It’s common for clients to compile idea books stuffed with magazine spreads and paint samples for their design teams. But the London-based clients who purchased a hillside property in La Jolla for a vacation home suggested another barometer for their tastes.
“They wanted us to visit this trendy biker-surfer bar and store,” says designer Anita Dawson. The Venice shop, Deus Ex Machina, bills itself as an “emporium of Postmodern activities,” which translates into an idiosyncratic motorcycle and surf shop selling actual bikes and boards as well as sporty apparel—and paninis and coffee. “It’s hip, very California and edgy,” Dawson says of the store. So, the clients challenged Dawson and architect Mark A Silva to couple that West Coast-cool vibe with a healthy measure of London sophistication.
None of this, of course, was congruent with the 1960s ranch house that occupied the site. The clients got a deal because the soil of Mount Soledad on which it was built had terrible bearing value, explains Silva, resulting in shifting and cracking of the existing home’s foundation. The architect remedied the foundation conundrum by building his new modernist stone-and-wood design on 32 caissons submerged into the bedrock. The east-facing front façade looks clean and low-key but offers no hint of its size or the drama just beyond the redwood-and-corten steel front door. The door opens directly into the home’s great room. On its south side is a stacked-stone wall, and on the north side is a white wall with a floating staircase—both extend to the white-oak ceiling, and all three, Silva reports, “splay out at 9 degrees, spreading toward the ocean view.”
The pair of walls serves another purpose, too. “I also wanted them to continue and become part of the outdoor space,” Silva says. So, beyond the west-facing panel of glass sliders, the walls jut out like wings. The effect of this is to move the eye toward the watery blue horizon line, but also, says Silva, “Coming up from the pool, it looks like the walls are arms embracing you and welcoming you home.” The pool itself received a thorough transformation. It’s better oriented, larger and has an added spa—and the former pool house (basically “a shack,” recalls Silva) was demolished to make room for a modernist ipe-clad space with floor-to-ceiling glass.
When it came to the materials and surface palette, remembers Dawson, “The wife asked for ‘sludgy,’ which meant lots of grays and dark colors.” But the designer mixed in more saturated shades, such as a turquoise sectional in the great room, an acid green surfboard in the guesthouse and vibrantly hued art throughout. There is also a stunning copper fireplace in the great room that contrasts with the concrete floors and gray-toned kitchen. Industrial-chic details—a Serge Mouille chandelier over a dining table and a custom pendant made of bicycle chains hanging in the great room—bring yet another touch of the Deus Ex Machina aesthetic.
Given the soaring proportions and the preponderance of stone, glass and concrete, says Dawson, “I wanted to soften up the main space. It had to be human scale and plush.” The great room sectional, for instance, is velvet, but its lightly faded turquoise shade makes it “feel like an heirloom piece,” the designer points out. There are also comfy Brazilian-style leather chairs facing the fireplace (bringing in a certain retro je ne sais quoi), which sit atop a luxurious faux-fur rug, and gently contoured Danish armchairs around a game table near the entry.
Outside, a sense of discovery guided landscape architect David McCullough. “From inside the house, you get immediate panoramic views of the Pacific,” McCullough says. “What you don’t realize is the incredible landscape that sits right below the house. It’s not until you walk out to the rear patio that you realize there is something interesting winding its way down the hill.” On the descent, surprises appear—a small English-style garden to the left, in honor of the couple’s time abroad, and various other outdoor rooms. All this is accented by more California-influenced plantings of grasses, purple sage, ferns, palo verde, cacti and sedges. McCullough also stimulated the senses with fragrant plants whose scents waft up the hill with the breeze.
As much as the home is firmly anchored in the 21st century, it is surprisingly low-tech. Instead of what Silva dubs “fancy” electronic controls for the lighting and audiovisual system, the clients opted for simple wall switches for the lights, a few stand-alone TVs and Bluetooth-enabled speakers, which can play music from family members’ devices. In that way it captures the spirit of its Venice inspiration, both edgy and sophisticated, modern and retro, Dawson says. “It’s an interesting atmosphere, but they pull off that combination, and it feels authentic,” the designer says. The same can be said for this house overlooking the Pacific.
—Jorge S. Arango