The House Whisperer
2020 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Jon Bernhard
Architect Jon Bernhard weaves stone and metal into spectacular structures that speak to place and persona.
By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Dino Tonn and Portrait Photography by Jesse Rieser
In Sedona, a custom residence seemingly rises out of the red rocks, its curving glass walls strategically placed to capture views of Coffee Pot Rock and other spectacular landmarks. The house—two half circle wings joined by a rectangular entryway and gallery—includes swooping roof overhangs, canted just so to shade windows and balconies during the summer while allowing winter sun to flood the interior.
Elegant stonework and cabinetry enrich the interior, but the foyer’s glass staircase, suspended by steel rods, is the home’s pièce de résistance—an engineering feat that seemingly makes the crystalline treads appear as though they are floating up past a wall of windows.
The dramatic dwelling is the work of architect Jon Bernhard. It’s one of the latest residential projects he has designed and shepherded into existence in his 34 years at Scottsdale’s Swaback Architects + Planners, where he is now the senior partner. Bernhard’s work, while modern and organic, is never cookie-cutter but instead always responds to site and client.
If there is a thread that runs through his home designs, it’s his meticulous attention to detail and love of bold materials, such as stone and metals. “Jon is a servant to the art of architecture,” says Vern Swaback, founder of the firm and a 2013 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. “He partners with his clients without pushing his own agenda. When you look at his body of work, each house is very different.”
Given the brilliance of his work, you would think Bernhard was born an architect. Hardly, he admits with a laugh. Instead, the profession found him. “I was always the fun guy at the back of the class cracking jokes,” recalls the native of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. “I took a drafting class in high school and wasn’t paying attention to the fact that I had somehow entered a contest where a compass set was the prize. I couldn’t figure out why the teacher was giving me the compass—I didn’t realize I had won the competition.” Acing that class prompted him to take more drafting courses and to consider studying architecture in college. But at North Dakota State University, Bernhard confesses, he was not initially a stellar student. “Let’s just say I had a lot of fun in college. One of my professors suggested I consider a less taxing career.”
But Bernhard proved his instructor wrong, buckling down to finish his degree then moving to Arizona in 1985, where he worked for a small architectural firm before joining Swaback in 1986. There, Bernhard initially tackled everything from commercial projects to retail. He found his métier in residential work, frequently coming in on weekends to tinker with site plans, cabinetry designs or other details.
Over the years, his projects have taken him around the world, designing homes for A-listers, celebrities and the well-heeled in such swanky locales as Aspen, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; New York City; Mexico; and Saudi Arabia, where he learned to be sensitive to culture as it translates to floor plans. “There are rooms for men only, and places for women and children,” he reports. “That’s how you build there.”
If a client has a hillside property or land with restrictions, Bernhard finds himself even more excited. “Give me a challenging site, and I’ll eat that up,” he says. “I’ll try to wring everything out of it.” Inspirations? Everything from classical architecture and articles in trade publications to Marvel movies. “I was watching one of those films on a flight,” he explains, “and it had a great house in it that gave me some ideas.”
Bernhard’s enthusiasm has resulted in numerous design awards and a spate of devoted repeat clients. “I’ve done a house for a couple, then a house for when they had kids, then their retirement house. I’ve gone on rafting trips with clients,” he explains. “That’s why I like residential work—you work with one or two people who you get to know well. You can’t do that with, say, a church building committee.”
The Sedona house is one such example—it was envisioned for a repeat client for whom Bernhard had previously designed a Paradise Valley abode. The two-level steel and masonry home, set on a juniper-dotted site, is meant to be a retreat for the owner’s family and friends, with two guest suites on the first level and the kitchen, great room and master suite above.
The architect’s attention to detail is visible throughout the property. On the driveway, a circular stone element frames views of a steel-trellised entry. The home’s stacked sandstone base—invisibly mortared so the rock slabs appear as though they’re part of the landscape—includes pockets for native plantings. Inside, a second-story glass floor above the front door allows the homeowner to peer down at visitors. A wall by the entrance from the garage is clad in backlit onyx. In the kitchen, the custom cabinetry is suspended via a steel frame from beneath the granite counters, allowing the fixtures to float above the floor. Bernhard specified an acoustical fabric, stretched over drywall panels, to create an attractive ceiling that helps mitigate sound bouncing from the hard surfaces of the stone flooring and the glass walls.
“There’s nothing quite like viewing the sunset’s glow on the rock formations around the house.”
—Jon Bernhard, architect
Furnished with pieces from the owner’s previous residences, the home is both bold and welcoming. “There’s nothing quite like viewing the sunset’s glow on the rock formations around the house,” Bernhard says.
Bernhard credits the home’s success to people such as architect Michael Wetzel from Swaback Architects + Planners, who served as project manager, and architect/general contractor and fellow 2020 Masters of the Southwest award winner John Anderson, who built the house. “I’ve been lucky to work with a great team who are more talented than I am,” Bernhard says. “They helped me create a spirit of quality here.”
With this house, as with all his other creations, Bernhard’s mastery of his art is evident. Swaback sums it up best: “Jon’s designs are simplicity beyond complexity, a point that’s hard to reach. He’s at the top for a reason.”
Architect: Jon Bernhard, Swaback Architects + Planners. Builder: John Anderson, 180 Degrees Design + Build.
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