The plot thickens
The exterior may look sleekly industrial—it's a different story inside the Los Angeles house that Johnson Fain design partner Scott Johnson built for his family
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
"I live in a city where the story is king," comments Scott Johnson, design partner of the Los Angeles architecture-interiors-planning firm Johnson Fain. "I, however, am interested in abstraction." At the house he built for himself, OB-GYN wife Margaret Bates, and their two teenage children, Johnson reconciled the two opposing tendencies, bringing autobiographical references to bear on an architecture of geometric volumes.
Unlike those lured by the seclusion of the Hollywood Hills, Johnson chose Hancock Park, home to a more urban, urbane brand of glamour. This tony neighborhood speaks a language of manicured lawns and grand dwellings—the real thing, not Mediterranean meltdowns. Johnson's residence is an anomaly, a stark block of stucco, glass, and corrugated metal. In the front yard, there's not a blade of grass in sight.
That said, the architect hasn't merely reiterated the edgy Southern California archetype. Far from raw, the 6,000-square-foot three-floor construction is impeccably detailed and refined. If a home is inevitably a self-portrait, he painted his with broad strokes befitting his background. "I'm not like a lot of California designers, who grew up here, went to SCI-Arc, and worked for Frank Gehry," Johnson says. His East Coast–West Coast résumé lists Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, plus associations with Philip Johnson and John Burgee, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and the Architects Collaborative. Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, Carlo Scarpa and Carlo Mollino, and Gunnar Asplund and Alvar Aalto have also left their mark on Johnson's sensibility.
Reflecting his modern-minimal proclivities, the house is essentially a box, albeit one with cutaways and curves. "It's the idea of paring down and making things simple, from both a formal and personal point of view," he says. He factored his wife and children's needs and preferences heavily into the design, especially the plan.
The ground floor encompasses a large lounge and sound studio for the kids, a service core, and a garage. Above is the public zone and the master suite, whose circular soundproof bedroom—complete with blackout shades—offers Bates a refuge from her intense professional schedule. Johnson calls this floor the "pass-through" level, as it leads to a 10-foot-deep square pool set in an austere concrete patio. The third floor, housing children's quarters, terminates dramatically with the library's curved wall of Profilit translucent channel glass. An industrial-style powder-coated steel stairway connects the three levels. "It's a layered house," Johnson says. "The sense of adventure develops as you go through the living, dining, patio, and bedroom zones."
The second-floor public zone, with its concrete floor and end-to-end axis, feels like the big-city loft of a designer intrigued with procession. Spatial arrangements, not full-height partitions, suggest defined areas. Materials changes indicate function changes; degrees of transparency and translucency present a subtext about privacy.
"Materials read as one thing at a distance and another close up," Johnson says. For example, he used laminated glass for both the face and the back of the fireplace delineating the dining area. Seen from the dining table, the glass offers a jolt of color. From the opposite direction, filtered through the living area's cabinetry and the stairway, the same treatment assumes softer, glowing tones. Similar shifts in perception occur with fiberglass, which forms 7-foot-high panels separating the kitchen from the circulation spine. Translucency varies according to natural and artificial lighting conditions, with corresponding shifts in how textures appear.
Johnson's furnishings not only warm the envelope of concrete, glass, white plaster, and maple but also hint at the erudition of the owner. The living area's ebonized-cherry shelving, built around a limestone fireplace face, is filled with books and building miniatures from his world travels. Furniture, though all modern, has diverse provenances. Pedigreed classics are represented by Cini Boeri's 1972 polyester-and-glass credenza, Poul Kjaerholm's cocktail table from 1955, and Josef Hoffmann's Kubus chair, dating to 1910. Johnson salutes Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with a custom daybed and Jean-Michel Frank with custom tables of steel and black mirrored glass. A pair of Johnson's generously proportioned leather-covered club chairs face a single, slimmer chrome-and-leather chair.
In the library, the severity of Le Corbusier's "airplane" table is offset by the levity of a heart-shape cane chair from the Philippines and a typically '60s chrome table lamp, an erstwhile store fixture at the über-hip L.A. boutique Maxfield. Of more recent date are the dining chairs by Roy McMakin; they surround a limestone-topped table by Johnson.
Though clearly enamored of modern design, he doesn't confine himself to its serious side. His humor shines through in his playful prototype chairs of Icelandic clear and aniline-dyed maple, two of which usually stand in the hallway leading to the master suite. Then there's the beam-revealing circular cutout in the master bedroom's ceiling. As Johnson says, "It's our ha-ha."
In the Los Angeles house that Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain designed, a Steinway grand piano stands at one end of the living area. A polyester-and-glass credenza by Cini Boeri stands beneath Madden Harkness's oil and pencil on vellum. The custom daybed is Johnson's homage to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Ebonized-cherry cabinetry and a limestone fireplace face further anchor the living area. Johnson's club chairs face Poul Kjaerholm's cocktail table. An original Mariano Fortuny table lamp sits on a custom side table.
A fireplace fronted by laminated glass articulates the dining area. Roy McMakin designed the chairs.
Chenille lines the walls of the soundproof master bedroom. The duvet cover is an Indian textile.
The 10-foot-deep square pool, with its concrete patio, is reached from the second floor.
Johnson made these prototype chairs of Icelandic clear and aniline-dyed maple.
A construction of corrugated metal, glass, steel, and plaster, Johnson's house stands out in traditional Hancock Park.