Gary Finley compares his role as an interior designer to a set designer in that “I set the stage for living well. I like to create rooms that allow the personalities of the owners to color the spaces.” However, in the case of a recently completed residence in Laguna Beach, he also had to account for the dramatic presence of the Pacific. “The ocean provided the main focus,” says Finley, who has offices in Laguna Beach and Vail Valley, Colorado. “So I aimed to create a very relaxed and restful environment.”
Reaching that goal began with transforming the existing clapboard beach house into something more worthy of its impressive setting on the coastal bluffs. Even though his clients had never lived in a contemporary house, Finley suggested architect Mark Singer, who is known for a modern California style that emphasizes natural materials like wood and stone. “They realized that a building with large areas of glass looking out to the ocean would lend itself to a contemporary style,” Finley says.
Arriving at that ocean view proved crucial to Singer’s approach. “Previously, the entry door was abruptly located on the courtyard,” he says. “A procession needed to be carefully designed to carry the observer to the place where the ocean is revealed.” To that end, Singer created two successive limestone colonnades. One stretches along a separate garage structure and ends in a lush private courtyard, where a second one continues to the main house to reach its crescendo, the view.
When it came to the main house, walls were repositioned, a second floor was added to accommodate a master suite, and Singer sheathed the new rectilinear forms with a warm-toned plaster. Inside, the breathtaking panorama is fully exposed in the newly created great room, where the architect took down walls separating the kitchen, living and dining areas and enlarged a skylight above. “Each of the spaces share views of the sea, sky and beach from different vantage points,” explains Singer.
To emphasize the sleek lines throughout, builder Chris Gallo installed shadow lines, a labor-intensive recessed detail found wherever walls meet the ceiling or floors. Gallo says creating such clean-lined interiors is deceptively complex. “Everything has to be perfectly straight,” he says, “which makes the work so challenging and fulfilling.”
Sensitive to the owners’ penchant for the traditional, Finley chose rift-cut white oak flooring instead of concrete, and in the guest bedrooms, linen drapery over the more modern look of vinyl blinds. “We merged a contemporary building with more traditional materials,” Finley explains. “I wanted the natural fibers and textures to add softness to the home without disturbing the lines of the structure.”
For the public rooms, the designer kept things visually “quiet” by using calming tones of green with blues and neutrals. In the living area, he designed a wool-and-silk rug with a motif that mimics the ripples of the surf and chose a silk floral fabric in a “stylized graphic pattern with a nod to traditional” to cover Holly Hunt chairs. Above the dining table, Finley hung custom glass pendants that offer “a bit of the color of the ocean at sunset,” without making a bold statement.
In the adjacent kitchen, Finley, inspired by a visit to the New York showroom of Eggersmann USA, decided on a stone-wrapped island. He enlisted the company to build the island, which is lined on three sides with limestone, and the frosted-mirror cabinetry. “Since we had no wall to define the room,” Finley says, “the definition was accomplished by changing materials.”
Landscape architects Richard Leyva and Rich Wilde complemented the clean lines of the house by combining flowering plants, including roses and bougainvillea, with sculptural succulents, such as agave and aloe, within the interior courtyard. “The idea was to juxtapose a cottage garden against the more contemporary architecture,” says Leyva. The new experience of living in a more modern environment has been well received by the owners. “Although their other houses are traditional,” says Finley, “they’ve been pleasantly surprised with how much they’re enjoying the relaxed lifestyle afforded by this edited-down contemporary home.”