Home Tour: House of the Rising Son

The Umanskys are lucky. They seem to suffer neither generation gaps nor family feuds. As proof, one need go no further than the contemporary Beverly Hills residence Alfredo and Betty Umansky have called home for the past two and a half years. Their art-filled house, replete with stone, glass, and wood accents, blends traditional and modern elements. It is a mix that suits both the home owners and their architectural designer: the owners’ son, Leonardo Umansky.

“My parents originally asked for a Mediterranean-style house, but I wanted them to consider other options. So they started showing us [the designers] more contemporary images,” says Leonardo, who launched Arxis Design Studio, in Culver City, Calif., in 1997 with fellow Southern California Institute of Architecture graduate Ramiro Diaz-Granados.

“At first, I looked at my husband and asked, ‘Can we trust Leonardo?’ ” Betty Umansky says with a laugh. Alfredo replied, “I don’t know, but do we have a choice?” They quickly realized their faith in their son was not misplaced.

Umansky and Diaz-Granados incorporated two opposing aesthetics into the home’s plan: a Mondrian-like grid overlaid with a drawing of a curvilinear sculpture by Mexican artist Leonardo Nierman, a favorite piece from the Umanskys’ collection. This combination of whimsy and functionality, a blending of the familiar and the new, is evident throughout the home.

The couple insisted on formal living and dining rooms flanking a grand entry, with the family room, the kitchen, and the breakfast area located at the rear for easy access to the yard and pool. Betty cautioned her son: “Remember, I’m no longer your mother, I’m your client, so you have to listen to me,” she recalls with a smile. He listened and produced a compromise that satisfied his parents’ plans and his creativity.

Instead of using traditional walls and doors to shape the formal rooms, the designers installed highly varnished red oak flooring and imposing beams, and varied the ceiling heights. The two-story entryway defines the home’s axis, which runs to the backyard rubber tree, the only tree to remain in its original spot after the previous home was torn down. The corridor’s fragmented archway and spiraling staircase evoke the Mediterranean style the Umanskys first favored. Floored in limestone and bathed in natural light, the foyer connects the indoors with the outside. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors at the rear of the house provide an unobstructed view from the entry to the backyard. The enormous wood-framed glass doors that face the backyard completely disappear into pockets in the walls when fully opened, further blurring the barrier between outdoors and in. Amplifying the fusion of architecture and nature is the limestone flooring, which begins on the front steps and continues through to the patio and pool.

Doors also mark the boundaries between the formal and informal areas. Twin eight-foot pivoting doors of Douglas fir lead from the living room to the bar and family room. When opened, they create a large, flowing space for entertaining. Leonardo says that within the home’s flexible plan, “the only traditional door on the first floor is the one to the powder room.”

The designers made generous use of Bouquet Canyon stone on the exterior and interior walls and the fireplaces. In addition to creating warmth, it provides a sense of history. “The stone masses appear like ruins or a building fragment,” Leonardo says. The stones’ geometry and texture contrast with the smooth, fluid curves of partial walls, columns, and the sculptural main staircase. A pair of niches near the stairs reinforces the juxtaposition of rough and smooth elements, using the stone wall to frame two white onyx sculptures by Nierman.

The Umanskys nurture their vast, predominantly Latin American art collection as well as their large, close-knit family, which gathers at their home for weekly dinners. They had two requirements of the design: flexible spaces for family entertaining and abundant natural light to enhance the artworks.

Their previous home, a dark, five-bedroom Tudor-style residence just a block away, had suited them when they were raising their four children (two sons and two daughters—Leonardo is the youngest son). Now that the children had moved out, the Umanskys “wanted fewer bedrooms but more space,” Betty says. They ended up with a master suite, a guest room, and an office that converts to an extra bedroom contained in 9,000 square feet of space.

The couple also wanted their art to shine in a brighter environment. The collection provided impetus for the designers, who created innovative light sources, such as clerestories, light shafts, and perimeter skylights. “Friends now come over and ask if such-and-such a painting is new, since it didn’t stand out in our other house,” Betty says.

Special niches and architectural elements were created to hold spe-cific pieces. The design team inset a frameless abstract canvas by Japanese-born painter Shingo Honda into a wall off the dining area. A partial wall in a foyer was chosen to frame a still life by the late painter Antonio Rodriguez Luna. He was one of the first artists collected by Alfredo and later became a close friend.

Another prominently placed work is a large sculpture by Victor Salmones, Encore Ballerina. Standing in a patio reflecting pool, it marks the exact center of the house. Point of View, a second Salmones sculpture, greets visitors at the front of the house. A Robert Graham bronze on a columnar pedestal in the living room mimics the larger and rounder architectural elements nearby.

During the home’s 18-month construction, the couple came by every day—“preferably when everyone was gone,” says Betty—to work out the placement of art in advance. Alfredo began the collection nearly 40 years ago in Mexico City, and while its predominant focus is modern Mexican painting and sculp-ture, the couple also owns works by Miró, Lichtenstein, and Agam, and pieces by Japanese, Indonesian, and African artists, as well as Asian dec-orative arts.

Alfredo’s collecting has always been guided by his heart rather than by a consultant. Betty shares her husband’s enthusiasm and supports his choices. “We’ve been married more than 30 years, and we’ve never had an argument in that arena,” she says. For the Umansky family, home is where the heart and the art is.

Kathleen Riquelme is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer and a former editor for Architectural Digest.

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