone fireplace, open shelving, and expansive windows that showcase panoramic views of the land. “There’s wonderful layering we wanted to make sure we took advantage of,” Nepp says of the south-facing window. “We kept it low to see the landscape up close, including the treescape in the foreground and long views in the distance.” Meanwhile, the center form comprises three other distinct yet connected rooms, which become increasingly personal—from the kitchen and workroom to the serene, private master bath. The third space, which houses the owners’ master bedroom, caps the opposite end of the structure.

The home’s simple authenticity is showcased through its neutral color palette, select furnishings, and intentional design in the living room—where a wall-to-wall Kasota stone fireplace is a striking focal point.

Because Benrud wanted the architecture to also serve as décor, finding finishes that aligned with their shared vision was crucial. For instance, a charcoal-dyed polished concrete floor and black honed-granite tub draw attention in the master bath, while white oak flooring, cabinetry, and built-ins add warmth and simplicity to the kitchen. The counters are topped with a modest Carrara marble that stonewalls any glitz or glam. “The countertops have a little bit of sheen, but the concrete, wood floors, and walls are all flat,” Nepp says. “It calms down the house and allows you to feel its authenticity.”

In the master bath, sunlight pours through large windows. The impressive sight lines give a nod to TEA2’s thoughtful architectural approach.

To complete the simple yet statement-making aesthetic, the team opted for a “barely there” minimalist trim, neutral color palette, and do-it-yourself plaster textured walls—a mighty undertaking embraced by both homeowners. “It took months of mixing, spreading, burnishing, and cleaning tools,” Benrud recalls of the technique. “It was not an easy process, but we love the interest it brings.”

Ultimately, much of the home’s beauty lies in its artisan-made details. Hanging metal shelves and iron door and closet handles were fashioned by Curly’s Welding in Red Wing. The living room’s fireplace stone was quarried by Biesanz Stone in Winona. And the wood furniture—milled, dried, and stored onsite—was crafted by Foster himself. “When we had the driveway built, we had a portable sawmill come to the property,” he says. “We milled a bunch of trees that were taken out. David and I dried it for three years, and that’s what we used to make the furniture, including the white oak hot tub surround and the workroom and kitchen tables.”

In the center form, the workroom features a wood table handcrafted by the homeowner. Photo by David Benrud.

After several years of patience and hands-on work, Benrud and Foster now live on the secluded Pepin property full-time with their goldendoodle, River, and Portuguese water dog, Franke. And, although it’s bittersweet, they’re finally ready to list their Linden Hills home.

“Over the years, my favorite houses have come out of TEA2’s firm,” Benrud reflects. “They are amazing designers and will leave behind a significant collection of houses.” (Whether he knows it or not, their very own country-modern escape in the sky will certainly play a role in that legacy.)

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