June 21, 2012

Living on the Edge: A Los Angeles House on a Hill

It took a house in Los Angeles to introduce two natives of Oklahoma City. Through a mutual friend, Thomas Carson, an architect, happened to meet his client, a TV producer, when the latter and his partner were planning to renovate the 1977 hillside ranch where they’d been living with their two rescue pit bulls. And hillside is a touch of an understatement. 

The front door is 60 feet straight up from the street, and the stairs were a relentless run of railroad ties, nary a landing to catch your breath. The owners had grown attached to their house— the groovy shape, the scale, even the red-cedar siding. Plenty was lacking, however. The 1,600-square-foot interior was short on storage, bathrooms, views, and a general stylishness to which both men were accustomed. So, embarking on what would become a three-year process, Carson Architects retained both the footprint and the form while gutting and reconstructing. All mechanicals were updated, and almost everything else was hand-built. “Even the framing is cabinetry-caliber,” Carson notes. It would have been easier, frankly, to start from scratch. But he was following a strict mandate: to make the house look virtually unchanged…at least from the outside.

Original cladding cued the new cedar planks, which continue inside for a moody ceiling. Alleviating its potential heaviness, windows and sliding glass doors let in daylight from all directions, as there are practically no walls to obstruct a 360-degree panorama that takes in the Griffith Observatory, downtown’s skyline, and Catalina Island.

The open-and-easy main space, in the larger of the house’s two sections, encompasses living and dining areas, a kitchen with an office nook, and a powder room. In the smaller section is the sole remaining bedroom—with an enviable run of closets and a deck to supplement the main one off the living area. The private zone furthermore contains a poolside lounge, which doubles as guest quarters, and two full bathrooms.

Floor plan established, Carson took on his clients as his interiors partners. They were totally handson, starting out by selecting materials with an aura of California Meets Japan: horizontally laid wengé for kitchen cabinetry, honed quartzite for kitchen and bath counters, slate-gray porcelain for floor tile, planks of balau, a Southeast Asian hardwood, for other flooring as well as the decks. The partnership extended to furnishings and hardware, too: engaging wall covering and Marc Newson door handles for the bedroom and powder room, sandcast aluminum cabinet pulls and Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., walnut-veneered nesting tables for the kitchen, an orange-and-gray Patricia Urquiola sectional for a window-wrapped corner of the living area, plus charcoal-gray grass cloth for the long wall opposite. Empty walls begged for artwork. Thus began a collecting spree overseen by the TV producer’s partner, an art consultant. His choices established the quirky layerering identified with the best of design today. Big names and investment prospects didn’t enter the picture. The selection embraces a number of mediums and adheres to no hard-andfast theme, but California artists are the majority, with pieces tending toward edgy and sometimes outright dark.

That grass-cloth wall now hosts an immense oil painting of a soldier plunging head-first into a dark void—a work so new it was still drying. The street artist known as Kaws contributed the cartoonish yet macabre figure that stands between Urquiola’s sectional and a modernist-minded credenza in wengé. Two of the more haunting works are in the bedroom, where the face of actress Marina Vlady, a film still from a Jean-Luc Godard movie, appears silk-screened on a mirror near an image of an intricately tattooed Japanese man, shot by an American tattoo artist. Thing lighten up in the lounge, thanks to an abstracted balloon dog rendered in tape on the ceiling. The tape is neon pink, tying in with the plaid and floral fabric on the huge tufted cushions below. Where things differ radically is outside the lounge, in the backyard. The owners had asked for a pool, no easy request on said hillside. “To flatten it, we had to jackhammer and hand-excavate,” Carson explains. “We spent a lot of time removing earth and retaining walls, sending the debris down a chute.” Well worth it, the effort cleared the way for not only a swimming pool but also a whirlpool, both solar-heated. Throw in a fire pit and a green wall, and you’ve got quite the trendy party setting. In front of the house, a landscaping consultant planted the hillside in a camouflage pattern. And Carson devised an access route with cast-in-place concrete treads, interrupted by four landings. Getting home is no longer a boot-camp session.

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