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Feature: Contemporary’s Softer Side

Lisa Selin Davis

When a Southern California couple purchased land on a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains, they acquired a virgin canvas upon which to fashion their masterwork. “We had the entire range of possibilities open to us. It wasn’t like we were in a neighborhood where we all had to conform to one thing,” the husband says. “We were starting from scratch. When you have a completely blank slate, you should create something rather than take something prepackaged.”
 
Their creation—a 12,000-square-foot structure—appears to be a study of dichotomies: It is modern yet homey, exposed yet protected, communal yet private. The couple commissioned architect Richard Landry, who founded Landry Design Group in 1987 in Los Angeles, to design a residence that accommodates their lifestyle, which involves spending a great deal of time outside. “We both love the outdoors, and the mountains in particular,” says the husband.

They also admire the clean lines and open spaces of contemporary houses, but not the cold, sterile tone they often project. They wanted a warm, comfortable home that would be suitable for raising their three children, who range in age from 10 to 18. As for building a warm yet contemporary house, “They weren’t sure it was even possible, because they had never seen anything that they liked,” says Brian Pinkett, the Landry associate who directed the project.
 
Although clients typically bring to their initial meeting with an architect photos of designs that appeal to them, this couple, unable to find any examples of what they had in mind, instead articulated their ideas in a two-hour discussion with Landry. “We thought we were speaking gibberish,” says the wife, “but the next time we saw him, he had a picture of the house, and we said, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty much it.’ He hit it right on the nose the first time.”

Pinkett says that the design cannot be classified. “You can’t just look at it and say East meets West,” he explains. The residence incorporates elements of a Tuscan villa, a Philip Johnson glass house, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style. “When you design a contemporary house, you create your own language, your own style,” says Landry.
 
Besides sheltering the family, the house also serves as a venue to display the couple’s contemporary art collection, which includes paintings and sculptures. The structure had to complement the art without overwhelming it. “We didn’t want to go crazy with the bones of the house,” says Pinkett. “We wanted to create something they could decorate and work around, and let the colors happen with the art and the furnishings.” The architects therefore designed the interior first and worked from the inside out.

Neutral colors and earth tones showcase both the paintings and the brilliance of the surrounding landscape—the Kelly green lawns by day and the shimmering city lights of Santa Monica at night. Although the predominant color of the great room is sage green, designer Michael Skelton of MJS Interiors in Los Angeles utilized a number of other hues and textures. A splash of Chinese red—an accent repeated throughout the house in what Skelton calls an Asian–meets–Art Deco theme—highlights the room’s rug.

The clients, however, did not want the house to have the aura of an art gallery. “It can be so cold,” says Landry of the typical modern home. “We wanted to bring warmth to that concept.” To do so, the architects incorporated natural materials throughout the house and property: Pennsylvania bluestone in the fireplaces and in the rock-scapes along the front patio, copper on the roof and in a kitchen island, oak paneling in the library, and mahogany around the windows. “The house has the kind of warmth and comfort you’d find in a smaller home or cottage,” observes Landry.

These features also soften the divide between the indoors and out. “[The house] has a lot of earthiness and richness to it,” says the husband. “The way the bluestone comes into the house brings that natural quality inside.” The treatment of the various passageways contributes to this effect. Several rooms have enormous sliding glass doors that disappear into the walls; a few rooms appear to flow into covered loggias, some of which have fireplaces or fountains.

Outdoors, the property offers a recreational smorgasbord to the family and their guests, including a pool with a cabana, a sports court, and a barbecue pit. “I get back from a run in the Santa Monica Mountains, take a dip in the pool, shoot some hoops, chip some golf balls in the yard, take a steam, and lift some weights in my gym. I’m using everything here,” the husband says.
 
Inside the residence, inventive details contribute to a sense of openness throughout. The master bedroom’s recessed ceiling, for example, makes the walls appear taller. Downstairs, the kitchen, breakfast nook, and family room form one open space. Behind the semicircular breakfast area are four tall windows that open directly onto the pool. The wife’s office nook is separated from this family area by a low wall, which conceals any clutter. “She can be doing whatever planning she needs to do, yet at the same time be with the entire family,” says Landry, who refers to her space as “the command center.”

To balance this communal living with individual privacy, which is especially important with teenagers, Landry created a children’s wing, with bedrooms that encircle a vast common area. “It can be used as an arts and crafts room, a playroom, a study, a computer room,” he says. “It allows them to gather together with their friends or parents, and at the same time they can easily retreat to their rooms.”

The presence of children usually multiplies the number of possessions in a house, but, notes Landry, any clutter will detract from the clean lines of a modern design. Accordingly, in this house he provided ample storage space, a consideration, he points out, that most architects view as secondary. “When you look at contemporary homes,” he says, “the focus [should be] on the spaces themselves and on the volumes you create with the clarity of the lines.”
 
Upon this mountain canvas, those lines remain clear, though the voluminous spaces that they form have been softened.

Landry Design Group, 310.444.1404, www.landrydesigngroup.com
Michael Skelton, MJS Interiors, 310.659.3990

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