Michael Dommenge is showing me an 18-ton glass pyramid. We’re standing on marble tiles that radiate heat in the winter, on a goliath terrace built behind a 25,000-square-foot Palladian mansion. The pyramid is a feat of engineering that is modeled after the one at the Louvre in France.
The client who hired Dommenge and his firm, Aspen Design/Build, had decided in his Parisian travels that the pyramid would go great above a breathtaking indoor pool. But first the 5,500-square-foot terrace had to be built… and the pool too.
Behind and below where Michael explains the pyramid, there is another marble terrace. Each piece of marble on both terraces was hand-picked directly from a quarry seven hours away in Vermont. Dommenge based his picks on close examinations of grain patterns and texture. He matched the existing structure, and sent particularly finicky pieces of stone as far away as Mexico for fabrication.
On the lower terrace, long fountain streams of filtered water plume from small holes in the granite. They are fed from a 4,000-gallon tank below the surface. Beside the tank is a control room large enough to park one of the homeowner’s several luxury cars in. It governs light effects, fountain heights and preprogrammed water shows.
We enter the main house and walk through spacious vistas of architecture and design that resulted from the client and Aspen Design/Build together sparing absolutely no expense.
“If the client wanted a toilet on the ceiling, the first thing I would do is explain to him why it wouldn’t work so well,” explains Dommenge in utter seriousness. “If he still wants it there, that’s exactly where it’s going.”
At that moment, we walk into the “library”. It has a beautiful mahogany gravitas about its ambiance and it smells sweetly of cigars. In short, it is perfect. The client had wanted Dommenge to design the whole space around a piece of antique, old-world furniture that was in his family for generations. So, an elite wood carver was found who matched in fresh African mahogany the intricate patterns of a cabinet over 100 years old. The exact etching adorns a custom mantel for the room’s hearth, and a raised panel beneath the room’s bar.
Every detail – the yellow, arabesque window treatments, the oriental rug, the massive desk that sits in a vaulted, windowed alcove, the custom-built furniture, the pyramid outside, the fountain beyond that – that’s what Aspen Design/Build does. There are no project managers or budget bids in this process. It is “what you want is what you get, and leave the rest to us” on its grandest scale.
We descend a staircase to the infinity pool directly below the pyramid.
“The homeowner thought he might want an elevator here, so we worked up an entire report on every elevator possibility for him by the next morning,” Dommenge tells me. “In the end, he decided to go with this staircase, which you’d never know wasn’t part of the original structure.” He’s right about that.
When we enter the spacious, Corinthian natatorium (including two full bars and a theater-sized movie screen), Michael instructs us to direct our attention to the air, to smell and to think about how it feels. Soon I realize the point he’s making, that if you didn’t know there was a pool in the room, you wouldn’t be able to tell. It doesn’t smell like chlorine nor is the air the least bit humid. The impressive albeit strange sensation is the result of HVAC and ozone-filtration systems that Michael hand-selected and integrated himself.
Beyond the fire pit: the fountain, the terrace addition containing the pool, the pyramid above it, and then the main home.
But Michael Dommenge has a problem: he’s ready for the next challenge, but he hasn’t found it yet. It’s because it is a very specific client he is looking for. His next client should be ready to begin design immediately and ready to start construction within two years. This person must have a desire to realize a vision on an extraordinary scale, and have the means and personality to allow Michael to bring that vision to fruition.
The pool below the pyramid.
Afterwards, I sit down with Michael at a deli. I’m throwing him the most wildly ridiculous ideas I can think of: what if I wanted an apocalypse-proof underground facility, an exact recreation of the Potala, a roller coaster connecting all my rooms, a hadron collider… The answer to all, of course, is the same. Aspen Design/Build is the firm you would call if you were serious about taking a second crack at the Tower of Babel.
Though any challenge of sufficient magnitude will do, I ask Michael what his ideal next project might look like. He says that he’d love to source a property from the beginning, and handle everything from its purchase to the entire design and construction of a client’s grand vision.
Who will this one client be, and what will become of the realization of his or her wildest dreams? Only time will tell. I just hope I get another tour.
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