Modernize from the ground up

Clean lines, abundant light, and a connection to the outdoors redefine a home in Southern California
Kathryn Harris

A fresh start was what Carl and Vivian Browne wanted for their family home ― a 1,500-square-foot 1950s cottage on a long, narrow lot in Newport Beach, California. Over the years, the couple and their two daughters, Victoria, 15, and Emily, 13, had watched as the homes around them were razed and replaced by Tudor, Mediterranean, and French Country mansions. But when the Brownes were ready to rethink their living quarters, they didn't just follow the neighborhood trend. Instead, they started over with a warmly modern, light-filled house more suited to their family's open and free-spirited nature.

The idea came from Carl, who'd long been a fan of modernist icons from Richard Neutra to John Lautner. He was also enamored of the work of his close college friend turned architect, Paul Davis, who was working in New York at Salazar Davis Architects. "Carl had always wanted him to design a house for us," Vivian recalls. "And Paul was just starting his own firm, so we figured the time was right, while he was still young and hungry ― or we'd never be able to afford him."

Openness and privacy

The result of that collaboration is a two-story, three-sided stucco structure that maximizes the family's experience with the outdoors, Pacific Ocean breezes, and abundant California light while shielding them from unwanted views of neighbors. A 25-foot-long "fence" of bamboo adds privacy, while an enormous coral tree and drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants soften the sharpness of the structure. A series of floor-to-ceiling windows runs from the living room at the front of the house to the garage at the back, with rooms in between opening onto a private courtyard. This is where the adults lounge, the teenage girls play soccer, and Phoebe, their Australian shepherd, invariably naps.

Davis devised four cedar-clad boxes ― "cassettes," as he likes to call them, for the way they sit in the 3,400-square-foot structure. One box comprises the kitchen and entry hall, which is located at the front of the house; a second is the second-floor master suite, jutting over the courtyard; the third contains the guest quarters, also on the second floor and behind the master suite, with which it shares a deck; and the fourth is a small utility shed in the backyard. "It's different from traditional homes that are a big solid chunk between front and back yards," Davis explains. "This has a variety of places arranged on and around one another, which provide opportunities to look out, down, or across. You can see where you are relative to your family, where you'll be later, and anticipate all that."

The budget dictated the use of a mostly simple range of materials, such as integrally pigmented stucco, which wraps around the exterior's natural cedar siding, and a structural concrete slab throughout the ground floor. Touches of texture and color inject warmth throughout the house: limestone flooring, unusual green-veined marble in the master bath, embossed wallpaper on the kitchen and entrance walls, riotous ceramic tiles in the powder room and guest bathroom, a staircase and kitchen cabinetry made of rift-sawn oak, and a vibrant fire engine–red front door and bright orange rear courtyard wall.

Modern design with soul

After construction was complete, Vivian jumped headlong into educating herself so she could get to work on the interiors. "Thank goodness we have all this library space because I bought every book on modern architecture and design I could find," she says. "It's been a huge learning curve, but I'm a confirmed modernist now." That fact is evident in the kitchen, where lengths of pristine veined-marble countertops are unbroken by clutter. Lining the hallway is a series of botanical X-rays.

Vivian hired interior designer Cheryl Burke to help guide her along the way. "I knew what I liked, but I needed Cheryl to help me figure out how to put it all together," she says. The Brownes found Burke after Carl peeked inside a noted Neutra building in Newport Beach and saw her work in several of its offices.

When the 16-month build was over, the Brownes were cash-strapped. Some decisions (such as en suite bathrooms for each of the girls' bedrooms) meant waiting to implement other ideas (new furniture for the master bedroom, for example). "We've had a lot of tuna fish sandwiches and boxed wine while sitting on the floor," Carl says.

But the family has luxuriated in their new house from the start. "I notice the effects on a daily basis. We have so much light, and it gives us a different kind of lifestyle," Carl says. Vivian notes: "To me, the best part of a modern house is that your eye is constantly drawn toward the landscape. It's a soothing way to live."

Lessons from this makeover

Homeowner Vivian Browne gives her advice on things to consider when undertaking a life-transforming change of style.

Educate yourself "The more you know, the more confident you'll be in your decisions. I bought every relevant book and magazine out there and visited every modern furniture store in Southern California."

Plan for the future "We started thinking about this house with two young kids, and now we have teenagers. I wish we had built in more older-kid components ― like a soundproof basement."

Figure out what works for you "Even within a single style, there's a lot of variation. Some modern concepts were far too minimalist for us, so I had to decide what felt right for our personalities and lifestyle."

Don't move too fast "When we first moved in, we either used what we already had or bought inexpensive temporary things. We wanted to get a better sense for how we would live in the house before we made real decisions about furniture. We still don't have all the pieces we want, but now we know exactly what those pieces are."

Design: Paul Davis, Paul Davis Architects, Los Angeles (310/313-3705).

Interior design: Cheryl Burke, Cheryl Burke Interior Design, San Francisco (415/492-1740).

Landscape design: Pamela Palmer, Artecho, Venice, CA (310/399-4794).

Resources: Living room Harry sectional sofa with asymmetrical chaise ($11,636 for set) by B&B Italia (800/872-1697). Eileen Gray side table ($500) from Design Within Reach (800/944-2233). Barcelona chairs in ivory ($3,888 each) from Design Within Reach (800/944-2233). Platner coffee table ($1,213–$1,590) available from Hive (866/663-4483). Shaggy Raggy white rug by the Rug Market ($48–$338) from CSN Rugs (800/630-6087). Dining room Model 2097 30 chandelier ($1,276); Eames aluminum side chairs ($1,598 each) and management chairs ($1,998 each) in Spinneybeck red España leather; and Parentesi extension table ($2,700) from Design Within Reach (800/944-2233). Art consulting by Porter Associates (949/722-1753). Dining room painting: Entro, 2007, oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas, by Shinique Smith through Skestos Gabriele Gallery (312/243-1112). Patio Custom firepit by Artecho (310/399-4794). Thinking Man's chairs designed by Jasper Morrison for Cappellini in terra-cotta ($1,918 each) from Unica Home (888/898-6422). Swell single-seat club chairs manufactured by Richard Schultz ($2,200 each) from Summit Furniture (310/289-1266). Tawny Day Lilly paint on accent wall from Benjamin Moore Paints (item 2012-10; 800/344-0400).