As a sliver of premium real estate, Malibu is exclusive, to be sure. But Malibu style isn’t exclusive at all. Though the famed coastal community is home to some of the world’s biggest movie stars, rock stars and studio executives, it’s also home to a breezy, unpretentious aesthetic that predates their arrival. Long before it became a tony enclave, Malibu was a mecca for surfers–casualness is and always will be encoded into its stylistic DNA.
Designer Chad Eisner has had numerous clients in the beachfront city over the years, people who–whatever circles they may work or travel in during the day–want to come home each evening to, he says, “an honest, pared-down” place. Such was the case with Eisner’s client, who was looking for help renovating an oceanfront property in need of updating. Eisner’s frequent design collaborator, Nikita Kahn, introduced him to the homeowner and the three of them connected instantly over a shared love of Japanese architecture and culture, setting the stage for the vision Eisner and Kahn would conceive.
But first, an architectural revision was called for. Studio PCH laid out the initial spaces and then Eisner brought on architect David Montalba to complete the house. However, before renovations could begin, some structural interventions had to happen, since the dwelling was built, essentially, on sand. As was the case with many homes constructed decades ago on the beach, the residence sat on piles akin to telephone poles. “Imagine a house sitting on 20 or 30 of these phone poles,” says Montalba, “but these had been put here 60 years ago, and some had hollowed out or tapered.” A plan, carried out by builder George Peper, was adopted that involved wrapping the pilings with giant fiberglass jackets and infilling them with epoxy grout to create a solid foundation.
With that bit of triage out of the way, Eisner could return to his brief. “The client loves Japan, though he also has a real history with Malibu,” says the designer. “He wanted the house to feel like it had elements of his travels to Japan and his connections with the culture, but he didn’t want it to feel thematic.” The desire to incorporate Japanese ideas into a relaxed American idiom put Eisner in the mind of George Nakashima, the Japanese-American architect and woodworker celebrated for his organically flowing furniture. The designer reports, “We asked ourselves: What if Nakashima came to Malibu and built a home for himself? What would it look and feel like?”
For Eisner and his client, the answer came down to a single word: honesty. “The questions that I kept returning to over and over again throughout the project were: How can I make this more honest? How can I make it more simplified and streamlined without losing any personality?” Eisner says. “And so we really tried to boil it down to elements that expressed that–maybe it was a particular stone that bore a remarkable resemblance to Japanese slate, or teak with a really raw finish that would age and gray over time with the house, like you might see in a ryokan.”
Ryokan style, which dates back to the 8th century and refers to the aesthetic of traditional Japanese inns, achieves its effect of ordered serenity through the accretion of hundreds of details, many of them tiny but all of them crucial. For this house, Eisner says, “we would take just one or two details and find a way to work them in, in a modern way. For example, the rug in the living room is very much like a tatami mat where you would sit on the ground and dine in a ryokan. But we chose soft wools to weave in with the jutes, so that it has a more inviting feel when you walk around barefoot.”
Throughout the project, subtle connotation consistently won out over stark reference, as in the case of a wardrobe where “we wanted something with some architectural value to it, as opposed to just a flat-panel door,” the designer says. So, Eisner imagined a door that employed a classic shoji screen pattern, “but done in wood, rather than rice paper, which I think would have felt very thematic, very forced.”
To create vibrancy within the home’s neutral palette, Eisner relied on the eye-pleasing tension that results from the juxtaposition of contrasting textures, such as sleek teak cabinetry and softer floor coverings. “You can stick to two or three basic colors on a project, as long as you incorporate texture to generate depth,” the designer says. “It’s trickery of a sort; it allows the eye to start and stop at different places.” That’s easily the most forgivable kind of trickery: the kind that elicits visual pleasure and fosters an ineffable contentment in the viewer. The palette is just one more detail in a house marked by many that serve as both a reinforcement and an expression of the design ethos–inspired by George Nakashima, ryokan style, and what makes Malibu great.