October 1, 2010

Ready to Upload: A Pared-Down San Francisco Penthouse

Steve Chen is a super-techie. And a super-wealthy one at that. A cofounder of YouTube, he stayed on as chief technology officer after it was bought by Google. Yet his San Francisco home, albeit a duplex penthouse, is surprisingly down-to-earth. There’s little ostentation in objects and materials. There’s virtually no art. Sophisticated gadgetry is neatly concealed.

Occupying a quarter of the 24th and 25th stories of a Burnham & Root office tower, known as the Chronicle Building before it was converted into the Ritz-Carlton Club and Residences, the 3,200-square-foot unit started out as a raw shell-not much more than some steel columns and decking. Melissa Winn Interiors, which had designed Chen’s previous apartment, would clearly need a collaborator for this repeat commission. “It required a degree of architecture I didn’t have,” Melissa Winn says. So she made the connection to Joel Sanders Architect, a firm that once worked with her former partner on an apartment renovation in New York. Chen invited Joel Sanders to fly out to California, and the two instantly clicked. Their initial two-hour meeting, in a coffee shop, eventually evolved into a 21-month three-way collaboration.

San Francisco projects inevitably start with the view. To profit from Chen’s panorama, encompassing city, bay, and ocean, Sanders says, “We unified the apartment’s discontinuous window openings with a ‘sky zone’ that wraps the perimeter. We ganged up the windows on both floors, furred out the walls between, and painted the resulting horizontal recesses blue.” To keep the views front and center, obstruction-free, each level is an open expanse.

Connecting the two levels functionally, a floating walnut staircase hugs a wall of staggered walnut paneling. Unifying them visually, a double-height living area is overlooked, mezzanine-style, from the balconies of the master suite and a contiguous space designed as a game room that could double as guest quarters. The latter features plenty of built-in storage for Chen’s passions-headphones and guitars-as well as a billiard table topped in midnight-blue felt. Blue, in fact, is virtually the only non-neutral in the apartment, dominated by white-painted walls and white concrete flooring and accented by walnut.

To complement the pared-down envelope, Winn chose modern and contemporary furniture as well as contributing custom pieces here and there. She gave pride of place, by the windows in living area, to a hanging Bubble seat by Eero Aarnio. A back-to-back pair of Rodolfo Dordoni sectionals mark the dividing line between the living area and the den, under the mezzanine’s overhang-as one sectional takes in the city­scape, the other faces a trio of wall-mounted monitors. In a corner of the den, a banquette is upholstered in slate-blue mohair. 

Pale tones and notable names continue upstairs. An Eero Saarinen armchair and a Vladimir Kagan lounge chair and footrest outfit a sitting area in the master bedroom, where the bed’s blue-gray upholstery plays off the blue wall paint. The wool-silk shag, meanwhile, is a slightly creamier white than the oatmeal-colored rug down in the living area. That creamy shade is also identical to the bed’s Corian headboard. Behind it, dividing the bedroom from the bathroom, a glass wall can change from clear to frosted and back again at the flip of a switch. A less high-tech privacy device is the set of white stacked pocket doors that slide out to close off the bedroom from the game room.

Now we’re getting at what attracted Chen to Sanders in the first place. “What I found fascinating about his portfolio was the idea of transformation. Areas could become whatever I need them to be at that particular time of the day,” Chen says. That might mean something small, such as making the walnut table in the kitchen long enough to function as a desk, since he often works at home. However, flex­ibility was important to him in a larger sense, too.

“I originally asked for the ultimate bachelor-pad-in-the-sky,” he continues. “But there was this thing gnawing at the back of my mind that I’d marry and have kids someday.” That thing has indeed gnawed its way into reality. Chen wed Google’s former product-marketing manager Jamie Park during the renovation. Today, they’re the sleep-deprived parents of a newborn boy. And Chen’s bachelor-pad game room? It’s completely taken over by baby gear.

Photography by Rien van Rijthoven.

aniket shahane (project architect); jean suh; dylan sauer: joel sanders architect. natasha shah: melissa winn interiors. winder gibson architects: architect of record. richard j shaver architectural lighting: lighting consultant. performance sound and security: audio­visual consultant. santos & urrutia structural engineers: structural engineer. mhc engineers: mep. boxcabco: woodwork. belmar uphol­stery: upholsterer. concreteworks: flooring contractor. matarozzi/pelsinger builders: general contractor.

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