Architect Carlton Graham was astonished when he first arrived at his clients’ Laguna Beach, California, property. “It was on top of the highest ridgeline, with a panoramic 280-degree view and an acre of land,” he reports. “In Laguna, nobody has that.” The prime location, with the sea below and a nature preserve above, presented a fairly significant challenge: The home, which his clients had owned for more than 20 years, was prone to flooding. “The soil is just so dry, so there’s nothing to stop the water or let it soak in,” the architect says. To remedy the situation, the homeowners turned to their longtime interior designer, Terry Hunziker, who then tapped Graham, with whom he’d worked previously. Says the architect, “We decided collectively that we needed to do a complete gut”–a move that transformed a problematic house into a stunning showplace.
Graham conceived a new plan that included higher ceilings and better sight lines–not to mention more wall and floor space for the clients’ extensive collection of paintings and sculpture. Using an organic materials palette of bronze, stone and a combination of hemlock, sycamore and oak, he created a layout along clear axes that stretch toward the sea with massive amounts of natural light via floor-to-ceiling windows and wall-washing skylights.
The experience begins at a facade that reveals little beyond a towering bronze door. It pivots open into a raised foyer, lit by a 3-by-16-foot skylight. “I wanted the entry to feel like you walked into an art gallery, which sets the mood for the rest of the house,” Graham says, adding, “The wall space gives them a chance to change out art as needed, with the monumental Cor-ten sculpture by Peter Millett as its centerpiece on the floor.” The gallery, in turn, leads to the home’s rear wall–a 36-foot-wide expanse of glass that’s 10-and-a-half feet tall. “You’re drawn to the windows because you feel like you’re floating in a helicopter over the ocean,” the architect says.
Hunziker repurposed many of the custom furnishings he’d selected for the home’s prior iteration and added new pieces in the same neutral palette. “I tend not to use any color in furniture because, as you can see in this house, in particular, the art has strong color,” he says. But the house is hardly a bland, white shell. The interior designer specified plush textured finishes such as creamy Venetian plaster, leather-paneled cabinetry, myriad wood grains and flame-sprayed nickel to create a rich envelope for that art. “There’s a juxtaposition of smooth and rough, light and dark,” he says. “To give a house a dynamic presence, you have to combine materials in an interesting way.”
In that blending, Graham and Hunziker incorporated half-inch gaps, or “reveals,” along planes where those different materials meet. The effect is an optical illusion in which walls appear to float between floor and ceiling, stone surfaces hover over their bases, and the massive metal fireplace wall hangs lightly over its hearth. “The reveals have to be perfect because your eye will pick it up instantly if they’re not dead level,” Graham says. Despite the difficulty inherent in executing them, those reveals are among general contractor Chris Gallo’s favorite elements. “The detail makes everything look very clean,” he says. “You can follow them around the whole house. They’re a continuous line–very precise.” Gallo also ensured the structure would not be susceptible to any future flooding by installing a commercial drainage system throughout the property.
The home’s new incarnation offered landscape architect Larry Steinle a chance to revisit the organic design he’d previously implemented and to replace it with a crisply tailored, carefully manicured layout of outdoor rooms. The spaces display the owners’ sculpture collection: A grassy terrace contains an enormous rotating piece by Fletcher Benton, while another carpet of grass near the pool features a work by Joel Shapiro. A pair of patinated bronze rings by Bruno Romeda also balance by the pool. Italian landscape architect Luciano Giubbilei inspired the plan. “His work is very architectural, and all of it has art as a centerpiece,” Steinle explains. “This landscape was a frame for these pieces to sit in.” When the husband swims in the lap pool each day, Graham notes, “Everywhere he looks, there’s a view of a different sculpture.”
Redesigning the home has provided many different moments to appreciate that art: The works become reference points, marking the way between indoor and outdoor entertaining areas, and from public space to private enclave. In so doing, the architect accomplished the owners’ twin goals: “They got an inviting, comfortable house for entertaining, plus a museum-quality gallery and sculpture garden,” Graham says. “They finally have a space that matches their personalities and their collections.”