“I think of architecture as a framework,” says Eric Olsen. “It should be subtle and interact with the landscape so the two can come together and create something beautiful.” The architect recently applied that philosophy to Thomas and Bette Vovan’s Corona del Mar home, situated on a dazzling parcel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Making sure every aspect of his design embraced the cinematic sweep of the vista, Olsen crafted a home that is at once strikingly modern yet comfortable and welcoming for his clients.
The Vovans, who have three children, had been living in Bonita Canyon for almost 10 years before discovering an idyllic property for sale in Spyglass Hill. The lot was ideal, but the existing house, which was composed of compartmentalized rooms with little in the way of indoor- outdoor connection, was not. The couple purchased the property and then called Olsen. “A good friend of ours recommended Eric,” Bette explains. “We thought about remodeling what was there, but we sat down and, based on the changes we wanted to make, it made more sense to tear down and start over.”
With a blank canvas at their disposal, the Vovans requested that the new house have plenty of fluid space to suit their close-knit family. “I wanted big open areas where we could cook, eat dinner or watch television and be together,” says Bette, who also asked for simple architecture with clean lines. “If everything is calm, you can better appreciate the view. I told Eric I wanted to capture as much of it as possible throughout the whole house.” Olsen not only captured the view, but he tied the house to it, too: A massive glass slider at the rear connects the living, dining and kitchen areas to the backyard terrace and the ocean beyond. “It opens up the entire space so there isn’t a clear delineation between outside and inside,” says the architect, who employed a second large glass door in the master bedroom for a similar effect, as well as generous windows in all of the rooms to best frame the scenery.
While the rear of the house showcases fantastic transparency, the front is a modernist display of opaque rectilinear forms punctuated by an entrance courtyard that also serves as a space for entertaining and play. “The back terrace is very long and narrow and is primarily used for taking in the ocean,” notes landscape designer Chris Fenmore. “The front courtyard is a more traditional yard with grass, a board-form concrete replace and a big tree where the clients can hang a swing. And, I picked an old- growth olive tree with a gnarled trunk that balances the straight lines of the architecture.”
Olsen wrapped the linear forms of the exterior in various materials that counter each other and offer a layered textural experience. “Most of the walls are a white burnished stucco,” the architect says. “I warmed that up with a cedar- shingle roof and cedar siding on the garage doors and the room above the garage.” That loft-like area functions as a hangout for the Vovan children and is the only upper-level space in the otherwise single-story home. “The site is on a hill,” says Ross Savage, the project’s general contractor. “We dug down another 4 feet or so to accommodate the loft, while meeting the HOA’s view requirements.”
Rich materiality defines the interiors, too. “My clients wanted clean lines, but they also wanted something organic,” he says. “They’re a family with young kids, so it wouldn’t make sense if everything was perfectly polished. The forms are angular and modern; they needed warm textures to help soften them.” In the entry and the kitchen and dining area, the architect crossed the long rectangular skylights with reclaimed-oak ceiling beams to further add warmth and texture. In the living room, he covered the fire surround with reclaimed-wood panels that offset the basalt hearth and the chiseled-limestone flooring.
Olsen sees a house as framework not just for the landscape but for furniture, too. “I always think about the furniture as I design the architecture,” he says. “I even draw it into the plan.” He opted for some modernist classics: An Eames lounge chair and ottoman rest near the living room replace, and Saarinen and Panton chairs gather around the dining table. In contrast, the architect designed an oak platform bed for the master bedroom—it’s a piece that anchors the voluminous space. And for the dining area, he conceived a built-in oak cabinet, and placed a wood dining table and bench that are as stately as they are rustic. The table and a low-profile, deep sofa covered in soft white fabric in the living area exemplify California living at its most beautiful. “They’re casual and comfortable,” Olsen says. “Most people want something modern, but a little bit of ruggedness makes the house more livable.”
A muted palette throughout most of the house directs attention toward the view and evokes a feeling of serenity. But never forgetting about balance and the fact that there are exceptions to every rule, Olsen dressed a room shared by the two younger children with vibrant color and whimsy. “I hung these colorful hot-air balloons and found little globes that I painted.” Olsen also outfitted the room with a yellow- and-white rug, a red armchair and a turquoise side table, all designed by Jonathan Adler. “What I do is a big deal,” the architect says. “People have worked hard the majority of their lives to build their dream house, and I’m the person who gets to help them achieve that. I get to create space that enhances their lives and makes them happy.”