From Capri to California
Patrick Tighe transports an Italian modernist icon to the hills of Los Angeles
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
"The day I started to build myself a house, I did not think that I would be creating a portrait of myself," poet Curzio Malaparte declared in 1933. The house in question was Casa Malaparte, that trapezoidal landmark set on an isolated promontory on the Italian island of Capri. Thousands of tourists have visited. In film director Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, the house and its legendary exterior staircase starred with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli. And that cinematic image made such an impression on Steve Werndorf, a former movie executive and longtime Italophile, that he channeled Casa Malaparte for an addition to his 1947 Wallace Neff house in Los Angeles.
When Werndorf bought the 2,800-square-foot Los Feliz house, it lacked a studio for his painting and photography as well as an office; he also wanted a master suite and a rooftop terrace. Werndorf tossed around several options for an extension—a glassed-in gallery, a simple box with a barn door. Then he called architect Patrick Tighe, principal of his namesake firm.
"The project grew in scope during its gestation period," says Werndorf. As planning evolved, the Malaparte idea gradually emerged and crystallized.
First there was the issue of how to meld such disparate architectural forms: Neff's single-story rectangle with Malaparte's height and angularity. Tighe also had to consider how to maximize the site's hill views while meeting the setback demands of the wedge-shape corner property.
Supported by nine caissons descending from 30 to 50 feet, the addition is placed strategically, so the 1,600-square-foot double-height structure is virtually invisible from directly in front of the Neff house. Not until one stands back about 150 feet and moves 90 degrees to the left does one see Tighe's single-story glassed-in gallery and—at the far end of it—the main addition in its full strength and drama.
Its pitch echoing the forms of the surrounding hill landscape, the stucco-finished volume presents a different reading at each elevation. To allow optimal indirect light to filter into the addition's double-height studio, Tighe glazed the north-facing wall of the stairwell on that side—the shaft's bull-nose profile furthermore addresses a setback condition of the plot. The connecting gallery runs along the east facade, past a small courtyard covered in river rocks. A 10-foot-wide electronically powered sliding wall of tongue-and-groove cedar dominates the western elevation. And the canted south face is the Malaparte moment: a concrete stairway ascending to a roof terrace.
Tighe calls the interior a "journey from the gallery to the studio to the office—all with framed views." Most people don't rush the procession.
The studio's poured-concrete flooring anchors the space's 25-foot height, and built-in bookcases line one wall. Furnishings include little more than an easel, a tripod, and a table for paints, but the art holds plenty of interest. By abstracting details of old-master paintings, Werndorf's oils explore a historical continuum. "Modern art all comes from somewhere," he explains. Even more captivating, perhaps, is his photography, which examines links between sex and religion.
The master bedroom and bath occupy the rest of the ground floor, and maple stairs lead up to the office. Tighe outfitted this mezzanine space with maple flooring and a steel rail. Werndorf designed the cherry-wood desk, then—his eye trained by set design—added two Italian lounge chairs from the 1970's and a credenza attributed to George Nelson. Enter Brigitte Bardot. Or at least Nicole Kidman.