A Modern House and Studio for a Marble Sculptor

On Sunday, June 23, we will welcome architect Michael Lehrer to the Demo Stage at Dwell on Design. Lehrer will take us inside a house and art studio he designed for the marble sculptor Charlie Kaplan—an epic commission and collaboration that stretched across 12 years. Since Kaplan will be traveling and won't be able to attend, we reached out to him ahead of the event to get his take on the challenges, rewards, and lessons drawn from the architectural collaboration.
lehrer modern house and studio

At Dwell on Design, architect Michael Lehrer will take us on a virtual tour of Canyon House, the house and studio he designed for the marble sculptor Charlie Kaplan.

What drew you to architect Michael Lehrer? Why did you feel he was the right person to build your house?

First and foremost, Michael is a really good guy.

About 15 years ago, I participated in a LACMA architecture tour with my wife, Joann. One of the houses on the tour was a formerly nondescript California bungalow. It was originally small, dark, and confining but the owners engaged Michael to create an addition, which was airy and full of light. It was an eye-opening moment as we had recently decided to expand our own then-nondescript home. Michael was present during the LACMA tour; we met him and hired him on the spot.

From that first example of Michael’s work, we fell in love with his approach. What is a piece of architecture, after all, but sculpture that you walk into or live in? I see sculpting as problem solving. I want to make a slab of marble smooth and curvilinear. Michael also has a problem-solving approach to architecture. Creatively, our work styles are similar.

I was constantly amazed during the design process. Our initial idea of expanding one room became two rooms and ultimately became tearing down the existing home and starting from scratch. I related to Michael’s ability to see the house as a sculpture—he would draw his idea on paper and then turn the idea into a 3D model.

As an artist, sculpting is intuitive, the creative process exists in the stone and the form emerges as I begin to work with the stone. I'm knowledgeable of what the sculpture will look like when it's finished. I sensed that Michael shared a similar intuitive approach to architecture.

What was your goal?

We had two shared goals. Joann’s goal, with her background in landscaping, was to bring the outside environment inside. My goal, likely through the artist’s eye, was to create great views, within the house and from inside the house to the outside.

Tell me about your collaboration with Lehrer. Did any challenges or surprises come up during the design process?

Michael’s process with us was to present his ideas, to defend, to explain, and then to move on, but never impose. This process was a big surprise because the collaboration was never adversarial. Michael was always willing to listen to our ideas and questions, and ready to explore another approach when necessary.

At times we did return to the original idea, but Michael allowed the process to happen, empowering us to reach a point of acceptance and understanding.

The first of many turning points was when our vision for the house met with the reality of executing the vision—such as expanding budgets, longer time frames, etc. Our collaboration with Michael spanned 12 years—seven in design and five in building. Michael's ongoing presence and involvement with the builder, Horizon Builders, was one of the key elements to success.

We all wanted this collaboration to succeed. As clients, we eliminated as many obstacles as possible. For instance, we were fortunate to be able to move into our beach house during the demolition and building process so the pressure to finish by a certain time was not an issue. As clients, we also played to our strengths: Joanne participated in the review of the design and I participated more in the review of the mechanics of the construction.

What's your favorite space in the finished house?

It is really difficult to answer this question. I love the family room, next to the kitchen, with the soaring ceilings. The foyer outside our bedroom is intimate, yet spacious. I am phenomenally in love with my studio. And how could I not love the living room with sliding glass doors on two walls that is the epitome of indoor-outdoor living?

All of the spaces in the house simply make you feel good. For me, it is like walking around and within a Richard Serra sculpture. You simply feel good in the space.

Now that you've been living there for almost three years, is there anything you wish you'd done differently, or anything you'd like to change?

There are three rooms in the home that are devoted to my work as a sculptor—the studio, the workshop, and a display room. For purely selfish reasons, if I were redesigning the house, the only change I would make would be to make the workshop and display room larger.

What did you learn from your design collaboration?

I learned that two artists would accomplish a shared goal in completely different ways.

This was the first time that I realized that I was collaborating with another artist, because it was the first time that I viewed myself as an artist in the collaboration.

Prior to my experience of designing our home with Michael, I considered myself a private artist, sculpting marble because it was a passion, and not looking for public recognition. During the design collaboration, Michael suggested that I create a sculpture to place in front of the house.

A goal in the design of the house was not to create a public display of my sculpture. Only after Michael suggested that I create a work specifically for the house did I begin to see how the house, as sculpture, could also display sculpture.

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