A Touch of Neutra
The spirit of Los Angeles modernism lives on at architect Bret Thoeny's house
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 2/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Raised and educated in Southern California, Bret Thoeny has Case Study Houses in his blood. Yet he and his family spent four years in a 1924 log cabin, seduced by its eclectic charms. Besides, log-cabin living never required the Thoeny clan to leave Los Angeles. The cabin was built for the set of a silent film, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and reassembled in Rustic Canyon. Thoeny took great care in renovating the cabin, but it ultimately proved too small. He jumped when a nearby plot of land became available, a wooded 3/4 acre with views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica Mountains.
Among the few to build a career flying solo, Thoeny founded Boto Design Architects right out of the University of Southern California—no early partnerships or due diligence at large firms for this maverick. His 20-year-old practice has thrived on entertainment-industry commissions and real-estate development. These successes have enabled him to construct a 4,000-square-foot embodiment of 20th-century modernism and 21st-century refinement.
Thoeny's design is it-girl lean, but the architecture nevertheless avoids making a big splash. "I consciously avoided pretension. It's not the tone for Rustic Canyon," he explains. Instead, the discreet structure combines redwood and stucco with zinc friezes and, of course, ample runs of glass. And given Thoeny's deep L.A. roots, it's only natural that he felt the pull of the city's adopted son Richard Neutra, as seen in a V-shape roof of composite gravel.
Inside, Thoeny evokes another hero, Marcel Breuer. "It's about the scale of the rooms," Thoeny says. You'll find no cavernous two-story spaces. Instead, the axial plan is defined by a 12-foot grid of exposed columns that show his preference for orthogonal organization. The interconnected areas read as rooms, thanks to deft built-in cabinetry of white oak.
Polished materials abound: walnut for floors, Colorado sandstone for fireplace surrounds. Thoeny and his wife, Mossimo fashion designer Lissa Zwahlen, have also demonstrated their connoisseurs' eye for furniture. Pieces are pedigreed without being ubiquitous.
In the sunken living area, sofas by Antonio Citterio and Eoos Design face off across 'Emaf Progetti's lacquered table. Nearby, Eileen Gray enters the picture via her iconic side table and Bibendum chair. A grand piano lends a hint of formality.
The tone becomes slightly more casual in the ensuing dining area, kitchen, and den. For dining, Thoeny and Zwahlen chose the embracing forms of Hannes Wettstein's leather-covered armchairs to surround a custom rectangular wengé table. The den is no less stylish. Paul Frankl's biomorphic cork table balances the low tailored lines of Patricia Urquiola's sofa, and a linen-covered armchair sits by the sliding glass doors overlooking the pool.
Upstairs are Thoeny and Zwahlen's two sons' bedrooms and the master suite, where Thoeny resumes his design dialogue. In the bedroom proper, a canvas cover tweaks Le Corbusier's chaise. Italian classics furnish the adjoining sitting room, a veritable photography gallery of family portraits.
Designing the Lowe Gallery, a 2002 project in Santa Monica, sparked Thoeny's nascent interest in contemporary art—and desires to live surrounded by it. He admits being particularly drawn to James Havard's "gobs of texture," as an oil in the living area attests. Works in the master bedroom and dining area bear witness to a growing appreciation for collage and minimalism.
A pop art sensibility informs the signature piece in the open-air sitting room, right off the pool. Here, Thoeny hung the battered tin frames of four neon letters that spell the word leap. Zwahlen discovered them three years ago when combing a flea market. "We like stuff like that. It's unexpected," says Thoeny. So, too, is such a low-key residence in an increasingly overblown world.