How a Bungalow Went from Bland to Brilliant

When artists Ramona Trent and Anthony Pearson teamed up with architects Escher GuneWardena for a full-scale renovation, they bestowed a remarkable view upon an unremarkable bungalow.
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When Anthony Pearson and Ramona Trent first pulled up to the driveway of what would become their West Los Angeles home, nothing about the low-slung bungalow appeared particularly exceptional. The couple, an artist and a photographer, had been living in bohemian Venice in an old craftsman stuffed with art and history. This mid-century block felt suburban: crack-free sidewalks and grassy lawns. Over the years, the Mar Vista Hill neighborhood’s original single-story stucco houses had morphed into a jumble that included Swiss chalets and overgrown haciendas, making this address seem doubly understated. Once inside, they were still dubious. The 1946 house had been subject to inexpert renovations, yet Pearson and Trent saw some potential and, more importantly, they caught a glimpse of sky out of a rear window—a view.

Because Los Angeles is basically a flat basin surrounded by hills, views are a scarce commodity. Multimillion-dollar manses in the Hollywood Hills or Santa Monica Mountains sport sweeping vistas, but the average three-bedroom ranch never gets the kind of elevation needed to look out over the horizon. But as Pearson and Trent’s Mar Vista home sits on top of a small coastal rise, it’s just high enough for an uncommon northeastern view of the city.

To thoroughly remodel the house to take advantage of the covetable skyline, the couple turned to the Los Angeles–based architecture firm of Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena. Escher, an expert on John Lautner, the architect responsible for some of Los Angeles’s most iconic homes (such as the Chemosphere) with some of the city’s most iconic views, was surprised. "We were just blown away the first time Anthony and Ramona brought us here. You have certain views in your visual library of Los Angeles and this is not one of them," says Escher. "We kept the front of the house deliberately very, very low key and nondescript—in a way a translation of their personalities: very private. And the view creates an element of surprise or delight, something that is really important in architecture."

Visitors enter the reconfigured house through a small vestibule, which immediately gives way to the sky, a few trees, and Century City on the horizon. (The main room’s roof slopes up to a lofty 14 feet.) This new layout swaps an old zigzagged floor plan for a large living and kitchen area, bound on the west side by two bedrooms for their girls, Delphine (one and a half) and Chantal (five), as well as a master bedroom. The house may be modest, but an 11-foot-tall and 26-foot-long glass wall that slides completely away into a closet and opens up the entire living space to the outdoors makes it as dramatic as any of the mansions across town.

By paring the scheme down to a single space with a single, cinematic window, the architects were able to work within the clients’ budget. The structure is simple—exposed composite-wood Glulam beams span the main room. By using an industrial building material in a residential setting, the architects save the home from ever feeling too precious. "I love modern design, but I want to feel at home in it," explains Trent. "In photographs of a lot of contemporary modern homes, they don’t look very livable."

Escher and GuneWardena, who’ve designed some very minimalist buildings, worked hard to make the home feel comfortable and relaxed. To that end, there’s an easy flow between functions. A long tiled bar separates the loungy sofa (a custom-fabricated design developed as a collaboration between Pearson and Trent and the architects) in the living room from the kitchen practicalities. The bathrooms, laundry nook, and closet act as a buffer between the public and private spaces. The casual relationship between spaces is underscored by material choices. Almost like a textile draped over the surface, natural clay-colored tile wraps the kitchen island, spilling over the sides and meeting the floor tiles that cover the entire open-air living room and patio. Each tile is offset by a third, taking the emphasis off the grid pattern; the architects’ deft attention to detail transformed inexpensive quarry tiles from something you’d see in a hospital cafeteria into a kind of muted luxury. "At one time we were talking about making the kitchen island out of marble, but it reminded Anthony of the bathroom at the Ritz," jokes GuneWardena.

Pearson and Trent love to entertain, inviting over fellow artists as well as writers, critics, and other friends. Entering the house, guests pass a rough concrete-block wall, a sculpture by artist Evan Holloway, and leave pretension at the door. Food gets laid out on the tiled bar (perhaps a lasagna, a tarte tatin, or Trent’s chocolate-chip cookies) and there’s a fire in the hearth. Folks gather around the dining room table, pulling up one of the assorted Danish modern chairs. In the living room, they simply find a spot on the fluffy Moroccan rug. "The glass doors are always open," says Trent. "If the fog rolls in, I bring out blankets and people hang out in groups on the patio."

Naturally, art hangs on almost every wall. A pale pink canvas, a Butterfly painting by contemporary artist Mark Grotjahn, stands out against the earthy, mushroom-colored plaster. Artwork even sneaks into the walk-in closet, and prints and small sculptures fill every crevice of the bookcases in Pearson’s office in the front of the house. Keeping a watchful eye over the house is a stately portrait by Eugene Speicher, an American realist from the early part of the 20th century. Rendered in oil paint is Helen Appleton Read: gallerist, art critic, gentlewoman-about-town (she was friends with architect Philip Johnson in the 1930s), and more importantly, Trent’s great-grandmother.

The house’s mellow vibe grew out of long discussions between Pearson, Trent, and the architects. While some clients would scour glossy magazines for the latest design ideas, Pearson and Trent would show up at meetings with 1960s and 1970s architecture and interior-design books.  The easy rapport is evident when hanging out with everyone in the living room on a recent mild afternoon. Trent cites a 1971 edition of Modern Furniture and Decoration by Robert Harling as an inspiration for mixing modern design with old and eclectic pieces. "My taste is a little farther afield than the other three’s. They restrained me, because I can get a little macramé, hippie, redwood-dome house," she says, noting her upbringing in free-spirited Marin County. "I pushed for a sunken living room, but nobody would go for it."

Pearson brings out another book with a bright orange cover and begins to flip through page after page of 1960s international vacation houses. The book’s black-and-white photographs were central to the conversation that spawned the house—on those musty pages you can start to pinpoint the bridge between Escher and GuneWardena’s architectural pedigree and Trent’s forays into funky. All of the ’60s and ’70s influences could have spawned a shag-carpeted disaster, but Escher and GuneWardena’s design plants the house firmly in the present. Pearson stops on a favorite: a boxy wood cabin where all the glass doors pivot open to the outside. And almost as if on cue, everyone looks up from the book, turns their heads to the open sliding doors, and gazes out at the view of the Los Angeles skyline.

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Mimi Zeiger
An active freelancer, Zeiger's writing on art, architecture and design is found in variety of publications including articles for Architect, Azure and Metropolis magazines.


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