Dan Brunn Renovates Frank Gehry’s Very First House
Los Angeles real-estate talk turns to provenance, more often than not. The designer and/or owner of a house, past and present, can add up to major bragging rights, and a certain 1974 property had all that in spades, starting with the original architecture firm, Frank O. Gehry & Associates. This is Frank Gehry’s very first house, preceding even his own deconstructivist landmark, renowned for its chain-link fencing. Today’s cast of characters is plenty noteworthy, too. The owners are James Jean—the prolific commercial and fine artist recently tied to Prada, with fashion fabrics and environmental graphics for runway shows— and his wife, Chihiro Torikai. Landscaping consultant Kaisei-en, which has worked at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, handled the garden. The renovation commission went to Dan Brunn Architecture, its star rapidly on the rise.
Jean met Dan Brunn at a street-art festival in Hawaii when Jean was painting a mural for the Honolulu Museum of Art. At the time, Brunn had zero idea of the extent of Jean’s fame or his huge fan base, both in his native Taiwan and internationally. But the two became fast friends. In fact, when later house-hunting back in the L.A. neighborhood nicknamed Japantown or Little Osaka, near where Jean had lived before moving to Japan, he and his wife bunked down with Brunn.
The house that Jean and Torikai now share with their 2-year-old was built for collectors who used the open-plan ground level as a gallery and fundraising venue. Above were a trio of small bedrooms. Name recognition aside, it must be admitted that this is watered-down Gehry, since many details of his design went unbuilt. The site therefore presented a blank canvas. At the outset, Jean was clear about his basic needs: “A lot of artists prefer a studio that’s separate, but I was looking for something simple where I could work and have my family nearby. No separation. What could be better than that?”
“James said to do what I wanted,” Brunn recalls. He had not a moment of hesitation about his plans. He acknowledged Gehry right at the recessed entry, which is clad with overlapping copper panels resembling fish scales—no mistaking that salute. Inside, Brunn continues, “I saw an articulated box. It all started with the stair.” (Of course it did.) In this case, the animated construction of 2-by-8-inch solid walnut planks in varying lengths expresses a dual geometry. Planks have a crisp crease line but, at the same time, are arrayed on a curve in a subtle reference to the flowing forms characteristic of Jean’s colorful, lyrical drawings and paintings.
More than a vertical connector, the stairway imparts a sense of horizontal procession by compressing the space between the foyer and the zone occupied by the studio and the living and dining areas. Whether that sprawling space continues through to the rear sector depends on the position of a 12-foot-wide pivoting partition. Open, it gives the living area direct access to the library; closed, the library becomes guest quarters. Either way, an alcove adjacent to the library-bedroom is perhaps the project’s most stunning moment. Brunn built it out as an open-sided box composed of walnut planes, canted ever so slightly, with a run of sliding glass doors creating a contemplative retreat from which to appreciate the garden. “Inspiration,” he says, “came from a Japanese teahouse.” In true L.A. fashion, furthermore, the sliders stack away to let the volume merge with the bamboo, ginkgos, and Japanese maples planted beyond. Absolute zen.
Throughout the ground level, diffuse lighting creates a shadow-free environment, an ideal Instagram setting—and a signature move for Brunn. At night, moods can shift. Subdued or lively, take your pick. LEDs ringing the alcove’s walnut box are programmed to cycle through colors controlled by a handheld remote. Call this an homage to James Turrell. No doubt about it, Brunn’s brand of minimalism is a multilayered affair.
For furniture, he chose some big names, modern and contemporary. The library’s swiveling armchair and ottoman are the classics by Charles and Ray Eames. Bertjan Pot designed the dining area’s slimmed-down Parsons table.
In the living area, a pale gray sectional by Antonio Citterio faces black sling chairs by Jean Prouvé. They gather around a custom piece, a gutsy cocktail table. It’s mostly Douglas fir, but look closely to discover subtle turquoise inlays and copper staples.
Upstairs, Brunn did the unthinkable in real-estate terms. He actually reduced square footage, for a total of 3,600, by taking away a bedroom. What was gained is, to some, even more valuable: private outdoor space, the master suite’s pocket terrace walled in by glass. The solution actually harks back to Gehry, whose plans called for the same spot to be a greenhouse.