Imagine a village, a patchwork of stone-walled, tile-roofed buildings, all perched on a windswept promontory. Envision rugged hillsides all around, and distantly, below the lifting fog, the sea. The thought might immediately conjure up visions of Corsica or Calabria, but designer Dara K. Barker and her husband, Conan, have created the scene on 5 acres high above Montecito—a spot that Conan first happened upon during a hike while on vacation with his parents decades ago. “When we visited after I found it online, he said, ‘I’ve been here before,’” Barker recalls. “At the bottom of the driveway was a stream that would sometimes flow over the road, and he remembered that because it was so odd.”
Destiny having spoken, the couple purchased the property, intending to update its small and dilapidated Spanish-style house into a weekend retreat. But fate intervened again, this time with building codes that required they start from scratch. So the Barkers decided to think bigger—and build a village.
Because of the site’s prominence on the landscape—its views stretch so far, the fire department has long used it as a lookout point—the local architectural review board “was very interested in the new house not looking like one big mass but instead being broken down into distinct volumes,” says architect David Pascu. “We were, however, allowed to build an unlimited number of accessory structures under 800 square feet.” Working with his partner Trevor Abramson, Pascu and the team started to break up the program into a main house, garage, workshop and guest house with varying rectilinear forms and rooflines. “We invented the narrative of an old European hill town,” says Pascu, “where you can stand on a balcony and see a neighboring rooftop right at your feet.”
Around these buildings, landscape architect Scott Menzel built the story’s setting from the ashes of the Thomas Fire, which passed through the property during early construction, by incorporating a concise palette of native plants. “The house is very clean, very simple, and so I felt the landscape needed to respond to that, while also juxtaposing those qualities with nature,” he says.
The entry path evokes a Mediterranean garden with its border of Spanish lavender, white-flowering mock orange pittosporum, silvery westringia and chartreuse autumn moor grass, all punctuated by imported, century-old olive trees. Around the pool, Menzel incorporated pink-plumed muhly grass, lavender and Mexican sage; beyond these, the hillside is planted with indigenous California holly, coyote bush and California lilacs. “As you get away from the structures, it becomes a little more organic and ultimately, we transition to a predominantly native landscape,” Menzel explains.
In the main residence, the plot thickens: “The Barkers wanted a modern house, but they liked the feeling of things that had been there a long time,” Pascu says, “so they started to gravitate toward this concept of an old stone building with a modern infill.” The view of the kitchen from the living room, for example, “is like looking into the shell of a rustic barn, but with a sleek European kitchen inside.” This contrast allowed the team to be playful with elements like the riser-less staircase, “which is a modern concept, but the treads are wrapped with reclaimed wood for a rustic feel,” Pascu says. The general contractors, led by Leonard Unander Sr., project manager Leonard Unander Jr. and site superintendent David Kruger, “painstakingly matched the grain to make it look like a solid piece of wood,” he adds.
In most rooms, where mountain and sea views dominate, floor-to-ceiling corner windows expand the panoramas. But in the den, custom bookcases and low-beamed ceilings create a more intimate feel. “We wanted a room that was not all glass; a place where we can curl up and not feel exposed at night,” Barker says.
Antique furnishings further ground the aerie. “I love mixing things that are eclectic and unexpected but that have a good hand and a good story,” says Barker, who took on the interiors. Her finds range from the living room’s early-1900s wood workbench to the dining room’s vintage églomisé mirror. Her most treasured objects are textiles, often displayed in surprising ways. In the entryway, framed antique Chinese peasant skirt panels hang on the wall. Large poolside cushions are covered in vintage Turkish rugs. And in the living room, an antique Japanese textile adorns the plaster fireplace wall—for now, anyway. “I believe you should move your art and furnishings around so you can appreciate them anew,” Barker says. “I think the worst thing you can do is say, ‘Now it’s perfect.’ ” And so, this home’s story continues.