Syracuse University Magazine


James "Shay" Zak '85

Simple Splendor

The day James “Shay” Zak was born, his Irish uncle took one look at his red hair and exclaimed, “Ah, little Seamus,” which is Gaelic for James. The name, pronounced Shaymus, stuck, and he has been called Shay ever since. Growing up in Mill Valley, California, he was into painting, enjoyed arts and crafts, and liked building things. “My high school girlfriend’s dad was an architect, and I thought he was a really cool guy,” Zak says. “I decided architecture would be perfect for me.”

A third-generation Californian, Zak knew little about life beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, so when it came time to choose a college, he looked to the East. He checked out Syracuse University on the recommendation of a family friend and was impressed with its ivy-covered buildings, five-year architecture program, and study abroad opportunities. “While studying for my bachelor’s degree at SU, I immersed myself in the East Coast scene,” says Zak, who added a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University to his credentials in 1986. “Syracuse was a good place for me because I was able to intern with architecture firms in New York, Boston, and Chicago, and study architecture in Florence, Italy. It was fabulous.”

Back home in California, Zak established his own firm, designing residential architecture out of his office in Marin County. In 2000, he was asked to design a house in Hawaii. ”I had never set foot in Hawaii, so I had to figure out what I wanted to do,” Zak says. “I drove around to get the feel of the island, and decided to pair the simplicity of the open primitive Hawaiian huts with the New England-style frame houses brought over by missionaries in the mid-1800s.”

His first Hawaiian home, Beach House, was built in the Hualalai Resort on the Kona Coast of the Big Island. It’s organized around two garden spaces that optimize the site’s lush tropical surroundings and features open walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, all natural wood, and a minimalist color palette. “I used no paint, and every material was chosen to get better with age,” Zak says. “Beach House is now 12 years old and has a wonderful patina that looks as fresh as ever. I discovered it takes a lot of work to make something look simple.”

The balance and symmetry of Beach House caught on and led to all of Zak’s other work, including 30 homes in Hawaii—documented in his book New Tropical Classics: Hawaiian Homes by Shay Zak (Architecture/Interiors Press, 2011)—as well as homes in Lake Tahoe, and a number of projects now under construction or on the drawing board. His clients, many of whom are from Silicon Valley, ask interesting questions. “If I’m designing for two intelligent people—a man and a woman—and they have their own perspectives—my job is to come up with something that satisfies both of them perfectly,” says Zak, who is a member of the School of Architecture Advisory Board and the San Francisco Regional Council. “What is satisfying to me is blending their personalities and design aesthetics.”

In keeping with his fondness for thematic designs that harmonize with the beauty of the Earth, Zak named his four children after places he finds inspirational: Cadillac is named after Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Arcadia National Park; Everest, in honor of the mount’s snow-capped majesty; Berkshire, for the verdant mountains in western Massachusetts; and Cascade, after the lovely mountain range in Washington state. “When our second child arrived I thought, ‘Why not keep the mountain theme alive?’” he says. “Interestingly, they all resemble their namesakes—in spades!”      —Christine Yackel

182_06.jpgStone House, Kukio, Kono Coast, Hawaii, 2006