Even after almost 100 years of development, Santa Barbara’s Hope Ranch retains much of the unspoiled beauty of its 19th-century sheep ranch origins. Occupying nearly 2,000 rolling acres perched picturesquely between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez mountain range, and crisscrossed with bridle paths, it still attracts residents who appreciate being close to nature. Which is why the renovation that designer James Magni spearheaded here quickly took on what he calls a “Wrightian attitude.” Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings lived low on the land, Magni explains, because they “had a lot of horizontality to them. And we know he took inspiration from Asian architecture, which was about blurring the separation between inside and outside.”
Blurring that separation for this house, however, wasn’t easy. The bicoastal empty-nester couple who purchased the property recognized the value of its 7 level acres with views of the ocean and mountains. But accessing those vistas from the 1960s house that already stood on-site was difficult because, remembers the wife, “It looked to me too much like Lincoln Center.” Much like the famed Manhattan arts complex, the residence was encased in a skeleton of decidedly unresidential precast concrete columns that bisected the panorama. Yet the new owners, lifelong Asian art and architecture aficionados, loved the home’s attractive Polynesian-style roof and, says the wife, “Because we are New Yorkers who live in apartments, we like houses that ramble.” This house, fundamentally a series of connected pavilions, was blessed with rambling potential, particularly after the construction of a new master suite and an expanded great room containing areas for cooking, eating, reading and watching television.
During a site visit, the couple’s architect, New Jersey- based Timothy P. Klesse, assured them the outer skeleton could be eliminated and the house opened up. Then Klesse returned to the East Coast to draw up plans. Simultaneously, the couple retained Magni and his partner, Jason Kalman, for the interior design and on-site management and design oversight of the renovation and additions.
The program was challenging. “We had to temporarily support the house and run steel columns and girders to create the window walls,” remembers Klesse. The project’s builder, Brett Bronstad, elaborates: “There was a lot of shoring and buttressing to remove the columns. And we used 50 tons of steel to support the broad spans of glass.”
Another detail that awakened the home’s nascent Eastern spirit was mahogany, a material commonly used in houses throughout Asia. Instead of cladding vertical elements with this luxurious wood, explains Kalman, the team applied it to interior and exterior ceilings and soffits, enhancing the roof’s Polynesian disposition and making it feel “as if it was floating above the glass.” This effect, particularly at night in the master bedroom addition, make the pavilions appear as large Japanese lanterns. “It’s a beautiful material that adds warmth,” observes Kalman. “But it’s also durable in this climate and has the wonderful smell of houses found in Japan.”
Though Magni is often more associated with clean white modernism, here, he incorporated an earthier palette that was “more conceptually appropriate.” It also serves another purpose, adds Kalman: “We wanted to keep colorations warm and neutral to maintain the focus on the outdoors.” Magni also says that “low-tech” fabrics—wovens, silks, chenilles—“are more sensitive to an Asian attitude.” Magni and Kalman even incorporated wide strips of fabric from a kimono the couple owned into the upholstered cushions that top a low wall separating the living room from the entry hall (thus converting the wall into extra seating).
The Eastern influences, however, successfully sidestep clichés. The master bedroom, inspired by Kyoto teahouses, subtly evokes tatami with an upholstered headboard and a wool-silk blend carpet, both in rush tones of the traditional mats they reference. In other rooms, contemporary artworks (acquired with the help of Dallas-based art consultant Michael Thomas) and modern Magni Home Collection furnishings complement authentic Asian pieces that include Indian sculptures, contemporary Chinese calligraphy and a Chinese altar table doubling as a living room mantel. And at least one space—the downstairs media room and lounge— adopts a groovy, distinctly non-Asian, aesthetic that led the owners to humorously dub it the Pussycat Lounge after the former 1970s Manhattan go-go club.
Outside, landscape designer Art Luna created a variety of easy-maintenance plantings for the expansive property. In the back, guiding the eye toward ocean views, “a flowering meadow softens the lines of the house, which is surrounded by blocky steps and planters,” he says. “It’s natural and organic as opposed to something that is very structured.” Around the pool, jasmine spills over the limestone walls and grasses that sway in the breeze above them, also relaxing the solid edges of the hardscaping.
Freed from its concrete shell, the house today enjoys multiple vistas from most every room. Although Wright’s debt to Asian (specifically Japanese) architecture has been widely debated, the designers—and the house itself—gladly acknowledge theirs, even if, as with Wright’s work, the influences have been transformed into something wholly original.
—Jorge S. Arango