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Theory of Relativity

A builder and an architectural designer team up to create a new house in Houston, a first for the mother-son duo.

Catherine Viviano uses the MDF Italia wall-hung buffet in the dining room as a serving station as well as a place to display some of her favorite home accessories, such as the candlesticks, painted wood bowl, pewter plates and white transferware she has collected. She has kept the room’s decoration simple, with two pen and ink French academic illustrations she discovered at Bill Gardner Antiques as the main focus. 

 The old master-style painting that hangs above the living room sofa doesn’t have a glamorous provenance, but Catherine Viviano saw it at an antiques store and purchased it for $400 because she liked it. It shares space with Minotti swivel chairs, Maxalto coffee tables, and the bamboo and lacquer Victorian tea table and black chairs by the window.

The kitchen is the epitome of sleek minimalism, anchored by a green soapstone-topped white oak island designed by Michael Viviano. The swiveling black powder-coated stools are by Wrong for Hay. The Vivianos opted for artisanal as often as possible, such as the handmade white tiles from Ann Sacks for the backsplash. The cabinetry is painted with Benjamin Moore’s Decorator’s White and a custom variation of Benjamin Moore’s Chelsea Gray. 

In the master bathroom, a Piero Lissoni for Living Divani lounge chair is at the ready next to the Victoria + Albert tub. Walls and countertop are honed Carrara marble. 

Solid European white oak flooring is a quiet backdrop for the black-stained pencil-post bed by Timothy Clark and the Stua table from Design Within Reach with its two Poltrona Frau chairs. 

When Michael Viviano accepted his parents’ offer to design a house for them, he followed in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors. Architects Le Corbusier, Robert Venturi, Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier all designed homes for their parents. But Michael—a recent graduate of the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture—one-upped them all: The architectural designer’s mother, Catherine Viviano, is the builder and the interior designer.

The two-story, 4,200-square-foot brick and wood house is now complete­—an elegant modern barn that occupies a narrow corner in Houston’s Upper Kirby neighborhood, kitty-corner from the house Michael’s father grew up in. But when Chris and Catherine Viviano looked at the run-down house originally occupying the site, it was the location, the sentimental connection and good timing (they were hours away from signing a lease on another property) that convinced Chris their decision was meant to be. “There was good karma” is the unbankerly way the mortgage banker puts it. The Vivianos lived in the 1,700-square-foot dwelling for a year, but one morning while Catherine was cooking, water from an upstairs burst pipe started dripping on her head. To her, it was a signal that it was time to move out. That drip couldn’t have come at a more propitious moment: Michael had just graduated from architecture school; his parents were ready to build; and Catherine knew who she wanted to work with on her new project.

All that was left to do was to begin. “The first thing I asked my parents,” says Michael, “was, ‘What spaces from your previous house do you want to keep?’” A wealth of information informed that question: The Vivianos have lived in at least 10 houses since Michael was a child. “We love restoring houses,” says Catherine. For this project—her first new-construction house—her opinions were emphatic. “We have lived in houses that have rooms you just walk through and never go in,” she says. “I wanted to live in every room in the house.” The upstairs-downstairs configuration of the new residence would lend itself to clarity: Downstairs holds the living room, dining room, kitchen and mudroom. “And, that’s it!” says Catherine. Upstairs are three bedrooms, two small offices and a laundry room.

The floor plan harks back to classic layouts, side-stepping the open floor plan that’s the default choice for 21st century houses. Instead, living room and dining room are separate from the kitchen, connected by a long hallway lined with an orderly grid of 18 cabinets. “This is an important part of her house,” says Michael. Behind those gray-painted doors are Catherine’s collections of dishes, candlesticks, linens and other decorative items. “I love dishes and I love to entertain,” she says, also admitting that her mother-in-law, Houston antiques dealer Mona Dees, sympathizes. Accordingly, the entire family loves antiques, which belies the fact that the Vivianos’ new house is mostly devoid of evidence of their passion.

“We decided to go modern,” says Catherine. The decision was a complete about-face: “Catherine and I have always been traditional in our tastes,” says Chris, “to the point of using Williamsburg-approved paints and formal decoration.” Michael’s challenge was to address the seemingly opposing impulses, both inside and out. He adapted the conventional barn form to modernism’s mindset by tailoring details such as big overhangs. The result is a minimal building but with the time-honored elements, such as a pitched roof, his parents like.

Inside, waxed concrete floors extend throughout the downstairs, a plain-spoken counterpoint to antique chests and chairs that Catherine has edited into a mix of modern icons. In the living room, a blue B&B Italia sectional is anchored by a subtly patterned rug, one of the few in the house. Gray Poltrona Frau chairs flank the Riva 1920 dining table. During the design process, though, Michael was confronted with an all-too-modern problem. “The one thing that gave me heartburn was that the location of the television was so conspicuous, and Dad wasn’t budging,” says the architectural designer about his client, who wanted the television comfortably on view in front of the living room sofa. Michael found a graceful solution, devising a carapace of white oak into which he recessed the television, thus making parents and son happy.

Upstairs, the quiet dynamic between up-to-the-minute and last century makes itself known. White oak floors, white walls and lots of light are mainstays of modernism, but rising high overhead in the master bedroom, a gabled ceiling is a flourish that revisits another architectural era. The black-stained bed, with its stark profile, expresses luxury up close. The builder lavished attention on every detail of her new house, from cabinet knobs to the strictly formal lines of the bed. It was a lesson her son has taken to heart, both personally and professionally. “She was so intense about the project,” Michael says. “I hope I never lose that feeling.”

Single-family home


Michael Viviano

Catherine Viviano

Chandelier in dining room

B&B Italia
Charles sofa in living room

Pendant lights in master bedroom, table lamp on chest in living room

Window casings throughout

Round coffee tables in living room

Side table and swiveling lounge chairs in living room

Poltrona Frau
Chairs in dining room, chairs in master bedroom

Restoration Hardware
Ben Soleimani rugs in living room and dining room

Refrigerator, freezer drawers and wine refrigerator

Timothy Clark
Pencil-post bed in master bedroom

Visual Comfort
Reading lamps in living room, sconces in main hallway downstairs

Range in kitchen