Contented in a House of Glass | Tampa Bay Times

October 11, 2008

Charlotte Sutton, Arts & Homes Editor
ST. PETERSBURG — It can take a while to get around Rob Bowen’s downtown condo, a dramatic space with soaring windows and wrap-around balconies that offer grand views in three directions. n “I call this my glass house,” Bowen says. “It’s like a ’50s ranch house on top of a six-story building.” n There’s definitely a mid-century modern vibe to the contemporary penthouse perched atop 475, a 22-unit condo building on Second Street N built by architect Tim Clemmons. Bowen designed the condo’s interior, selecting finishes, fixtures and every last touch. n What stretches a tour into a conversation-filled visit, however, are the stories. Ask about almost anything in the place, and there’s a back story that makes clear Bowen’s affection for the people in his life and his passion for the details that make a place feel like home.

“Good design is an accumulation of things,” says Bowen, whose design firm Space has offices in Tampa. “It’s the shower head that delivers the spray you want. It’s how the floors feel on your bare feet. It’s the music, the lighting. It’s all about how the room, how the house, is going to live.”

With its ultra clean lines and minimalist details, the 2,500-square foot Glass House was designed for specific tastes. “Living where everything is exposed, you have to find a place for everything,” Bowen, 30, explains. “I don’t like a lot of stuff lying around. The space is pure. It’s where I unwind.”

It’s also where he and his partner entertain family and friends since they moved in earlier this year. Last Friday, they threw a party to celebrate the new job of Bowen’s mother, Julie Janssen, who was recently named Pinellas County Schools superintendent. They christened the place a month after moving in with a baby shower for his brother Kris and sister-in-law Paula.

Her artwork is a major player here. Step off the elevator onto the seventh floor, and a row of small, jewel-like paintings of sushi line a long white wall, commemorating Paula’s first meal (sushi, of course) with Rob. Inside the condo is a row of paintings he asked her to do of St. Petersburg landmarks. “She was pregnant at the time, and you can tell where she was in the pregnancy by the mood of her paintings,” Bowen laughs.

Opposite those pictures is one by Tampa artist Ron Francis, Creative Businessman. It hung on a wall at a Tampa Starbucks that Bowen frequented when he was undergoing medical treatments. A friend surprised him by buying him the painting, complete with a dripping line of caramel syrup in one corner. Why have it removed and ruin a great story?

Those and many other artworks stand out on white walls (a shade of white that Bowen mixed himself after rejecting the three other whites he tried), thoughtfully illuminated. Light and sound are key to Bowen, who fills the home with music from 33 speakers, all controlled from a small closet behind the kitchen.

The floors in the public rooms offer a counterpoint to the contemporary mood, 6-inch oak planks with a distressed ebony stain produced by a Dutch company. “White walls and black floors are my signature,” said Bowen. “But this is homier, and easier to care for than black marble.”

Moving into the great room, the fireplace surround is tiled in cut marble formed in half-inch squares, set at different depths, that beg to be touched. Bowen encourages this, telling of a woman at one gathering who rubbed her face up against the rough, cold surface.

“I wanted to evoke some kind of emotion, whether you love it or hate it,” he explains.

On the opposite wall is a grid of built-in shelves, holding a dozen, 55-pound Buddha heads Bowen saw on a trip to Thailand. “They’re very powerful, mysterious,” he said, explaining the attraction. “There’s no great, profound story. I just think they’re great.”

Another passion for Bowen is environmental design. He shows off his dual-flush Kohler toilets, citing the water savings they afford, and the sunshades on all those big windows, explaining that keeping them closed keeps the temperature down 10 degrees midday. He’s working on designing a luxury home with so many environmental features, including solar power and rain barrels, it will qualify for a prestigious green-building certification.

It took Bowen six months after closing to complete his own home. “I knew it was mine so I took my time. I was really particular.”

That meant searching for the purest white glass countertops, which wouldn’t stain like porous marble, for the kitchen and master bath. Commissioning a tile mosaic in soothing greens, grays and browns from a Canadian glass artist to separate the master bath and shower. Red tile with a ’50s-inspired design for a full wall of the kitchen, not just a backsplash, from Sausalito, Calif.

Not everything in the Glass House has such exotic origins. Furnishings for the spa-like guest room, all in sage, gray and cream, came from West Elm, the popular online store that has a branch in Orlando. The illuminated paper “people” that get place of honor in the window corner of the dining area were just $25 each at Ikea.

Bowen says it isn’t what you spend on individual pieces that defines a successful space; it’s how it all comes together.

He tells his own clients to start by considering what’s meaningful to them.

“I think too many homeowners worry if something will fit. But your home shouldn’t be what a designer tells you. It should be filled with things you love that speak to you. I like people to work with what they have.”

Not surprisingly, Bowen has a story to tell about the day he knew his Glass House was the kind of sanctuary he set out to create.

“The best compliment I’ve had on this place was when I had a party, and the caterer, who’s a friend of mine, sat on the kitchen counter and looked around, and said, ‘This makes me want to be a better person.’

“She gets it.”

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