Let the Light In

Maine meets Bavaria in a footwear designer’s sleek and stylish Cape Neddick cabin

If you spend a lot of time driving around Maine, you’ll likely begin to notice the odd barns, the ones with big square windows that have no reason to exist in a building for livestock. Cows and goats don’t need a view of the sky when they’re flopping in the hay to rest for the night, and they don’t benefit greatly from having blue northern light pouring into their stalls. But painters do. Artists, explains designer Coleman Horn, need wide-open spaces and plenty of sunlight.

Horn lives in a contemporary cabin in Cape Neddick that he designed himself. It is set back 100 meters from the road, surrounded by rusty-leaved oak trees and formidable granite boulders. The design was inspired in part by an artists’ space where his grandparents and father used to hang out in the 1950s and 1960s, back when Ogunquit was a “little fishing town with some weird artists hanging around,” he says. The space was called the Ice House, and it was a big barn with a huge central square window, “just like this,” he says as he points upward to the window above my head. “Back then, they didn’t have great artificial light, so the studios had huge windows. You see them around Maine, and they look like they shouldn’t be there,” he says. “But they were built for a specific purpose. They let the light in.”

Horn lives in this two-story home with its 35-foot cathedral ceilings with his wife, Ming Shan, whom he met while working as a designer in China. (Shan is originally from Taiwan, but her father moved the family to China when she was a teenager.) Horn is a designer with a long history of working with major footwear brands, a job that has moved him around the globe and necessitates frequent trips abroad. In 2015 he bought the property in Maine so that he could establish a home base near his parents. While he “wasn’t opposed” to buying a house, after looking around for a while he decided that it might be worthwhile to design and build his own place. “Houses tend to be so utilitarian,” he says. “And that’s not a bad thing. But many of the houses around here are made for people who want five kids and a dining room. I don’t want a bunch of small bedrooms.”

However, Horn also didn’t want to veer too far from the beaten path when it came to aesthetics. “For a long time, I focused on documenting houses that I liked. I was taking photos, traveling a lot,” he recalls. Along with his brother, Whitfield Horn, a furniture builder from the Carrabassett Valley region, Horn spends part of every winter skiing in Austria and Bavaria. “On a DNA level, the aesthetics there resonated with us,” he says. “That vibe—the alpine cabins, the historic sense—it all seeps into you.” He feels similarly tied to Maine. “If you live in Maine, you have to have some respect for tradition. I didn’t want to build something that would fight the environment.”

With gray-stained vertical wood siding and a pitched roof, his home “sticks out a little,” Horn admits, “but not too much.” From the outside, it’s not overly radical. There are multiple balconies and an iron staircase that winds up the exterior, and there are some interestingly placed windows, but the soft colors of the wood and concrete echo the natural shades of the Maine woods. Once you come inside, through the first-floor workshop-garage and into the main living area (located on the second floor), you immediately register Horn’s vision. He took the post-and-beam tradition of Maine building and tweaked it by adding surprise architectural elements, such as a catwalk made of bulletproof Plexiglas that hangs from the third-floor loft over the voluminous living area. (Eventually Horn plans to use it as a reading area.) On the walls, the reclaimed barn boards draw the eye ever upward, until your gaze meets the windows, then the peaked ceiling. Everything, from the floating stairs to the leather couches, has texture and grain. It is not a busy house—Horn seems allergic to mouldings and trim, which he calls “visual garbage”—but it is an interesting one.

Aside from the improbable catwalk, the most striking element of Horn’s house is all the dark wood. “Because the barn boards are so rich and textural,” Horn explains, “we decided not to put a lot of stuff on the walls. We didn’t want to compete with it.” The custom cabinetry doesn’t compete with the walls, per se, but it does provide a fascinating study in contrasts. Wood can be rough and rustic, weathered and aged, like the barn board, but it can also be sleek and fine grained, smooth and glowing. Built by Whit, the cabinets are a striking rosewood tone that complements the dark slate counters, which are made from recycled chalkboards.“Whit knows a guy up near Sugarloaf who works as a wood broker,” Horn reveals.

“This Bubinga wood came from a small island off the coast of India. You can’t really buy it anymore, but he had a few boards, so we took all of it.” From a different local source, DMG Hardwoods in York, Horn purchased slabwood that was reclaimed from the bottom of a reservoir in Columbia. The brothers used two levels and bronze rods to create a low table, which sits by the stairs. “I’m lucky,” he says. “Working with my brother is like having my own personal 3-D printer. I can give him a drawing, and he makes it perfectly.”

Shan’s influence is also visible in their cabin, in clusters of plants that sit by every available windowsill and line the floor by the door to the main balcony. She has a degree in biotech, and she’s an avid gardener. The bursts of green add a jolt of life and softness into the chestnut-colored house. I spy an overflowing terra-cotta pot filled with string of pearls, and little jade plants and echeveria stretching upward toward the filtered light. “I collect the leaves that fall off plants,” Shan says. “When I go to Home Depot, and I see a plant that has been broken, I pick it up. That’s a life; it can be another plant.” Her green thumb is also apparent outside, where she’s begun to experiment with planting in raised beds, although that has been a bit of a struggle, given their limited sun exposure. “We wanted to take down as few trees as possible,” Horn says. “People kept saying, ‘Dude you’re crazy! They could fall on the house,’ but I wanted a cabin in the woods.”

And that’s exactly what he created, complete with antlers on the wall and a balcony that seems to be made for sipping coffee and contemplating the trees. There are touches of luxury, such as the steam room located off the owners’ suite and the minimalist Scandinavian woodstove. There are also places that still feel in-progress, Horn says.

“It’s something that will never be complete,” he adds. “But it is warm. And it is home, to us. We’ve never had a home before. Now, we almost never want to leave.”