Space and Light — architect Louis Cherry makes his mark

Louis Cherry on a second-floor porch of The Phil Morrison House, a modern home in rural Orange County he describes as “perfectly imperfect.”

by J. Michael Welton

photographs by Lissa Gotwals

Talk to anyone who knows architect Louis Cherry’s work, and one adjective inevitably slips into the conversation: Comfortable.

It’s a hallmark of his finely tuned interiors, his mastery of scale and proportion, and his relentless search for connections between inside and out. “I rely on the space and the way light moves through it,” the 63-year-old Greenville native says. “It’s actually very intuitive.”

It’s well thought out, too. Cherry’s been designing buildings – homes, schools, churches, and libraries – since he graduated from N.C. State’s College of Design in 1983. If there’s any doubt about his ability to put people at ease, a trip to his 2005 masterwork in aluminum, glass, and maple at the Cameron Village Library is in order. It’s a hushed and light-filled affair – an instructive exploration of what can be achieved with attention to detail and selective use of materials.

“It’s like cooking, where each ingredient has a place in the dish,” he says. “The same is true of architecture – it’s a careful curation of materials to create a simple, elegant solution.”

Diners in Raleigh have been experiencing the quiet beauty of his buildings for years now, perhaps without knowing it. Since 1992, Cherry has designed a dozen restaurants here, starting with a pair of fast-food outlets. “When I first started my practice in 1992 and was desperate for work, I designed two Miami Subs restaurants,” he says. “They were formula-driven for design – but I learned the technical side of kitchens, service flow, and processes for approvals.”

Of the 12 restaurants he’s designed, he has co-owned one. His Enoteca Vin (Wine Repository) – a bistro conceived in 1997 and opened in 1999 – instantly earned a reputation that surpassed its Alvar Aalto furnishings, its gray-stained hardwood floors, and its black, glass-edged bar. It also launched the careers of Andrea Reusing, now owner-chef of Lantern in Chapel Hill and the Durham Hotel restaurant in Durham, and Ashley Christensen, owner-chef of Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s,  Chuck’s, Bridge Club, and Death and Taxes in Raleigh.

“He gets it – the flow and function of a restaurant,” says Scott Crawford, owner-chef of Crawford and Son in Raleigh. “How many architects are there out there who’ve owned a restaurant?”

Cherry in his studio with his three architectural designers, Jesse White, Bhavneet Birdi, and Alison Croop. The firm is working on a public library project in Annapolis, Md.

Enoteca Vin may not have survived the Great Recession of 2009, but its reputation lives on. “It was the most comfortable, elegant, and informal place possible,” says Raleigh architect Frank Harmon. “That building came from his heart – he’s always been interested in good food, wine, art, and conversation. He used to give cooking classes to his staff.”

At 2015’s Death & Taxes, created inside a historic 1920s building on Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh, Cherry looked back to early 20th-century Austrian architects Adolf Loos and Adolf Wagner. Its marble tabletops and bentwood chairs recall Vienna in the 1920s – a subtle architectural reference to the era of the structure’s origins. “It creates some sympathy between an old building and a modern feel,” he says.

More recently, Cherry worked with Crawford on his new restaurant on Person Street in downtown Raleigh. Crawford and Son has transformed the space formerly occupied by PieBird, taking it from casual to elegant in a rapid four months. Its guiding principle, like most of Cherry’s work, is minimalism.

“The first conversation we had was: Let’s make a list of all the trendy things we’ve seen over the last five years, and not do any of those,” Crawford says. “The second was: Let’s explore all the great things that are in the space already – what can we use and how can we use them?  And the third was: Let’s do it on a reasonable budget.”

The results are impressive. Floors are dark-stained concrete, with steel and patterned glass tile at the entrance, and a walnut slab for a front door. Tabletops are black soapstone streaked in light gray, and walls are the original brick, exposed. Cherry added acoustical panels along the black-leather banquettes so that guests can hear themselves speak. Vertical-ribboned patterns in the leather upholstery, he says, refer to the muscle cars of the ’70s.

Esoteric as that sounds, it was a feature he knew Crawford and every guest would appreciate. “The question was how to create a space where the food is the star, so it’s a rich, deep environment where the food sparkles,” he says. “The lighting is orchestrated to light the plates – and it’s a warm and comfortable environment.”

Louis Cherry’s home in Raleigh.

At home

Cherry choreographs his residential work with equal care. On a 60-acre nature preserve on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, he recently completed a 3,000-square-foot home that is an ode to transparency and light. It’s an organized grid of interconnected volumes that explode to exquisite views of the landscape through nine-feet-tall sheets of glass almost eight feet wide. “It’s quite dramatic,” Cherry says. “It was critical that the glass go all the way to the ceiling and all the way to the floor so that those planes go all the way out.”

It’s a building that’s defined less by a formal program written by client and architect, and more by external vistas and incoming light. Each room reveals itself and its surroundings in a thoughtfully managed, cumulative way, as though the building were following a visual script.

That’s appropriate. His client here is Phil Morrison, a New York-based director of television commercials and the 2005 film Junebug, for which actor Amy Adams earned an Oscar nomination. And the house is based on a design that Cherry had already developed for Andrea Reusing. “He did my friend’s place, and I liked it, and I said: ‘Him!’” Morrison says.

The two have been working together on the project for five years, trying at first to save an existing deck house on site – one that faced southwest to a creek 150 feet away and 40 feet down. When they found that scheme unworkable, they took the building down, preserving its fireplace and chimney for a patio, and rebuilt on its footprint. Their materials of choice were concrete and cedar stained black. “It’s perfectly imperfect,” Cherry says. “He’s really very interested in creating rather raw expressions of materials – unadorned and unpolished.”

The result is an up-to-date take on modern architecture, using traditional materials in new and comforting ways – like the reclaimed heart pine floors, hand-scraped eight times and lightly stained. Even the concrete – usually perceived as a cold material – gives off a certain warmth. “I sent pictures to a friend who knew nothing about this house, and she wrote back: ‘Cozy brutalism!’” Morrison says.

This cantilevered, tree-house-like space at The Phil Morrison House contains the client’s bedroom.

Cherry’s own 2013 home was the subject of a three-year controversy when a neighbor publicly questioned its appropriateness for Raleigh’s traditional Oakwood neighborhood. An updated version of the Craftsman style prevalent throughout the community, the house – along with Cherry and his wife, Marsha Gordon – became embroiled in a nationally publicized legal battle that led them to the state Supreme Court. In August 2016, that body refused the neighbor’s petition to hear the case, and the issue was put to rest.

As the controversy dragged out, construction on the home was shut down for six months, which gave Cherry time to think through its interior. A cabinetmaker for most of his life, he saw an opportunity to make this house his own in a very personal way. That meant designing and shaping trim, built-ins, cabinets, pieces of furniture, and wood for the staircase. “He’s a wonderful craftsman, which in many ways is a disappearing species – the builder/architect,” says Harmon.

At the heart of his home is an open, 24-by-32-foot space for cooking, dining, and entertaining. At its entry, he envisioned a massive cabinet that would serve as sculpture, storage, and space divider, all at once. Even for Cherry, it was a stretch – a push from cabinetmaking to fine furniture design and construction. “In Prague, I saw a house by Adolf Loos – it used luxurious materials in a minimalist way,” he says. “I was thinking about our house at the time – it was in construction then – and I wanted to do one jewel in one box.”

Marsha Gordon and Louis Cherry prep for a pizza dinner party in their home while listening to Tift Merritt’s new album.

His cabinet is sizeable – eight feet tall, eight feet long, and 42 inches wide, composed of dark walnut veneer on furniture-grade plywood. The veneer is rip-cut, all of it from the same tree, with the grain sequentially running together. “It had to be planned down to a 32nd of an inch, and with that wood if you make a mistake, you won’t have a sequential panel,” he says.

Sure enough, he made no mistakes, and the cabinet – he likens it to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – seems flawles. Like the film, it’s the product of a fertile and creative mind. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, as well as one of the most articulate,” Harmon says.

The piece of furniture that Louis Cherry built for his home in Oakwood. This multitasks as a coat closet, a bar, and extra shelving and drawers.

Cherry will tell you, though, that his highest aim is to make his clients comfortable. “I believe that the essence of what makes us feel good is the shape of a space and how it’s lit,” he says. “I don’t have a formula or a set of rules, but I do believe in Le Corbusier – that everything is based on the human scale.”

And that, most architects will readily acknowledge, is the holy grail of fine design.