Malibu Canyon House with a View

Originally published in 
as 
Up and Away

Working with a limited footprint, a daunting slope, and killer views, architect Bruce Bolander went vertical with a secluded canyon house in Malibu.

Project 
Blair House
Architect 

Several years after architect Bruce Bolander built a house for his family in a chaparral-filled canyon in Malibu, California, the steep lot across the road came up for sale. Bolander knew he had to move on it or risk watching a coral-pink mini-McMansion go up smack-dab in the middle of his sight line. “I wasn’t sure the lot was even buildable,” says Bolander, who bought the 2.5-acre site anyway. He spent the next four years wrangling permits for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom structure, its 900-square-foot footprint dictated—per city building codes—by the property’s previous house, which had been destroyed in the 1940s yet immortalized in a fuzzy old aerial snapshot. “The broad-stroke design happened pretty quickly,” says the architect. “The size was a given—the rectangular shape, even—and the rest was more about what felt good, what felt right in the setting.”

For Bolander, what felt best was to integrate the house with the land. The resulting steel, glass, and concrete structure, protected by winglike roof overhangs, is set into the hillside noninvasively and is barely visible from the road below. Even so, as the house was being built, Dave Keffer, who runs a creative services firm, and Heidi Wright, an advertising executive, noticed its progress on drives through the canyon. “I started seeing this amazing structure go up and thought it was exactly the type of place I’d be into living in,” says Wright. The chance soon arose when Wright saw the rental listing in a local paper. Since Bolander had already outfitted the space with some of his own custom-built furnishings, the couple purged many of their own belongings, put the rest in storage, and moved in.

“When we really pared down, we realized that we didn’t need a lot of stuff,” says Wright. The solid wall of built-in storage running the length of the house, clad in petrol blue and light turquoise laminate panels, helped ease the transition to smaller quarters. “There’s a surprising amount of storage,” says Keffer. “We were thinking there would be no way we’d get all our stuff in here, but we did. Now we just have to be sure we put everything back where it belongs to reduce clutter.”

In the open-plan kitchen, dining, and living room, the home’s cool color palette allows key elements to shine, such as the steel-and-plywood dining table Bolander designed and paired with vintage Eames Wire Shell chairs, and the coffee table he hybridized from an Eames base and a large, round chunk of plywood. To Bolander’s selections, Wright and Keffer added some favorite pieces—she a 1950s kidney-shaped wood table, he something of his own design: a two-tiered triangular wood corner table that echoes Wright’s piece and neatly contains audiovisual equipment beneath the flat-panel television.

Bolander’s maximization of space has everything to do with the views. In the living room and bedroom, floor-to-ceiling glass walls retract, opening both corners of the front facade to the elements and the surrounding vistas—a move partly inspired by the master bedroom of John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein house. “The mountains across the way are almost like another wall—they contain the space to the point that you feel like you’re in a much bigger space, that you’re part of the overall landscape,” says Bolander.

The architect employed other tricks to perceptually extend the house: He wrapped the facade with a six-foot-wide deck that bumps out to 12 feet off the living room, the best spot for taking in the ocean views. He seamlessly continued the gray hue of the cork linoleum floor from the interior onto the Dex-O-Tex deck; similarly, the skinny Hem-Fir slats on the interior ceiling extend through the glass walls to the roof overhang, appearing to thrust the house outward. Bolander makes unexpected use of a common design accent by running the bathroom’s Heath Ceramics Ogawa Green tile into the living room and out onto the exterior wall, allowing the interior to further wend its way outside.

Both Keffer and Wright have plenty of workspace—her territory is a thin steel desk Bolander designed especially for the bedroom, where she’s up and on calls to New York the moment the sun rises over the mountains. Keffer runs his company from a home office in the detached garage, furnished sparsely with various musical instruments, a sofa from Wright’s previous abode, and a new, bright red-orange Womb chair and ottoman by Eero Saarinen. “I’m in love with that chair,” says Wright.

And when the occasion calls for a celebration, the house easily converts from work mode to play. “Entertaining here is simple,” says Wright. “We open up the doors, fire up the grill, and seat people outside. Living in a small space within this environment is actually very easy—the quality of life is amazing.”

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