RIDING THE WAVES
To make the most of a stunning setting high above the Pacific Ocean, a couple put a fresh California spin on the ideal of Mediterranean seaside living.
BY JULIE L. BELCOVE
She is a native Californian, and he had moved west as a child. For 30 years they lived happily about a mile inland from Monarch Bay, in Laguna Niguel, a hilly town in California's Orange County. Still, the Pacific had always beckoned. When she started house hunting, it wasn't hard for her to find, if not her dream house, her dream location: a sheer bluff directly above Salt Creek Beach, a legendary surfing haven in nearby Dana Point.
It all started with a good day at the office. The way the wife tells it, her husband came home from work one day in 2006 in a particularly buoyant mood. The epitome of a self-made man, he had started as a box boy at a major supermarket chain, worked his way up to vice president in charge of its largest division, and then left to form his own sales and marketing company. Soon, with the help of his wife, the firm grew to employ 30,000 people. Now, having just sealed an especially big deal, he blurted out, "Do you want to move?" "No," was her quick reply, before she surprised herself by adding, "Unless it's on the water." He told her to go ahead and look.
The couple are doting grandparents, and making the house welcoming to their four grown children and 13 grandchildren—who range in age from two to 20—was of paramount importance. "She wanted this casual California elegance. She didn't want anything to be too precious," says Carson of the wife, adding that there were also practical concerns. "She was like, 'We need more beds!' " Amazingly, Carson and Turner managed to configure one of the bedrooms to sleep six, fitting in a queen-size bed and two sets of custom bunks.
But first came three years of haggling about the height of the roof. Even White, whose mellow designs reflect his personality, was reaching his limit. At one review-board meeting, he recalls, "I wanted so much to stand up and say, 'Unless you pay a front-row price, you don't get a front-row view.'"
When the couple bought it, they "inherited" the sellers' architect, Bob White of Forest Studio. White had also designed decorator Mary Lynn Turner's house in Ketchum, Idaho, which appeared on the cover of ELLE DECOR in December 2010. Coincidentally, the couple owned a vacation home in Sun Valley. They went to see Turner's place, fell in love with it, and hired Turner and her daughter/partner at M. Elle Design, Marie Turner Carson, to handle the decor of the new house.
Set just 12 feet from the cliff's edge, the one-story house feels, Turner says, like it is floating on the sea's waves, and the decorators capitalized on that sensation with a palette of serene blues, greens, grays, and creams. For the living room sofa, they turned a Loro Piana stripe inside out to subdue the vibrant hues. This is SoCal, after all, so the decorators also took their cue from the wife's favorite "house movies": The ebonized dining chairs are a nod to Meryl Streep's in It's Complicated, while a striped runner down the long central hall echoes Diane Keaton's living room rug in Something's Gotta Give.
The view was jaw-dropping, which, in effect, was why the property and the gutted house on it were for sale in the first place: With scenery this stunning at stake, neighbors can get prickly about construction projects and preserving their own expensive views, and local review boards have been known to drag out the approval process in the hopes of wearing down would-be builders. That's exactly what had happened with this property. The exhausted owners finally surrendered and put the place on the market.
Still, sophistication was never sacrificed. The floors are elegant French white oak and limestone, and the restrained modern art is by the likes of Robert Motherwell and Andy Warhol. The decorators took a playful route in the master bath, selecting four color lots of marble and then laying them in a random pattern, what Carson calls a "non-checkerboard checkerboard." The walls throughout the house are hand-troweled plaster, emphasis on the "hand." "Those old buildings in Provence aren't perfect," White says, and it was those tiny imperfections he was after. "I would go to the guys doing the work and say, 'I want to see your hands.' "
The result blends old-world rustic charm—a whitewash-and-stone exterior, wood beams, shutters—with California beach house cool. "The home is long and linear, so it embraces the coastline," says Carson. "We wanted to make sure the house embraced you as well. We wanted it to be calming."
The couple were drawn to Mediterranean architecture—their travels have taken them from Dubrovnik to the clifftop village of Èze on the French Riviera—and after what seemed like umpteen trips back to the drawing board, White's eureka moment came when he saw photos of a flat-roofed house in yet another Mediterranean locale: Ibiza. He persuaded the clients to abandon their quest for a pitched red-tile roof, and the design finally passed muster.
The clients are so happy with the outcome that the wife is even nostalgic for the weekly design meetings. It's no wonder that the once-obstructionist neighbors now leave notes telling the couple theirs is the most beautiful house around. The most important critics are on board, too: Awed by the setting, one granddaughter asked if it was even legal to live there. "I wonder sometimes if it is," admits her grandmother.
The wife loves to cook for her big family, and the team warmed up the large kitchen with a buttery limestone wall and a ceiling covered in reclaimed barn wood. The island is topped with an enormous slab of Calacatta marble. The client says she had to let go of her fear of staining it and come to terms with the fact that "these are old materials out of the earth. I don't think we should be too worried about it."
The landscaping reflects the interior's palette, with olive trees, lavender, and succulents. "It's soothing, like the inside," says the client.
Concerned that the flip side of having a lot of big windows to grab the views would mean a hot, glary interior, White designed two shady spots. Outside the master bedroom, a trellis of woven willow branches filters the light into graceful shadows. A pergola with retractable canvas panels softens the sun pouring into the living room. "When the wind is moving, you get a slight clattering of canvas and all the fittings," White says. "It sounds like you're on a sailboat."