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The Pavilionaire

One room huts or luxury retreats? The designer Jeffrey Cayle thinks they’re a bit of both.

New York Times Magazine Home Design supplement, April 2001

If you’ve somehow grown tired of palaces, spacious ballrooms or other manifestations of your own grandeur, Jeffrey Cayle will build you a simple little hut. He is a designer of relaxed places, where you go to dissociate and unwind and think peaceful thoughts, and where you never need invite an unwanted guest. Though Cayle has turned into an architect of nature, his first jobs were in set design, and the stagecraft of his structures is unmistakable: they whimsically marry the pastoral and the theatrical. With twigs woven into them, thick rafters and funny-size windows in unlikely places, they appear as if they had sprung from the earth. They are like treehouses without the trees, or the Unabomber’s shed without the Unabomber: a permanent and luxurious Outward Bound in your own backyard.

Lest you mistake one for a summer-camp cabin, Cayle accessorizes them with a modicum of glamour: in one, a crystal chandelier may hang anomalously from the beams; another may be completely fitted in handmade willow furniture. Cayle always includes a bed. “These are places for sound sleeping or a tryst,” the 43-year-old Colorado native says. “I hate those mini-castles in the Hamptons. People don’t know what they want, so they surround themselves with everything they can buy.”

These sorts of architectural follies are hardly radical, but are rarely visible, since their roots are more European than American. The upper classes of 18th- and 19th-century England, Ireland, France, Germany and Czechoslovakia often built simple pavilions for their amusement on their estates, but the idea was too enmeshed with class to catch on in the United States. Thomas Jefferson went to the Désert de Retz, one of the greatest follies in France, in 1786. While it had bearing on his subsequent adventures in architecture, America was too fresh-faced to embrace such studied simplicity.

The most famous proponent of such follies was Marie Antoinette. She didn’t much care for court life at Versailles, so she commanded her landscape designers and architects to build an imitation peasant village, Le Petit Hameau, on the royal grounds. For herself, she took over a little palace called the Petit Trianon, where she covered the walls with straw, placed straw mats on the floors and had the vases filled with wild field flowers. She wore only white when there.

Such affected carrying on eventually led the little queen to the guillotine, but that has not prevented others from following in her footsteps, though they do not carry things quite so far. To the best of my knowledge, Vogue’s creative director, Grace Coddington, has not been found flirtatiously churning butter; Daryl Hannah has not taken to wearing a shepherdess outfit to stroll the lawns; the photographer Bruce Weber is not practicing a “simple gliding step of incomparable grace” (as a visitor to Petit Trianon described Marie Antoinette); and neither Bill Blass nor Alexander Vreeland has proposed that the people eat cake. These people have all, however, commissioned rustic huts from Cayle.

Cayle began his own experiments in back-to-nature housing about 15 years ago, and now he does it nearly full time. He describes his creations as “garden-structure getaways,” though a few of them are rigged with telephones that can make your time with nature oddly similar to your time in civilization. “They’re simple,” he says, “and I try to make them organic. They let you get away from the overload and to feel what’s around you.” His design process is similarly organic: “I come into a place and I try to find something that really inspires me, like a color or a certain type of wood. I don’t plan it out, because I want it to develop as I build. I never do architectural drawings — some doodles maybe, but nothing too fancy. I get a bunch of artists and craftsmen and carpenters and we just build this stuff.”

Blass wanted a thatched roof. Weber has sod, with all the grass growing on it like velvet. “The building has to grow from the materials,” Cayle says. “I’ll often use some retrieved materials from old buildings, too.” But simplicity is in the eye of the beholder. Weber also wanted an outdoor gunite “swimming hole,” which he likes to keep warm on those cool Montana nights, so Cayle built an underground mechanical room to house the soaking system for the sod, as well as the heater for the pool. Nor is construction always a relaxed affair. For a treehouse in the Adirondacks, the crew worked 22 days straight through the black-fly season, covered in netting, to finish the structure in time for the Fourth of July weekend.

In her book Follies and Grottoes, the scholar Barbara Jones writes: “It is built for pleasure, and pleasure is personal, difficult to define. Folly seems a bad name, for folly is deliberate, and to be foolish one must know what is sensible; the men who built follies put them up quite seriously. Follies come from money and security and peace.” She continues: “The most isolated English cottage is set in civilisation, with a bit of garden and a path, but follies are jungly and embowered in brambles. They are cut off from worldly contacts, and lose all humanity, becoming more mineral than artifact, resolving into stones again.”

Cayle’s projects, novel though they may seem, are the perfect heirs to this grand tradition. His pavilions flirt with excess while giving the appearance of frugality. They are contradictions, and in the late decadence of the fading Clinton economy, this kind of ostentation via simplicity somehow recaptures the imagination of jaded urbanites. In crossing Thoreau with the fantasies of European aristocracy, and a touch of the Japanese teahouse, Cayle has come up with an exotic escape that is often no farther than your own backyard.