Photo by Geoffrey Hodgdon

Richard Coghlan and Sangme Lee had lived in urban centers of Asia—Manila, Seoul and Hong Kong—for 18 years, mostly in tiny apartments. When the couple started planning a move back to the Washington area in 2013, they knew they wanted more space for themselves and their two sons. Lots more space.

“We lived in megacities,” Lee says. “So everyone was on top of each other.” Speaking from years of experience, Coghlan adds, “I wanted a big house because there’s less clutter. If it’s smaller, it’s harder to clean.”

They targeted Bethesda because they loved the idea of being near an urban-like downtown with access to Metro but without the “hustle and bustle” of D.C. Ultimately they settled on a lot in Kenwood Park and commissioned Sandy Spring Builders to build their new house. But three or four months into the job “we were being asked a lot of questions that we didn’t know how to answer,” Coghlan says. Because they were still living in Hong Kong at the time, they realized they needed an advocate on the ground here to work with the builders and guide the interior architecture and design process. But who?

Richard Coghlan and Sangme Lee in the kitchen of the Bethesda home they had built. Photo by Michael Ventura

Living in Asia had given them a modern sensibility they wanted their new home to reflect. “We were struck by the beauty and the sophistication of the simple, clean lines and finishes,” Lee says. “In Korea, we bought an apartment heavily influenced by the modern Japanese style, and you may say that apartment was the starting point of our journey toward this house.” After searching online for someone who shared their viewpoint, they found architect Andreas Charalambous, the owner of D.C.-based Forma Design.


“Sangme knew what she wanted,” says Charalambous, who has a reputation for creating sleek, modern interiors. “She was on a mission.” That mission had multiple goals: In addition to the space, the house needed to be family friendly for the couple’s boys, Francis, 16, who attends Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria, and Alex, 7, who goes to Potomac Elementary School. “A lot of modern houses are designed for adults,” Lee says. Here, she didn’t want anything off-limits “so they can run around, and I’m not super worried that they’re going to touch everything.”

The house had to have lots of large windows and skylights, so light could penetrate every space—unlike a typical apartment. The couple also reacted against the odd layouts that are common in Asian apartments. “We didn’t want funny angles,” Lee says. “We just wanted a big, square functional house.”

Charalambous saw to it that every space was open and full of light—especially on the main floor, where the entry flows freely into the expansive kitchen and living area beyond. Anchoring the space is a dark polished-concrete fireplace surround that pops from white walls. “This was the most important thing for me,” Lee says, noting that one of the reasons they chose Forma Design was its portfolio of similarly dramatic fireplaces.


Photos by Geoffrey Hodgdon

The fireplace’s angular minimalism informed where they went next. “Once we set the tone of the house, we made sure everything was consistent,” Charalambous says. The custom stair rails, for example, echo the lines etched into the fireplace’s concrete, yet blend with the white walls, and there’s another fireplace surround on the lower level in white-tinted concrete.

Lee and Coghlan were in Asia during the entire design process, communicating with Charalambous for nearly 18 months via email and Skype as the designer sent a steady stream of finishes and furnishings for their review.


They decided on a primary color scheme after Charalambous suggested a bright-red suspension lamp to hang above the kitchen table. Coghlan and Lee chose that lamp among many other options. “At that point, it became clear they were not afraid of color,” the architect says. “We decided to consciously use bold colors throughout the house to complement the neutral palette of the architecture and bring the space to life.”

Photos by Geoffrey Hodgdon

Charalambous painted the high-gloss, abstract paintings that look like blocks of color in the living room, stairwell and master bedroom. They’re a pleasing counterpoint to the colorful, surreal paintings of Lee’s Korean mother, Jang Eui Park, which inhabit nearly every room. The color theme kept Lee going as she began looking for other elements, such as bright throw pillows and a prism-like runner at the front door. “Once you start having some things, you find other things that work with them,” Charalambous says. “It builds up.”


The next order of business was shelves and built-in storage for the kitchen, closets and bathrooms—a priority driven by years of apartment living. “Because I lived in such small places, everything was put away and organized,” Lee says—a habit she’s successfully continued since the family moved into the house in late 2014.