“KILLDEER. WHERE the hell is it?”
Joe Van Os looks up the second he hears the call.
“I’ve had a lifelong interest in birds and reptiles,” he says. “The photography morphed. I was so close up I thought, ‘I should be taking pictures.’ ”
And long story really short, in 1980 Van Os opened Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, a Vashon Island-based business he says is the largest nature-photography tour company in the world. The work has taken him to the Arctic and the Antarctic and most places in between.
Across the way at HQ, 10 employees work full time. But here in the woods, high over a great expanse of Puget Sound, Van Os is all by himself.
Just the way he loves it.
“In the morning I put the coffee on, I answer emails and look for orcas.”
For almost 20 years, however, since he bought his first Vashon parcel in 1983, Van Os did that in a motor home. He lived there while saving for this, his 4,232-square-foot cedar, glass, steel and stone celebration of Northwest design by architect Stephen Bobbitt of Stephen Bobbitt Architects.
“I gave him a plan,” says Van Os, watching the water and sitting at the Red Dragon granite kitchen island that’s as big as a station wagon. “Eddie Bauer meets Godzilla. I wanted a Northwest home with a big Japanese influence.”
To Bobbitt that meant finesse and ordered structure mixed with the muscular expression of the Pacific Northwest. Shoji screens and heavy timbers, like that.
Central to the home is the exposed timber-framed ceiling with heavy beams over the vast great room. It is anchored by a blocky limestone-clad fireplace. Daylighting from view windows to the north is balanced by large south-facing clerestories.
Floors are black limestone quarried in Belgium. Outside it’s granite quarried in China. All of it cut and fit masterfully by Valeriy Popach of Val Masonry in Marysville. Cabinets, American cherry, were crafted by Tom Northington of Vashon.
Outside are massive boulders from Marenakosframing a water feature that rushes across the front of the home and offers birds a place to scrub up.
Van Os put himself in charge of the interiors and landscaping. “Being a photographer gives you a good eye for design. And I decided to buy furniture only made in America. Every stick of furniture you see here (in the great room) McKinnon Furniture built it. Also, every counter is 4 inches higher. Toilets are taller. There is very little nod toward short people.”
Van Os’ home is filled with the treasures of his travels. None of them his own photographs. “Stuff that people make is better than my click.”
Over the past 34 years Van Os has seen it all, and only recently had his first touch of danger when an elephant seal charged him last fall. Van Os ended up with three broken ribs.
The photographer’s favorite animal? “Polar Bear.” Bird? “Raven, because they’re smart. Watch this:” He bullies a hefty bag of dog food to the terrace, scatters a handful. “C’mon guys, come and get it!”
Van Os has plans for his home in the woods, the place he calls his favorite in all the world.
For now, he lends it to worthy charity events (Vashon Allied Arts, Vashon Maury Island Land Trust): “That’s what I figure I can do to live here and still be a recluse.”
And later: “The upshot of this is when I croak it’ll be turned into a nature center.”
Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific NW magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.