Catch the Wave
By Wendy Moonan
House & Garden: Summer on the Water, July 1998
When it comes to designing California beach houses, Santa Barbara architect Andy Neumann says he always faces the same problems: narrow lots, neighboring houses in a conglomeration of styles, height restrictions, and glaring sunlight. And that’s before El Niño gets into the act.
Yet few of his beach houses look alike. In the course of doing more than forty of them, the fifty-one-year-old Neumann, who was born in Indonesia and raised in Holland and California, developed a credo. “At my firm, we strive to respond to the context,” he says. “We attempt to weave together the building, its site, and its surroundings, because gestures that link the architecture with the larger natural landscape can be very powerful in creating a sense of connectedness and, we hope, a sense of mystery and spirituality.”
The gesture he employed for one of his recent projects, a four-bedroom house on a bluff that slopes down to a semicircular bay beach, is an original one. It is a gently curing limestone spine that bisects the house. “The challenge was to have the design pull you through the house and out to the ocean without giving the feeling of a hotel corridor with rooms off to both sides,” Neumann says.
The gradually curving wall, which extends from the front door to the rear terrace, has three functions: it echoes the curving bay, serves as a path to the sea, and divides the house into two zones. The public spaces—living room, media room, dining area, and kitchen—are inside the curve. Most of the private ones are outside the curve.
The second challenge for Neumann was controlling the sunlight. “Beach houses can be very dark,” he says. “Like tunnels.” This one has a bright southern exposure on the bay side. But, Neumann points out, “Inside, the opportunities for view and light diminish, so we floated an elliptical atrium clerestory element above the curved wall. It lets light into the middle of the house.”
The decorating was begun before construction ended. “It was a real team effort,” says Neumann. The client’s wife hired Peter Carlson, an interior designer from East Haddam, Connecticut, and his then partner Linda Chase, because they had worked well together in the past. As Chase recalls, “We did soup to nuts here. We even brought the linens and stocked the fridge.”
From the beginning, the team stuck to natural materials—limestone, granite, mahogany, redwood, silk, cotton—and quiet colors. “The client wanted a soothing, beachy palette,” Carlson explains, “so we limited it to grays and browns.” The spine is lined in raked gray French limestone. The floors, cabinetry, and a freestanding, elliptically shaped “boat” in the middle, which houses the bar, laundry room, and pantry, are mahogany. The curves and mahogany give the house a nautical air.
Carlson designed much of the furniture, the fireplaces, and some of the cabinetry. It looks very simple, but it wasn’t easy. “Because all the rooms radiate off this curving spine, very few walls are parallel,” Neumann says. The furniture had to be placed carefully. The living room is anchored by a large Jean-Michel Frank-inspired sofa, a coffee table Carlson designed, and two geisha chairs. They float on an amoeba-shaped silk-and-wool rug made by V’Soske.
Because the husband, like the architect, loves water sports, surfboard-like shapes are evident in the elliptical clerestory and the curved wall. The house is also very comfortable. “The clients wanted to be able to sit anywhere in a wet bathing suit,” Carlson says, “and they can. Even the Fortuny is cotton.”
The house feels intimate, spare, and, yes, even spiritual. The gesture worked.