Mark Hutker’s design for the Menemsha Pond house attracted more conceptual projects to the firm.
Bob Gothard Mark Hutker’s design for the Menemsha Pond house attracted more conceptual projects to the firm.

How many people dream of living at the beach? What if you could really do it and practice at the top of your profession? Welcome to Mark Hutker's life. Since 1985, the Hoosier native has made Martha's Vineyard, Mass., his home and base of operations for his residential architecture practice.

The 100-square-mile island is a seven-mile puddle jump south of Cape Cod, and a vacation destination popular with a host of famous names. President Clinton slept there; Carly Simon, James Taylor, Katharine Graham have houses there; Jackie Onassis was an illustrious resident and architecture patron. Travel anywhere across the country and you'll see someone wearing a T-shirt with a big black dog on it, an icon from the island's favorite hangout and logo purveyor, The Black Dog CafT.

Martha's Vineyard has a smart, hip, wealthy, and mostly liberal cache that's taken on a life of its own. And after this last economic boom, which made even Democrats rich, lefty good-life seekers are building and renovating homes on the island at a frenetic pace. Twenty-five to 30 a year have hired Hutker to do their design work. He is in the right place at the right time, with the perfect combination of talent, business smarts, and people skills to take full advantage. Here he is, living at the beach with his wife and two young children and doing the best work of his career.

architect and poet

Once upon a time--let's call it the '80s--Hutker might have identified as a Postmodernist. And a glimpse at his early houses with their whimsical geometries and colors confirms the notion. It's no surprise; Robert Stern and Michael Graves were the superstars in residential architecture back then. But evolution, changes in clients' tastes, and the need to earn a living honed Hutker's style into something, shall we say, more contextual.

Fortunately for Hutker, Martha's Vineyard has lots of context. It's been nearly 400 years since Anglo-Saxons settled the island, and 5,000 years since Native Americans called it home. Imaginative architects have abundant antecedents to draw from. In some cases, man-made context doesn't matter at all--many sites are so heavily wooded you can barely find your own front door, much less see a neighbor's house. There, inspiration comes from a vast palette of natural elements--oak and pine trees, bayberry, lichen, sand, seashells and stones, ocean and pond waters.

Still, amid all this bounty, beauty, and booming business, Hutker has a worry. It's a luxurious worry that only successful architects can indulge--once their family is fed and their staff is paid--but it's one that tugs at the soul of all creative people. He's concerned that his focus on giving clients the houses they want has caused his firm to lose track of its poetic sensibility. "I struggle with this personally," he explains. "I fear we've become a little too chameleonlike."

If he didn't believe in satisfying his clients first and his muse second, Hutker might push to design only modern houses. But he insists he's in a service industry, and if his clients have their hearts set on an old-fashioned Shingle-style house, that's what they'll get. "Architecture school fostered a love-hate relationship with clients," he says. It's an attitude he rejects. "They told us we have to educate the client. But that presumes you know better than they do what they want and need."

But here's the tug: "We say we give clients what they want," he says, "but we're artists and we bring vision to the table." So, what's an artist in a service industry to do?

Hutker has a few ideas. He's poised the firm to mine the good times and he's preparing a hedge against a future slowdown. First off, he's imposed a structure and logic on what had been an ad hoc mix of traditional and modern projects. Sometimes, to name it is to tame it. So, he describes the firm's portfolio as a combination of "conceptual" work, "mannered" work, "cottages," and renovations. The mannered projects relate to cultural and stylistic traditions, although not always those within the island's built vocabulary. The cottages, he explains, tend to link "more directly to existing buildings." The firm designs about six new custom homes a year, ranging from 5,000 to 8,000 square feet, and oftentimes much larger.

"We struggle with what it means to have a portfolio of modern and mannered work," he says. "All young architects feel this to some extent." But Hutker is making peace with it, and that's easier because he has a 13-year associate he's just elevated to partner, one who loves to do the traditional work.

Phil Regan grew up on Martha's Vineyard, son of an Oak Bluffs postmaster and the librarian for the Vineyard Gazette. He is, says Hutker, an "island guy," who understands both the year-round community of 15,000 and the summer swell to 100,000 residents. Like his mother, he loves the history and diversity of the island--Edgartown's elegant Greek Revival houses, the quirky Oak Bluffs' Victorians, Vineyard Haven's rambling Shingle-style houses, and the low, crumbling stone walls that trace ancient property lines.

Although Hutker is still the firm's chief rainmaker and client schmoozer, Regan is gaining ground. "The question we always get is, 'Mark, how involved are you going to be in the project?'" says Hutker. "We follow the 70/30 rule. I'm involved about 70 percent in the beginning and the project architect is involved about 30 percent. As the project goes along, it shifts the other way. That's when they've gained the client's trust. But now, there are clients Phil brings into the office I've never met."

Even among projects Hutker brings in, Regan does the micromanaging if the clients want something traditional. Hutker holds tightest to the conceptual work he favors. One of his pet projects was the Menemsha Pond house, which he completed about four years ago. Inspired by the building traditions of Native Americans who originally settled the property, and empowered by a $365-a-foot budget, he let his muse fly free. The result is a beautiful, sculptural, and very livable vacation home. Its shingle cladding is one of the few nods to convention.

The house has enabled Hutker to attract other "poetic opportunities," as he calls them. And when they don't just drop into his lap, he tries to create them. For each project, his office now develops three schemes: "The first is what the owners think they want, the second is closer to the first or third, and the third is completely out of the box--a poetic approach to site and program."

It's certainly extra work for the firm, but it serves the client better and makes possible a higher level of artistic achievement. Sometimes clients need a little nudge out of their comfort zone to get the house their heart wants, not just their head.

Not everyone takes Hutker's deal; some take part of it. But none would take any risks without proof he could do the house they were looking for when they walked in the door. That's why order of presentation is everything. "We show them the house they think they want first," he says. "You have to show them you listened, you heard them. Then we show them the more conceptual version. If you do it the other way around, you scare the hell out of them. There's a confidence-building that comes of showing you listened."

Although his office is plenty techy, Hutker relies on basswood models to demystify his high-concept houses. "For the same time and cost as a virtual model, I'm going to choose basswood. You can't feel and touch an e-presentation," he says. "There's nothing more exciting and compelling than the first view of the model."

forward thinking

As the firm's work becomes more conceptual, execution of the interiors grows more complicated and crucial to the success of the project. That's in part why Hutker recently added an interior design division to his practice. Headed up by Susan Bielski, he hopes it will also hedge against a downturn in the new construction business. He guesses his high-end clients might choose to redecorate rather than renovate if money gets tighter.

He's installed the interior design business on the ground level of the strip mall he's made his headquarters for years. Like everything in Martha's Vineyard, it's had a recent face-lift. The island has a brand-new airport, too, replacing the lobster-shack terminal and chicken-coop baggage claim area it had before. What hasn't changed is Five Corners, the intersection just steps from the ferry stop in Vineyard Haven, the island's only year-round town. The mixing-bowl intersection, dreaded by all who live or visit there, is hard by Hutker's office. In the summertime, it can easily turn a five-minute errand into a 45-minute ordeal.

Other headaches beset business on the island. The source of most of them is the time and money associated with having to ship everything in. It makes everything more expensive--building, living, staffing. Moderately priced housing is almost nonexistent.

After 15 or so years on the island, Hutker is finally doing well enough to add a few rooms to his house and park some nice cars in his new garage. He's also opened an office in West Falmouth, Mass., an attempt to make inroads into the mainland market and to tap design and building talent he can't entice across the bay. "Trying to grow a healthy, aggressive architectural firm in a laid-back community isn't easy," he says. "We're as intense here about our work and getting things done as any urban firm."

To help get things done on Martha's Vineyard, he shares an office with one of the island's top custom-home builders, Andrew Flake. If clients so desire, they can have an almost-design/build arrangement with Hutker and Flake, or simply invite Flake to bid on drawings.

The one-stop shopping appeals to quite a few vacation-home buyers, who tend to commute among several houses, several coasts, and sometimes several countries. Keeping in touch with one office streamlines the process.

the e-clients

Luckily, working with long-distance clients is much easier in these days of e-mail and digital cameras. In fact, Hutker asks each client for a digital-camera allowance so he can equip the contractor with it. "The contractor uses it to shoot problems and e-mail them to us from the site. We can now resolve problems that used to take a two-hour site visit." The contractor also documents the progress of the house and any questions for the client.

Of course, not every architect has such tech-savvy clients. Hutker's movers and shakers, however, are virtually all virtual. They're also very demanding. "The trouble with e-communication is the e-instant expectations," he says. "We've lost the time to think, to incubate. I don't always have my best idea first."

But his high-end clients are not inclined to grant Hutker the luxury of time. They're extremely schedule-driven. All is focused on having the home ready by the summer season, usually beginning in early July. A house of the size and luxury Hutker builds rents for approximately $50,000 a month on the island, so if the house he's designing is a month late, that's what his clients think they've lost.

"With the stakes so high here, people wig out when the least little thing is wrong," he says. "They're under so much pressure to relax, it causes them tremendous angst. Their expectations are very, very high. The house had better be perfect."

So maybe running an architecture practice in an island paradise is no day at the beach. Nonetheless, Hutker's roots are firm in Martha's Vineyard's sandy soil. It's a great place to raise his children; he enjoys the entrepreneurial feel of doing business there; and the rarefied clients it attracts offer tremendous opportunity every time they commission a house. Each time, he takes deep breath: Will they hire the architect or the poet?