Southern California Beach House
By Michael Webb
interiors, April 1998
The idea of living beside the ocean in Southern California, basking in the brilliant light and fresh breezes, is appealing—but a challenge to designers. Beach lots tend to be narrow and hemmed in by neighbors; it’s hard to spread the light throughout the interior; the salt and wind can be destructive. Nonetheless, the house that Andy Neumann and Carlson Chase Associates recently completed for a family with small children manages to achieve an exemplary balance of openness and enclosure.
The client wanted a “practical, Japanese, and beachy” house using natural materials to achieve something contemporary in spirit and unique, yet warm and comfortable. Neumann’s solution was to push out to the building line and divide the sleeping from the living areas with a shift of level and a gently curved wall, with an elliptical clerestory pulling in natural light. Thus the house resembles a linear shell, drawing you into a curved gallery and a succession of trapezoidal chambers that open off to either side. Reinforcing this separation of public and private areas, and the play of curves off flat planes, is a central boatlike pod that contains the pantry and laundry room, and is divided by two cross axes. “This clerestory suggests the strip of sky over the wall that shelters the inner patio in a traditional Spanish house,” explains the architect. The strip becomes a part of the interior as it casts a loop of sunlight on the wall.
Peter Carlson, who had designed a restaurant for the client, became involved early on, helping to choose materials that would give the 5,100-square-foot house a sense of unity and flow. Serrated Cluny gris French limestone was selected for the walls, and mahogany (from sustainable forests) for the floor, cabinetry, and service “boat.” The juxtaposition of rough and smooth surfaces reinforces the feeling that you’ve walked into a seashell.
The client requested cotton upholstery suitable for children in wet bathing suits, and Carlson picked neutral sand and putty tones for the fabrics and carpets. Low-key furnishings are a foil for such accents as a mantel that resembles a vintage surfboard, and a 1930s French daybed with a circular shagreen panel set before a window that frames a Japanese garden. Whimsical sconces, a beaded pendant light, and an early 19th-century French chandelier of turned spools play off the restraint of the furnishings. In the master bedroom, a custom-designed sleigh bed has swiveling side tables inspired by Pierre Chareau, a floor lamp modeled on the designs of Jean Royere, and a Scarpa-influenced pulley system on the fireplace. A spiral steel stair leads up to a small mezzanine-level study, simply furnished with a Depression-moderne oak desk and chair.
Neumann and Carlson have created an appealing mix of serenity and informality, understated refinement and outdoor living. The house is shielded from its neighbors but opens up, toward the ocean and along one side, to decks that are shaded by redwood grids. And the architect has saved his best trick for the guest bedroom at the back of the site. He remembered how, as a small boy growing up in Holland, he used a cardboard periscope to look over the heads of the crowd and watch the queen ride by. Here he has recreated that periscope on a large scale to bring light and a glimpse of the ocean to the room in back.