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Feature: A California House

Aaron Betsky

Max Palevsky was one of the pioneers of the computer industry. He started his career at Packard Bell; founded Scientific Data Systems, which was acquired by Xerox; and was active in the startup of Intel, on whose board he sat for 29 years. He is a noted philanthropist, art collector, and campaign finance reform activist.

If Max Palevsky’s Palm Springs house [by architect Craig Ellwood] embodies a fantasy disciplined by reason and order, his Malibu house evokes the image of architecture dissolving into place. Designed by another self-taught, but considerably less famous architect, Joe Wieser, and later renovated by the Italian maverick designer Ettore Sottsass, this structure gains its beauty as much from its locale as from the man-made forms from which it is constructed.

In 1892, Frederick H. Rindge purchased more than 16,000 acres of this stretch of Pacific Ocean coastline. After he died, his widow refused to allow any development on the land. For 30 years she resisted all attempts to cut a road through her property, preventing the piecemeal development that had already turned most of California’s coast into a hodgepodge of tightly packed communities tucked between the Pacific Coast Highway and the beach. A Supreme Court decision in 1925 finally forced Mrs. Rindge to allow that road to be built, and Angelenos looking for beachfront retreats viewed this vast seaside ranch as a slice of scenery straight out of Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel of an Edenic period before settlers took control of California from Native Americans.

Mrs. Rindge’s own house, now part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, exemplified this myth. Designed by Stiles Clements of Morgan, Walls and Clements in 1928, it is a rambling essay in the Spanish Colonial style that sought to revive that fictional era. Spanish Colonial homes gave Southern Californians a sense of belonging. The very malleability of the style meant that it could meet many different expectations and respond to a wide variety of sites and project sizes. It seemed appropriate because the climate and landscape of southern Spain and northern Africa were so similar to that of Southern California.

The Malibu Palevsky house is a perfect exemplar of this mode. Joe Wieser, who was trained as an interior designer and had no background in this style (it is the only freestanding house he ever designed, and the only Spanish Colonial project), was a modernist who had specialized in designing banks for Downey Savings. To prepare for the commission, architect and client visited as many different Mexican and Spanish Colonial projects as they could find, paying special attention to the Rindge house and to the elaborate fantasies of George Washington Smith and his contemporaries in Santa Barbara. Wieser recalls [architectural historian] David Gebhard showing them around that town, which, after the 1925 earthquake, self-consciously remade itself as a Spanish Colonial environment. While Wieser researched the roots and attributes of the style, Palevsky traveled to the Mediterranean, bringing back vivid memories of the courtyards and gardens that gave so much life and color to otherwise inwardly turned houses.

The Malibu house gains its success both from the nature of its site and from the owner’s desire to create a complete and coherent fantasy. “When I was a little kid, I never dreamed I would live like this. This really is like a fairy tale,” Palevsky exclaims. What allowed him to play it out was, above all, the site: Ranging from the Pacific Coast Highway all the way to the bluffs at the ocean’s edge, this is a fully secluded terrain.

Working with landscape architect Warren Waltz, Wieser and Palevsky tore down an existing house, then zoned the 300-foot lot for privacy, views, and sequence. A line of eucalyptus trees screens off a small field that acts as a buffer to the busy highway. The entry road then sweeps past tennis courts and a dense row of vegetation that screens the back garden. A tall, scalloped wall backs up the swimming pool, and a rhythmic sequence of plantings highlighted by coral trees lead to a geometric hedge garden Palevsky based on a section of the Alhambra.

This half-exterior space, which extends and blends both garden and interior, leads to an entrance hall whose tile paving, stucco and stone walls, and lofty height give it the impression of an outdoor courtyard. From here, one moves into a series of public rooms, including a sitting room, living room, and dining room. Large picture windows allow views over a narrow strip of garden, which Waltz filled with densely variegated strips of flowers, and then beyond to the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. A master bedroom suite upstairs and a long line of guest and children’s bedrooms to the south complete the house’s main components. In the public rooms, spaces flow together under wood beams and gentle arches, while in the bedrooms the Spanish Colonial detailing is reduced to the careful application of tile patterns. The interior’s most characteristic elements are the carved gates and other wood details created by local craftsman Thomas Braverman.

In 1984, Palevsky asked the Italian designer Ettore Sottsass to redesign the interior. Sottsass was already one of the most significant forces in contemporary design in Europe, but he was not well known in the United States, having completed only a few private homes. Although he was trained as an architect, Sottsass began his career in the late 1950s as an industrial designer and achieved early renown with his work for Olivetti, the Italian electronics and machinery conglomerate.

In 1980, he banded together with a group of younger designers to found Memphis, a multidisciplinary design collective. The furniture Sottsass produced for Memphis were emblematic of the postmodern reaction against the clean—and by then tired—lines of modernism.

Much of his work, however, was focused on furniture and interior design, in which beds, dressers, bookcases, chairs, sofas, and closets received similar treatment. They were transformed into free assemblies of cubes, triangles, open grids, cylinders, and cones. Covered in a wide variety of hues and patterns, they continued the fragmentation of the normative at a human level. At this scale, they also became focal points in preexisting interiors, bringing out the inherent geometries and forms of the rooms in which they appeared, while maintaining a totemic and abstract power.

It was in this capacity that Sottsass operated in Palevsky’s Malibu home. Working with Joe Wieser, he did no structural work on the house, but only, as he himself put it, “found its natural focal points, the points of gravity.” He custom-designed pieces of furniture that dotted the house’s living spaces, from credenzas and bookcases to chairs and sofas.

The most prominent of these pieces is the living room island. Its focal point is a pile of columns with no ostensible purpose other than to support a small, half dome of a light. This elevation of a lighting figure involves two marble walls out of which a twisted “aedicula” rises. This construction in turn supports another four columns. These are miniatures of the twisted columns that support the vaulted roof in the library. The whole construction rises high up into the living room, marking the corner of the monumental L-shaped sofa. Its columns fulfill the same function as a canopy or baldacchino in a church: they mark the center of attention, the place where something important happens. Here it is not a religious rite, but the social ritual of gathering around the fireplace.

Sottsass continues the column motif by surrounding the couch with low, terrazzo walls supporting a stunted colonnade that serves as the base of a ledge on which several of Palevsky’s antiquities are displayed. The columns appear again in front of the fireplace, where they help catch and center the curving flue Wieser designed for this large hall. In this way, Sottsass gives the roughness and slightly rambling quality of the house a layer of order, drawn lightly over its heavily modeled surfaces.

Most of the remaining gestures the architect inserted accentuate existing features, such as silver leafing on one ceiling and a starburst pattern in the ceiling of the stair and entry hall, or another colonnade in front of the fireplace in the master bedroom. Sottsass also designed several pieces of furniture for the house, ranging from armoires covered with luxurious surfaces to small tables with bulbous exaggerated feet. Each of these pieces becomes a small domestic altar standing against the sea views and lush nature outside. Although Sottsass’s contributions to the Malibu house may appear to be minor, they brought out the sensuality of the Spanish Colonial style.

Palevsky’s ultimate fantasy had turned out to be not only a place to escape, but a place to get back to basics. The reduction of the house to an incident in a kind of artificial Garden of Eden started this process. Wieser’s simple assembly of rooms—open for public functions, hard and functional for service areas, cellular for private spaces—created a logical shell he then highlighted with details that made entries and views all the more significant. Sottsass then tied the whole together around moments of clarity in which the complexities of everyday life resolved into delightful tableaux. It is perhaps fitting that it is in this house—so far removed from the origins of his wealth, from the city, and maybe from the demons that pursue him—that Palevsky spends most of his time. 

Excerpted with permission from Three California Houses: The Homes of Max Palevsky (Rizzoli, 2002).

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