Before she starts a new project, designer Vanessa Alexander spends time getting to know her clients and their lifestyles. So, what was her takeaway after acquainting herself with Shawn and Dorit Evenhaim, the owners of a beachfront Malibu vacation home? “They’re big entertainers with a fridge that’s always stocked,” she says. “They foster an open-door policy and often have 20 to 30 people over at a time.” So, the key would be to create spaces at once sophisticated and luxurious but also comfortable and welcoming for their children and friends. But first, Alexander and general contractor E. Nero Smeraldo had their work cut out for them.
“The woods were dark, the materials were not organic to a beach environment, and the palette of greens, reds and jewel tones killed the light,” Alexander recalls, noting that while the home was solidly built, those elements made it feel cut off from the outside world in spite of the huge windows that looked out on to spectacular ocean views. To put it simply, the home didn’t take advantage of its scale nor its location. In the great room, for example, which occupies the first floor, a giant bar overwhelmed the space, blocking the view to the outside. “The programming of the room was sort of muddled,” she says. “The spaces didn’t communicate with each other.” Aiming to connect to natural light and the outdoors as much as possible, the designer pared everything back to open up the ocean sight lines. She also created a warmer layout by delineating different “zones of activity” within the great room, which includes areas for dining, pool, and watching television, as well as a bar, a fireplace and a slightly separate kitchen. “This way, you can all be doing different activities, but still connecting with each other,” Alexander notes.
Alexander faced a similar challenge in the master bedroom, which, with its large scale and oversize glass windows exposing it to the outside, could feel akin to a fishbowl. To make the scale more human, the designer’s solution arrived in the form of a custom-made, four-poster bed with sweeping floor-to-ceiling curtains. “It’s always nice to have a wow moment, but the bed also creates some coziness and intimacy in a large space,” says Alexander, who turned to Smeraldo to help update the room’s fireplace. “It had shimmery glass pebbles with ornate copper details around the opening,” says the builder, who used soft gray Venetian plaster to create a cleaner, more contemporary vibe.
Smeraldo tackled a more significant structural change in the master bath. “It contained a lot of over-the-top ’90s elements, so we gutted it, cleaned it up and squared out the room,” he says, noting they also put in a concrete floor that, rather than feeling cold and hard, has a warmer, inviting vibe. While creating zones of activity worked well in the great room, Alexander took the opposite approach in the master bathroom. “We wanted it to feel like one huge room with lots of natural light,” she says. “In this case, it was more about opening up a large, bifurcated space to make it feel more impactful.”
Alexander also reimagined the home’s palette in muted neutrals, punctuated with metallic accents and pops of black. “I love things that age naturally and show a patina from human touch and exposure to the elements,” says the designer, who used various forms of brass, bronze, suede and leather to make the neutral palette feel rich and lived-in. While the furnishings are largely contemporary in spirit (think a low-slung sofa, a high-gloss dining table and chairs covered in high-performance indoor-outdoor fabric), she also peppered in vintage or vintage-inspired elements to add depth, saying, “Aged pieces give soul to a light palette.”
While Alexander enjoyed selecting dramatic pieces for the home, she was also careful never to lose sight of the ocean views. In the dining area, for example, a leather-and-brass-wrapped light fixture by Apparatus makes a powerful statement without overwhelming the space. “It’s beautiful and attracts your attention, but it also doesn’t take up a lot of volume or weight or impede the view of the outside,” she says.
Ultimately, Alexander says her goal was not to “over-design,” but rather, to create a luxurious and sophisticated home that would also make people feel at ease. Using that strategy, she crafted exactly what the Evenhaims envisioned, concluding, “It’s a place where their kids and friends were excited to come and camp out for a weekend with them.”