Designer David Thorn shows us around his Chagrin Falls home and shares his ideas for creating memorable outdoor (and indoor) spaces.
Designer David Thorn is drawn to the outdoors. In fact, he designed his Chagrin Falls home with stylish exterior spaces and nature-inspired indoor ones. In the morning, he meditates in a tranquil garden off his home’s master suite. While working in his lower-level studio, he designs clients’ landscapes from a desk with a view of his terraced garden. On weekends, he entertains family and friends in either his front garden courtyard or the backyard terrace that adjoins the vaulted living room with large windows.
“I feel like I’m in a treehouse when I’m in this space,” says Thorn, as he enjoys a cup of coffee on his screened porch overlooking a ravine. “That’s what this property was all about: bringing back a piece of my childhood growing up in rural Ohio.”
Thorn, owner of DTR Associates landscape design firm in Chagrin Falls, has been designing for high-end residential clients in the Cleveland area for 25 years. He grew up in rural Trumbull County where he developed passions for the outdoors and treasure hunting. As a child, he dug trees from the woods and brought them home to plant in his backyard.
“I grew up in a family of collectors,” says Thorn. “On Sundays, it was tradition for our family to go for walks along the railroad beds and collect treasures like these vintage insulators,” he says gesturing to a row of blue bell-shaped glass fixtures along a window shelf.
He went on to gain a degree in architectural/environmental design at Bowling Green State University that Thorn says served him well in the field because he learned how to meld interior and exterior spaces. Once out of school, he worked for KA Architecture, a commercial architecture firm in downtown Cleveland, where he helped design office tower and shopping mall sites such as Beachwood Place. Later, he joined a landscape architecture firm and eventually bought out the owner to start DTR Associates.
Early on, his business gained a reputation for its designs at the Cleveland Home and Garden Show and feature gardens at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, including a metaphorical garden house with turf walls, an intricate pattern of herbs that replicated an oriental rug and a bedroom designed with a moss bed (complete with a pillow made entirely of succulents.)
In 2005, Thorn purchased a 7-acre property to create ThornCreek Winery & Gardens — an attraction he sees as a living portfolio for potential clients to experience. Today, his work focuses on high-end projects including a traditional 8-acre estate in Hudson, a 45-acre resort-style estate in Hinckley, and a restoration of a historic landscape originally designed by the renowned Ellen Biddle Shipman for Harcourt Manor, a Tudor mansion in Cleveland Heights.
Thorn discovered his Chagrin Falls home in 2006 when a close friend reluctantly showed him the then-rundown property. He was looking for a unique space and loved the 2.5-acre wooded lot with its steep ravine. Despite the “stream of water running through the basement,” Thorn says he saw the home’s potential. “I can make something of this,” he recalls thinking.
Built in 1935, the cottage-style home clearly had its challenges, including its limited size for Thorn and his two sons. He began by gutting and refinishing the existing 1,850-square-foot structure, then built a contrasting addition on the back to double the home’s size.
“I wanted to keep the cottage look in the front but create a rambling surprise in the back,” he says.
He designed a two-story space with a new master suite above and drawing studio below. He finished the addition’s exterior with barn-style materials, including board-and-batten siding and stone veneer taken from an authentic barn foundation.
“My intent was to capture the feeling of a barn that might have existed when the house was first built then added to the home’s main structure over the course of years,” he says.
Once finished with the interior spaces, Thorn turned his attention outdoors. In the front of the house, the high grade caused serious drainage issues, even rotting the foundation timbers. Thorn remedied the faulty grade by carving out a sunken front courtyard and surrounding it with landscaped beds.
Another hurdle was the front door’s distant location from the driveway. Thorn solved the disconnect by installing a large vintage gate near the driveway and creating an inviting brick and stone path that leads guests through a series of gardens to the front door. Here, Thorn planted an array of perennials within frames of neatly trimmed boxwoods.
“It’s like a journey,” he says. “You don’t see everything at once. There’s a new focal point at each turn.”
In the back, Thorn integrated the home to the backyard’s steep slope and ravine by designing a series of terraces and connecting them with stone and brick steps, container gardens and lush landscaping of boxwood, astilbe, ferns, hostas, hydrangeas, Japanese maples and sweet bay magnolias. The deck from the master suite and another deck from the screened porch connect via steps to a lower circular patio. The patio is outfitted with gas plumbing for a fire pit and finished with reclaimed stone from an estate home at Rocky River Yacht Club along Lake Erie. A few edge pieces feature a rounded keystone detail that interlock like a jigsaw puzzle.
Off the master bathroom, Thorn added an enclosed patio complete with an outdoor shower, crushed gravel patio, steppingstones, a meditation bench and a hand-carved Buddha sculpture from Indonesia.
“While in Costa Rica, I fell in love with the outdoor showers, plus I have good memories of my mom holding a hose over me to shower me off,” says Thorn about the inspiration for this space. Colorful panels in red, yellow, orange and teal cover a wall of the surrounding fence. The colorful exterior wall serves as a focal point viewed through the master bathroom windows.
“I’m a color person and am not afraid to use it,” says Thorn. In fact, he repeats the red-yellow-orange-teal color palette throughout the home’s indoor and outdoor spaces.
Besides color, Thorn adds plenty of personality to his spaces by weaving in vintage finds with storied pasts. For example, the courtyard by the front door is finished with aged-looking Belden brick from Canton, sandstone steps reclaimed from an old barn near his hometown of Kinsman, a large urn overflowing with colorful annuals and an unwanted artisan table set he found along a roadside and refinished.
“It’s not about how much something costs,” he says. “It’s about what feelings it brings when I use it.”
The Great Outdoors
Designer David Thorn offers ideas for doubling a home’s living area by making its outdoor spaces as compelling and comfortable as its indoor ones and integrating the beauty of nature into your home decor.
Bringing the Inside Out:
Repeat Colors: Link color schemes inside and out. If teal and orange are used in a living room, repeat the colors on a nearby patio with a teal throw pillow or a container of orange begonias. “It’s those subtle ways that link the inside to the outside,” says Thorn.
Accent with the Unexpected: Decorate a space with unexpected accessories such as a lantern hanging from a tree branch, an all-weather art piece displayed on an exterior wall or a concrete tree trunk used as an outdoor coffee table.
Add Comfortable Furniture: Take advantage of the technological advances in outdoor furnishings that offer the same comfort of inside furniture but with weather resistance. “Duplicate the indoor experience outdoors with the same amenities,” says Thorn. A range of colors and patterns are now available in waterproof, sun-proof fabrics. Plus, expanded material choices include aluminum, wicker, resin and teak.
Bringing the Outside In:
Play Up Views: Study prominent vistas from inside the house and then create focal points that line up with them. “Be purposeful with these focal points,” says Thorn, as he points out a birdbath fountain he intentionally placed at the end of a path viewable from his bedroom window.
Bring Nature Indoors: Thorn accessorizes with natural materials such as orchid plants on the dining table, a dracaena tree in the living room, a kitchen centerpiece of sunflowers, driftwood on a fireplace mantle and a grapevine ball atop an urn.
Use Exterior Finishes Indoors: Choose unexpected finishes like board-and-batten siding, which is typically used on barn exteriors, for an interior wall, like Thorn does in his home’s great room. Also adopt outdoor pieces like Thorn’s railroad-cart-turned-coffee-table for indoor accent pieces. “These pieces help blur the lines and also hold up well in a house with two boys,” says Thorn.