Some designers travel in a straight line in their careers, but mine has seen a number of zigs and zags,” says architectural designer Fred Gemmell of his unique path. But it’s those twists—which included studying engineering and architecture, living and working on boats, and running a custom furniture shop—that define his aesthetic and ultimately surface in his residential designs. A contemporary waterfront structure, which he designed with his colleague architect Lauren Williams, proves to be one such example. “We like to create efficient and expressive spaces,” explains Gemmell of the house in the Coronado Cays. “So they always have a little bit of a yacht influence.”
That calculated approach to materials and details was apparent from their initial concept, which they began years before the current homeowners took up residence. One firm had already drawn up plans for the four-level house, when Gemmell’s firm, Matrix Design Studio, was brought in to add interest to the exterior, redesign the floor plan, and select materials. Gemmell and Williams began by creating a diagonal floor plan that starts at the front entry and opens up like a funnel toward the back of the house, where an entire wall of sliding glass doors reveals spectacular views of San Diego Bay. “That twist drove the entire plan, and it created really nice spaces and interesting forms in what was just a box before,” Williams explains, noting details such as trapezoidal-coffered ceilings and an angular staircase. The unique lines of the staircase made it “by far the most challenging element to frame and finish,” explains builder Eric C. Epifano.
The geometries established by that floor plan reverberate throughout. In the dining area, a wave pattern marks a trapezoid-shaped cast-glass window, and the form reappears in cabinets, wall shapes and even the roof ’s spa. The material palette is equally expressive and cohesive. Gemmell and Williams designed the kitchen cabinetry and the built-ins in the living and dining areas with a mix of zebrawood and anigre. “The anigre doesn’t compete with the zebrawood and is still very rich,” Gemmell says.
When the modern structure was put on the market, it attracted the attention of the home’s current owners—a Utah couple looking for a California pied-a`-terre. Upon purchasing the house, they reached out to Matrix to address the furnishings. “It didn’t have any de´cor,” the husband says. “And Matrix already had an idea about how they wanted to finish it off.” Gemmell and Williams had established the architectural elements and surface choices, and Gemmell’s wife, designer Holly Howell, and their daughter, Nico Gemmell, followed that lead in working with the owners on the furnishings. Nico, a designer and founder of her own eponymous art gallery, led the art selection.
Although the owners’ home in Utah is more traditional, they were excited about creating a style for their new home that reflected its waterfront surroundings. To that end, Howell and Nico created a clean California- inspired design with white walls, neutral fabrics, comfortable area rugs, and contemporary furnishings. Artwork, by mainly California-based artists, evokes a coastal feel, and Gemmell created several custom furniture pieces for the house, reflecting the lines established by the architecture. “This home is a good example of when our interior design and architecture capabilities come together,” explains Nico.
Though designed to capture the glistening bay vistas, the house also offers an up-close connection with the water through balconies and large decks. “It’s right on the water, so it’s difficult for anything to grow there, but succulents work well and add color,” says landscape designer Justin Williams about the low-growing succulents, including echeveria, aeonium and sedum, that he added to the built-in planters.
“The salt water is a critical piece of the identity of the site,” says Gemmell. Indeed, the bay setting is a driving force in the design both inside and out. Howell adds, “Our clients wanted this home to speak about the ocean, the sand and everything that California represents for them.”