Southern California Oceanfront House

Beach Houses

Harper Collins Books 2002

A couple with three small children asked architect Andy Neumann and designer Peter Carlson to give them an oceanfront house that was "practical, Japanese, and beachy," using natural materials to achieve a feeling of warmth and comfort. To shield the house from its neighbors, Neumann pushed solid walls to the edge of the lot and used a sinuous gallery and spinal wall to separate living spaces on one side from bedrooms on the other. "The site dictated what we could and couldn't do," he observes, "and the curved wall is like the backbone of the house, pulling together the trapezoidal rooms that radiate from it."

The house conceals its intentions, and the ocean view, from the grassy arrival court. You see nothing but an expanse of patina copper over the garage, a translucent window, and a projecting wall beside the entry drawing you inside. The sinuous curve of this wall echoes that of the beach it overlooks. Natural light floods in for expansive windows at the south end, which wrap around one corner and open onto a redwood deck. The glare off the ocean is balanced by an elliptical clerestory that projects up from the flat roof. For Neumann, "It suggests the strip of sky over the wall that shelters the inner patio in a traditional Spanish house." It also becomes an integral element of the interior as it casts a constantly shifting loop of sunlight on the wall, creating a sparkle in the flecks of mica embedded in the stone.

Carlson had designed a restaurant for the client and he became involved at an early stage of the design, helping to select materials and a palette that would achieve a sense of unity and flow within the 5,100-square-foot house. He worked with the architect and client to select raked Cluny gris French limestone for the walls, and mahogany (from sustainable forests) for the floor, cabinetry, and a central boat-like pod that contains the panty and laundry room. The juxtaposition of rough and smooth, flat and curved surfaces reinforces the feeling that you've walked into a seashell.

The client asked for cotton upholstery to accommodate kids in wet bathing suits and the relaxed lifestyle of a beach house, and Carlson picked neutral sand and putty tones for the fabrics and carpets. Subtle textures enrich the simplicity of the living areas, and low-key furnishings are enlivened by whimsical accents, including a mantel in the form of a vintage surfboard, and an early-nineteenth-century French chandelier of turned wood spools. A few one-of-a-kind pieces are strategically placed throughout, notable a 1930s French daybed, with a circular back panel covered in shagreen, which occupies a niche in front of a window that frames a walled Japanese garden.
In the master bedroom, Carlson has paid homage to legendary European designers. The custom-designed sleigh bed has swiveling side tables inspired by Pierre Chareau, a floor lamp is modeled on the designs of Jean Royere, and a pulley system on the fireplace owes a debt to Carlo Scarpa. 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 – plus one delightful surprise. The architect 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 re-created that periscope on a large scale to bring light and a glimpse of the ocean to the guest bedroom at the back of the site.