Modern in Montecito
A house by Shubin + Donaldson offers an alternative to the local California-ranch paradigm
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 6/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
"Montecito is casual, and so are its houses. Most are California-ranch style," Robin Donaldson remarks, navigating curves along the road to a house that he and Russell Shubin built for clients transplanted from Chicago. Casual this house is decidedly not. A streamlined composition of rectangles, with an entry piece comprising a sleek granite plinth, an exposed steel framework, and translucent glass panels, the structure is all the more remarkable for having passed the stringent examination of the Montecito Architectural Review Committee. Together, building and front landscaping—an austere still life of chipped gravel and equisetum—present an alternative to the community's firmly entrenched traditionalism.
The clients had proclaimed an affinity with modern design when they built their previous residence 10 years ago and simultaneously embarked on the serious collecting of art and furniture. Pieces by Sam Francis, Charles Arnoldi, Alex Katz, Sean Scully, Tom Lieber, and Suzanne Caporeal attest to the commitment, as does Mies van der Rohe, Saarinen, and Vignelli furniture. For the new house, the couple opted to up the design ante from modern to out-and-out contemporary.
Shubin + Donaldson Architects was well versed in this vernacular, having completed warehouse conversions for the Los Angeles ad agencies Ogilvy & Mather and Ground Zero as well as residences in Malibu and Beverly Hills. Résumé aside, the deal was clinched because Shubin and Donaldson "really listened," the clients relate. What the architects heard and what they first saw, however, were diametrically opposed. The clients had purchased a 1-acre hillside lot with sweeping views of Santa Barbara Harbor and the Santa Ynez Mountains. So far, so good. The downside was the house, which the partners describe in disparaging terms. "A dumb tract house with lava rocks outside" was one comment. And this one about the interior: "It was dark and hadn't been touched for years."
It took healthy imaginations to envision the house's future as a clean, light-filled setting for the clients' impressive collections. Nevertheless, the architects opted initially for renovation. Four months into the process, cost estimates proved prohibitive, and plans still held compromises. For almost equal money, a ground-up structure satisfying everyone's needs could be built. "Give us a weekend to devise a scheme," the architects requested.
That scheme, predicated on cost efficiency and the loft archetype, is conceived as three rectangles massed around an entry court. The main piece is "essentially a big shed," Donaldson explains. It encompasses 1,440 square feet with minimal divisions among entry, living, dining, and kitchen zones. But the mandate for ample wall space, to display artwork, posed a contraindication that S+D resolved through a gallery cum circulation axis. Spanning the shed's length, this axis joins public areas to a pair of guest bedrooms and baths. The second block is the master suite with study; the third component is the three-car garage. It's as elemental as that.
"We used steel trusses and decking—the kind seen at Costco—because they provide not only reasonably priced construction means but also a sotto voce address to the desired design vocabulary when exposed at the entry and lengthwise walls," Donaldson comments. That primary move is supplemented by other subtle architectural details. A split between the public expanse and guest quarters creates a rear pocket courtyard as well as a width-through view, thanks to a facing window on the front elevation. Ten skylights placed throughout the house and an angled ceiling sector in the living-dining area together wash the interior with daylight and animate the upper plane. To provide privacy without completely enclosing the kitchen, a pantry-partition stops short of the ceiling. The sum total of all these parts is a house perceived as considerably larger than its 3,800 square feet.
Making the house modern was relatively easy. Making it inviting and livable posed a greater challenge. S+D deployed layering to enrich the basic modern environment. Subtle shifts in background hues and surface textures—from cream to taupe, drywall to tinted plaster—instill the requisite warmth. Pervasive maple flooring and cabinetry and furniture clusters, suggesting zones of intimacy, help also. A grouping of Barcelona chairs, matching ottoman, and Saarinen tables invites lingering at the fireplace, the interior's stellar element. It's a freestanding double-sided construction of sandblasted glass with solid steel members, perforated steel side panels, and integrated lighting for an ethereal glow at night.
Another of the living area's furniture clusters, composed of a leather-covered sectional sofa, Florence Knoll cocktail table, and Danskina rug, faces a line of custom bookshelves and cabinetry (concealing the television). Adjacent stands an informal grouping of Vignelli table and chairs, for work or casual dining. At the opposite end of the space, a Paolo Piva dining table and Antonio Citterio chairs provide a more formal alternative. That the entire furniture collection could be transposed between prior and present residences, Illinois and California, is a credit to the timelessness of the design and the wisdom of the clients' choices.