Architect John Dwyer’s Award-Winning Modern Home

AIA Minnesota Honor Award, St. Paul, Nordic Light

Above: John Dwyer won a 2015 AIA-Minnesota Honor Award for this sleek, modern house in St. Paul.

Architect John Dwyer, whose modern homes (as well as his sleekly designed chairs and tables) have been widely published and recognized, entered a residential project for the first time in the competition for the AIA-Minnesota 2015 Honor Awards. The 1,750-square-foot, two-story house, which he calls “Nordic Light,” won. The project was a race to the finish, from inception to submission. Designed nearly overnight for a tiny infill lot in St. Paul during a heated bidding war, the house was completed minutes before the AIA Homes by Architects Tour (“We had a blow dryer taped to the wall to dry the paint before the tour started,” says Dwyer.), photographed the next day, and submitted to the awards two days later. Dwyer is principal of the Minneapolis firm Dwyer Oglesbay, or D/O, and head of the bachelor of architecture program at the Dunwoody College of Technology. He received his first AIA Honor Award, he believes, because of “very trusting clients” and by deploying his unique definition of modern thinking.

John DwyerLeft: Architect John Dwyer

What did your clients trust you with?

First, the lot was split off from another one and was virtually unbuildable. My clients had a short period of time to get a buildable house plan together because the lot was going to sell fast: St. Anthony Park is hot because it’s such a great neighborhood. So they trusted us with getting a buildable plan pulled together. Second, I wanted the main level to be extremely restrained—everything except the floor and ceiling are white, right down to the hardware. I wanted to do this Scandinavian light trick, where we warm incoming winter light with a wood floor and ceiling, and elsewhere the light bounces around. Also, a lot of improvisations happen during construction, but the clients were calm and let me do my thing. Whenever somebody trusts me, it brings out my best. I think I did exceptional work for them because of their trust.

Where did you learn the Scandinavian light trick?

From Henry Plummer’s book Nordic Light: Modern Scandinavian Architecture. He’s Professor Emeritus of Architectural Theory and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His book is about the significance of light in northern cultures, how it’s essential to survival, and why the ways in which buildings are designed to capture light is incredibly important. My clients were interested in Scandinavian modern. I wanted to figure out what that meant. So early on, I gave them a materials palette with white oak ceiling and floor, and white walls. They got excited about doing it, right down to the white fixtures.

Nordic Light house, John Dwyer, AIA Minnesota Honor Award

How do you inspire such trust?

That would be a good [subject for a] class! I try to always be objective. I never try to convince anyone to do anything or talk them into something. I guess maybe that comes across as trustworthy. But these clients also were familiar with my work. They’d read about one of my published houses, and toured a couple of houses I’d done and met those clients.

Define modern residential architecture.

I think any building that’s designed with thoughtfulness will be modern. That doesn’t mean it will be glass and steel with a flat roof. For me, modern thinking is being really thoughtful about a lot of different factors and variables, from technology to social and economic changes to materials. To quote Steve Jobs, as architects we “play the orchestra.” We’ve got to know all the instruments. And the orchestra has gotten a lot bigger in last century. So the level of thoughtfulness we have makes a home modern in today’s world.—camille lefevre

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By Camille LeFevre
Photos: Exterior and head shot by John Dwyer. Interior by Chad Holder.

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