A River Runs Through It
Water features and Cor-Ten steel bring rugged majesty to a Southern California house by Fred Fisher and Brad Dunning
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 7/1/2007 2:00:00 AM
Architect Fred Fisher and designer Brad Dunning have been friends and mutual admirers since the mid-1980's. But only now has that camaraderie yielded a professional collaboration: a 7,000-square-foot California house tailored to the sensibilities of investor Bill Wells and painter Jane Park Wells.
Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects has made a name for itself with galleries and museums, Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Los Angeles and the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York among many. Dunning, on the other hand, is grounded in California modernism and linked to today's boldface names. (Courtney Cox Arquette, Sofia Coppola, and Ashton and Demi are clients.) "There's a pool of creative people in Hollywood who love design and architecture," Dunning says, downplaying the connection. "If I lived in Detroit, I'd be working at Ford."
The Wells house is certainly no car factory. Part of a subdivided ranch in Santa Ynez, the 20-acre site presented bold, raw topography positively begging for a contemporary monolith, just like a huge empty gallery calls for sculpture by Richard Serra or Louise Bourgeois. And art, in fact, was the couple's key concern. Jane Park Wells needed space to paint her colorful oils and acrylics—an 800-square-foot studio with a mezzanine is the result—as well as surfaces where she could hang them alongside work by others.
From the beginning, Fisher thought of this project as a condensed version of an Idaho vacation house he'd designed for collectors Jake and Ruth Bloom. (He's the boffo entertainment lawyer.) That 18,000-square-foot residence is what Fisher calls a "box with a hole in the middle." The Wells place would be, too. "Simplicity was the mantra," Fisher says. "No articulated alien objects." Accordingly, he designed a structure stunning in its minimalist form and materials. The whole volume, drawn from the barn vernacular, is clad in corrugated Cor-Ten steel, some of it cut out to create windows. Naturally, huge expanses of glass come into play with sliders—shaded, on the south-facing side, by a 70-foot-wide steel canopy. The massive front door is deep-stained ash, 4 feet wide "to express the house's muscularity," Dunning notes.
The broken-square plan consists of three zones that "bring people outside and force them to experience the environment," FFPA partner David Ross comments. A loftlike living-dining space and kitchen dominate one side, with the contiguous master suite turning the corner. Up another side of the square are the two guest rooms. Then it's outside to get to the section containing Jane Park Wells's studio, her husband's office, and the garage. In the center of the courtyard, landscaping is intentionally severe, with native boulders and grasses and an off-center live oak. By the entry, a slender reflecting pool provides a gesture of welcome.
A similar-looking lap pool, off the master suite, is an antidote to steamy summers—and a way to work off long, leisurely meals. Yes, the Wellses are oenophiles, and they cook. The kitchen-dining zone claims the majority of the public area. Dunning's dining table, topped by a 12-foot-long, 3-inch-thick slab of walnut, is surrounded by armchairs of the same wood for what he describes as "rustic-ness in a certain context." In the contiguous kitchen, he took a low-key approach to the cabinetry, brush-painted birch with hints of grain showing through, and appliances, all stainless steel. He went a bit more formal in the living area, where Italian contemporary meets American modern with Rodolfo Dordoni's blocky linen-covered sofa and club chairs offset by Harry Bertoia's lighter Bird chair and ottoman. The cocktail table is a custom interpretation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona design. And everything is framed by oak flooring and a poplar ceiling.
With a project this size, who'd think one of the chief challenges would come from a small element? Here, it was the master bath. FFPA and Dunning wanted to place the vanity along a window wall, but what about mirrors? The solution: mirror mounted on chromed-steel boxes suspended from steel rods. As for the vanity itself, it's teak in the bathroom, then extends through the open doorway to the bedroom, where the wood changes to walnut and the cabinet morphs into a credenza. A quartz-composite top spans the piece's 11-foot width, unbroken.
For Fisher, Dunning, and the Wellses, process and product cemented their friendship. Jane Park Wells showed her appreciation in her show at the Ruth Bachofner Gallery in Los Angeles, where three paintings were inspired by and named after architect, designer, and general contractor.