In many ways, Gary Fisher’s studio is as much a work of art as the bold canvases he paints.
One of the few modernist structures in his quiet neighborhood in Rehoboth Beach, the building is reminiscent of an abstract sculpture. Banks of windows are positioned to capture natural light at the ideal intensity for painting.
“For an artist, a place like this is truly a dream come true,” he says.
For years, Fisher painted in a rented basement in Washington, D.C., where he worked by day as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice. He retired early to devote himself to art.
His second home in Delaware, sited on a large, private lot, gave him the opportunity to build a stand-alone structure that would serve as both a studio for creating art and a gallery for exhibiting paintings and hosting receptions.
“We have a lot of visitors in the summer, and it’s great to be able to work at a place that is not inside the house,” he says.
To turn Fisher’s vision into an aesthetically pleasing, high-functioning reality, he turned to Shawn Ewbank, founder of Shawn Ewbank Design Collaborative, a boutique architectural firm in Lewes.
The initial design reflected the modern vibe and open feeling Fisher wanted. But it wasn’t expansive enough to fully accommodate every item on his wish list.
“I was sitting in Starbucks thinking that the studio had to be larger,” Ewbank recalls. “So I picked up my phone and called Gary.”
Serendipitously, Fisher’s budget had just expanded.
“I had planned to pay for the studio by selling a condo in Miami,” he says. “It sold for way more than I had expected, so I had some wiggle room.”
A hip lounge is suitable for conversation, contemplation or research.//Photo by Keith Mosher
The final plan called for 1,700 square feet of space, including 480 square feet of outdoor decking adjoining an open-air courtyard. The exterior is clad in tongue-and-groove American red cedar, which will age over time to silvery gray.
“Cedar is a beautiful, beautiful material with lots of nuances,” Ewbank says. “The natural finish balances the stark nature of the design.”
Inside, the structure houses a studio, gallery, prep room, lounge and full bathroom. It’s a flexible space that can accommodate work, entertaining and contemplation.
The largest expanse is the studio and its 16-foot ceilings. In siting the space, the goal was to capture the perfect degree of natural light for painting, a brightness Fisher calls “delicately hazy.”
The studio and its 16-foot ceilings capture the perfect degree of natural light for painting.//Photo by Keith Mosher
To achieve that, Ewbank designed a bank of large windows on the north side of the studio. To minimize glare and stark light, he installed clerestory windows on the south side, which are softened further by a 4-foot eave. Overhead is a domed acrylic skylight with translucent interior panels.
On most days, the artist can paint without artificial light. At night and on cloudy days, the studio is illuminated by LED lights with the highest available color rendering index. It’s also equipped with speakers for music.
“I often listen to classical and smooth jazz when I work,” Fisher says. “If I’m doing something with a lot of energy, I might put on dance music, disco.”
The tools of his trade are paints and brushes. He keeps them at the ready in a Husky tool cabinet on stainless steel casters topped with a wood slab.
In recent years, Fisher has created a number of large abstract paintings. He was commissioned to paint six panels, each 6-by-5 feet, for the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Society of Interior Designers, where he is art director.
“I would have been hard-pressed to paint them in a basement with 8-foot ceilings,” he says. “Having a large space to work has empowered me to do more as an artist.”
It’s also a great place to play. Fisher has hosted cocktail parties for friends and other art lovers. The studio readily accommodates 8-foot round tables that seat 10, “so if we want to have a dinner with lots of guests, we just bring it out here.”
Photo by Keith Mosher
From the time he began studying architecture, Ewbank approached the discipline as a healing art that infused everyday life with a sense of harmony and beauty.
“Working with an artist is fertile ground for inspiration,” he says. “This project required a feeling of simplicity, which increases the complexity of the construction.”
The interior core of the structure is practical space, a windowless, two-story prep room that also provides ample storage for large canvases and completed paintings that aren’t on display. There is a sink for cleanup, and a coffee maker and fridge to accommodate snacks for the artist or refreshments for large gatherings.
A hip lounge is a multipurpose area that is suitable for conversation, contemplation or research. The sleek, spare mid-century pedestal table was designed by Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect best known for envisioning the Gateway Arch in St Louis. It is paired with Danish modern chairs.
In the seating area, a contemporary ivory linen sofa is teamed with a pair of chocolate leather swivel chairs that Fisher found at Urban Essentials in Washington, D.C. The coffee table, designed by Matt Piccolo of Milton and crafted from industrial cogs, is a flexible piece that can be topped with either a round, blue cushion or a glass disc. Overhead, a white modernist fan with three blades whirls softly.
Making the studio sustainable and green was a priority. The design includes solar panels, energy-efficient windows, an integrated fresh-air system and insulation that exceeds code requirements. There is a tankless water heater and a waterless urinal. All the paints, stains and adhesives are made from formulas that are low in volatile organic compounds.
The floors throughout the public spaces are high-quality vinyl plank. It looks like real wood, yet is much easier to maintain.
“We bought a Roomba that we just turn loose to do its thing and vacuum the floor,” Fisher says.
Burton Builders of Lewes completed construction on the project. For the grounds, Fisher brought in D.C. landscape architect Morgan Washburn of Botanical Decorators.
“My gardening is as important to me as my artwork,” Fisher says. “This space honors both.”
On the outside, the studio is a visual bridge between the contemporary-style main house and surrounding, interconnected gardens. It was essential that those elements flow together.
Plantings of river birches, deciduous redwoods and winterberries offer a display all year round. In the courtyard, a base of Delaware River pea gravel, raised beds of colorful annual blooms and an Asian-inspired fountain create a tranquil vibe.
The pump handle mounted by a fragrant patch of tomatoes and herbs is a nod to the ranch in Wyoming where Fisher was raised. As he paints, he can look out the window and see a free-form stainless steel sculpture by Chris Tousimis shimmering among the foliage.
“The studio is the centerpiece of a peaceful indoor-outdoor retreat,” he says. “When work is done, we have cocktails, watch the butterflies and listen to the garden gurgle.”
Embrace natural materials that are in harmony with the setting. The Fisher studio is clad in American red cedar. Site a structure in keeping with the lighting you want to achieve. For the artist, that meant placing most of the windows on the northern side. Think flexibility. The studio also is home to dinner parties and cocktail receptions. The lounge is suitable for solitary research or socializing with others. Combine aesthetics and practicality. Premium vinyl plank floors offer both good looks and durability. Bridge the indoors and outdoors. A deck and courtyard with plantings and a fountain provide a transition from the studio to the main house.