When a pair of empty nesters approached builder Chris Gallo about crafting a home for them in the hills above Laguna Beach, there was never any question that the existing house, an otherwise lackluster 50-year-old structure save for its incredible views, was a scrape. However, Gallo and residential designer Paul McClean drew one idea from the old place: “The existing house was built with the original access to the garage at the top of the street-to-street lot, and after we knocked it down, we planned to repeat that,” explains Gallo. “But the design review process required bringing the garage down to the lower street end, which ultimately allowed us to open up the site at the top for better views, create more living space, and establish a place for an entry courtyard.”
Having turned the design review board’s request to their advantage, McClean entered into discussions with the homeowners about the modern structure they envisioned for their hillside perch. With years of child rearing in a conventional Irvine house behind them, the couple sought a clutter-free existence and a clean, open look for the next phase of their lives. “We got rid of every single piece of furniture and most everything else we owned,” says the wife. “It was a cathartic process that was symbolic and significant in starting our new lifestyle.”
Also central to their fresh start was a design aesthetic they identified as warm contemporary—a concept somewhat complicated by the request for a “stormy skies” color scheme of cool grays, blues and purples.
“The idea of a warm, comfy home with what most people consider a cold palette sounds paradoxical, but because the building is so open to the light and views, nature becomes the art, and it brings lots of warmth to the spaces,” says McClean, who crafted the structure out of black meteorite quartzite, stainless steel and floor-to-ceiling expanses of glass.
“Paul designed our home to connect to the surrounding environment, maximize the views and create a perfect flow from indoor to outdoor space,” says the wife. “Chris used reveal lines and clean transitions everywhere and made it all fit together like a puzzle, and we loved Kristin Nugent’s aesthetic from the beginning.”
Nugent, the home’s designer, had her own spin on turning up the heat in the modern backdrop. “The gray was a challenge, but texture played an important role in taking the edge off,” says Nugent, who, for example, topped the smooth dove porcelain tile floor with a lush wool-and-silk rug in the living room. The seating features storm-inspired hues of platinum and charcoal, but the sofa sports chenille, and chairs are leather. “These are warm materials that are on furnishings you sink into and make you want to stay awhile,” she adds.
In the adjacent dining room, chairs wearing chenille surround a live-edge walnut table—an unexpected element that enhances the dominant grays. “The natural wood element adds a depth of character that sets everything off and totally changes the room,” says Nugent. She employed a walnut coffee table in the living room to similar effect.
Texture, too, took the edge off finishes. “It’s sleek surfaces that most people associate with cold,” says Nugent. Honed finishes on the fireplace and kitchen countertops take the sheen off. The requisite purples, pinks and blues are evident in the artwork and sculptural glass pieces.
Meanwhile, landscape architect Larry Steinle moderated architectural elements such as the massive retaining walls visible from the kitchen with trailing Senecio radicans that spills over the walls to lyrical effect. Elsewhere, he brought in such plantings as drought-tolerant agaves and New Zealand flax in burgundy, green and, of course, gray. “I kept things fairly low, so when you looked out you’d have a foreground but could look right over it,” he says.
Steinle’s simple, Zen-like approach continues in the entry courtyard, where more succulents line the walkway, and he and the architect collaborated on how best to get visitors down from street level to the front door. The solution: A series of concrete slabs floating over a water feature created the desired effect. “The idea was to have people descend gently from the gate,” says Steinle about the entry sequence. McClean also sees it as a place to take a breath. “As you step onto the concrete platforms, there’s a sense of movement, but it also slows you down,” he says. “Hopefully it encourages you to stop and see where you are.”
— Mindy Pantiel