It was that idyllic moment every party host savors: the electrified hush right before the first guests arrive. The food was plated, the wine chilled, the iPod cued. Ingrid and Jane Avery, seven and ten years old, were handling the flower arrangements. Standing at a long stainless steel island that runs the length of their kitchen, they tucked candy-colored ranunculus, anemones, and scabiosa into wide-mouthed mason jars.
About 25 guests—many of them writers, filmmakers, and designers, plus their children—began to gather in the warm April afternoon. Their cars rolled slowly down the dusty canyon road scented with pine needles and citrus blossoms toward Laura Gabbert and Andrew Avery’s home in the hills of Glassell Park in Los Angeles.
The couple bought the seven-acre property in 2003 and hired architects Jeff Allsbrook and Silvia Kuhle of L.A.-based firm Standard to reimagine the existing ranch house as a sustainable home engineered for entertaining. The place had been marketed as an "artists’ residence" in real estate ads. "I had never seen a piece of property like this in northeast L.A.," says Gabbert of its rustic charm. "People who have lived here forever told us that they used to see horses here," adds Avery. The horses are gone, but it’s still technically an artists’ residence: Gabbert is a documentary director who has made the films No Impact Man and Sunset Story, and Avery is a writer who also works for a native-plants wholesaler.
Standing among party guests in the kitchen, helping themselves to gluten-free sandwiches, lasagna "cupcakes," and garden-fresh cocktails, architects Allsbrook and Kuhle describe how, using the L-shaped footprint of the existing home, they laid out two long rooms—a living area and a kitchen—that blend the social hubs of the house into the natural environment. "We created outdoor rooms on either side of the house," says Allsbrook, pointing to large pivot doors that bracket the living room and open onto patios set with upholstered outdoor furniture and a long wooden dining table. In the kitchen, sliding doors disappear completely into the walls. Windows in the bedrooms and office are placed on the top third of the wall, a trick Allsbrook and Kuhle gleaned from Le Corbusier. "He would put windows high to cut out the foreground and give you a view toward the distance," Allsbrook says.
In a house built for entertaining, durable materials are key, according to the architects. The kitchen countertop is made from industrial-quality stainless steel so it can take a beating from cooking and crafts. Flooring is reclaimed end-grain block wood from Oregon Lumber that creates a rich texture and hides those inevitable scratches from shoes and the family’s three dogs. Much of the furniture comes from Minneapolis-based Room & Board, owned by Gabbert’s parents, Martha and John.
As the house neared completion, Gabbert and Avery tried to tame the lot, a hodgepodge of fire-hazardous scrub, black walnut trees, elderberry bushes, and neglected tropicals. But the land was uncooperative. "We tried to seed the field with wildflowers," says Avery, shaking his head. "It was us against the weeds."
A serendipitous force intervened a few years later when Gabbert and Avery met urban farmer Tara Kolla, who was looking for a plot of land exactly like theirs. Kolla’s Silver Lake Farms is legendary in Los Angeles for its jewel-like cut flowers, sold at area farmers’ markets and offered to locals through a "flower share" community supported agriculture (CSA). With limited growing space in her own backyard, Kolla relies on generous homeowners to volunteer their real estate as supplemental acreage. "We develop growing grounds that are totally productive to us but still look lovely so the residents can enjoy them," she says.
In 2010, Kolla deposited 75 tons of compost at the Gabbert-Avery residence, and with the help of a backhoe, an irrigation system, and dozens of volunteers, she transformed nearly a quarter-acre of their property into a flower farm. "This was a perfect solution for us. It’s a beautiful way to have it landscaped," Gabbert says as party guests meander about the neat rows of sweet-pea blossoms and electric-pink snapdragons on a garden tour led by Silver Lake Farms volunteers.
Rolling plucked lavender blossoms between their fingers, cocktails still in hand, the guests return to the kitchen and pick up their conversations. After snipping blooms to sell at the next day’s farmers’ markets, the volunteers join them, toasting their harvest with mason jars of hibiscus iced tea. As revellers move comfortably through the kitchen, living room, and myriad outdoor spaces, Gabbert marvels at how the house transforms a party into a collaboration with her guests. "Throwing parties is more fun when we get everyone involved," she says. "It’s not always organized, but people just jump in and help. We’re not super-precious about anything—so why should we be about entertaining?"