Certain rules govern any good novel: It must be peppered with interesting characters; descriptive imagery should evoke a strong sense of place; and the plot should unfold with plenty of twists and turns, building suspense as the story moves toward its dramatic resolution. One couple and their design team seemed to keep that narrative approach in mind throughout the creation of a gracious Italian-style residence on the Malibu coast. The protagonists were an entrepreneur, his wife and their teenage child. And setting the plot in motion: a series of trials even Homer’s Odysseus might have found daunting.
First, the voluminous size of the new structure would require designer Philip Nimmo to embark upon a quest for not one, but many, holy grails. He and the wife began shopping before even breaking ground. “The things the clients collected were very eclectic,” says Nimmo, “but they serendipitously went together.” It took more than a year—and countless antiques galleries, flea markets, showrooms and art adviser Patsy Wolf Buckly—to expand that delicately calibrated aesthetic.
When it came to the structure itself, the couple had clear ideas of the direction it should take. They met with architect Paul Williger—who has spent two decades working alongside Appleton & Associates founder Marc Appleton on projects recognized for their sensitive contextual style—and asked for a home reminiscent of a Tuscan farmhouse with old-world charm. Also, says Williger, “they wanted to be able to walk through the front door and see the Queen’s Necklace.”
Wanting to add a few surprising layers to the story before embracing its climactic scene—that legendary coastline view stretching from Santa Monica to Point Dume—Williger oriented the structure to frame the Pacific, but sited it so that as the owners approach the ocean-side fac¸ade, they are redirected through two one-story garage pavilions, a motor court and then a lush entry garden. “Your attention is taken away from the ocean,” explains Williger, who designed the residence and served as the firm’s principal-in-charge, “so that when you enter the house and experience the primary rooms, the view is rediscovered.”
In addition to the careful siting, working with materials and proportions that felt authentic was crucial. “A lot of people build Mediterranean-style houses that don’t look right because they get the proportions and finishes wrong,” explains the husband. Williger scaled the structure so that “it’s convincing, without being overwhelming,” says the architect, who also “built patina into the house” by using recycled terra-cotta roof tiles, antique pavers and about 140 reclaimed barn timbers. Comically, the mason laying the pavers began discarding any with imprints of chicken feet and other fowl. “We said, ‘What are you doing? Those are the best ones!’ ” recalls Williger, who gave them pride of place at the kitchen threshold.
Another test for our storytellers—in this case builder Tyler Udall and his superintendent Andy Ggem—was the husband’s request that the pool deck be level with the main floor. That meant constructing midway down the slope of the property. “It was a challenging site,” says Ggem, “but between excavating for the basement and the pool area and then building up retaining walls, we didn’t have to import or export any soil.”
Now the infinity-edge pool looks out to the horizon, and east-facing rooms enjoy stunning views of the canyons as well as garden areas that slope away from the house. “We did not want to terrace the slopes,” explains landscape architect Dana White. “Instead, we moved with the grades using pathways that open up into different areas of the garden.”
Inside, Nimmo arranged the furniture with an eye for breathing space and synchronicity with the vistas. “That view is so immense and pristine,” he says. “It would be odd to feel cluttered inside and have that expanse outside.” Keeping furniture profiles generally low also preserved the sense of longitudinal spread in the main rooms, particularly the living room, where the architect designed broad rather than tall groin vaults. “They enhance the relationship to the horizon,” says Williger. “And they don’t feel out of scale or like there might be cobwebs way up on the ceiling.”
“The architecture, in its purity, allowed for creative license with the interior design,” says Nimmo. “Thus we could create this wonderful and whimsical mix.” Working within a neutral palette, Nimmo complemented the many antique pieces with modern accents such as starburst-shaped pendants from Jean de Merry in the family room and sculptural side tables from his own eponymous line in the master bedroom.
As in any good story, challenges are conquered, friendships forged and the protagonists stay with you long after the last page. “It’s not contrived at all,” Nimmo says of the home. “The personalities of the owners truly come out.”