If you call Dawn Farmer and Pierre Kozely and they don’t answer the phone, you’ll get a French-accented message that says you’ve reached "Dawn and Pierre’s Venice shack." "Shack" is actually a euphemism for a refined modern house they’ve built in Venice, California, with architect Michael Sant. While nowhere near as tiny as a shack, and certainly not as funky or folksy, at 1,700 square feet it is a relatively small house, and one that expresses the ideals of a couple determined to try a new way of living.
Kozely and Farmer run Pietrarte, a company that sells the kind of furniture designs not likely to be found in the home of a self-respecting modernist: patterned mosaic tabletops, ornamental chairs, mirror frames, and bedsteads made of sinewy wrought iron with curlicues, sold in tony retail stores like Z Gallerie. In fact, you will scarcely find this furniture in the couple’s own home. When Kozely and Farmer embarked on a remodel of their house near the Mar Vista neighborhood four years ago, they decided to go for a new aesthetic, and with it, a new life adventure.
"I grew up in old farmhouses and wanted a new way of living, and I thought contemporary design would allow us to do that," says Farmer. "We had developed a business niche and could not reinvent ourselves there, but we could reinvent our household surroundings." "We didn’t want our stuff in there, we see it all day long," adds Kozely. "Since we were starting from scratch, we thought it might be our only chance to go modern."
Farmer, 40, had seen and admired the work of Venice-based architect Michael Sant. Sant had worked in the offices of Frank Gehry and Morphosis, both known for showy, complex contemporary architecture, but his own residential designs are white and spare, filled with natural light and open to the outdoors.
Farmer liked Sant’s "clean, orthogonal" lines and persuaded Kozely, 47, who grew up in Alsace, France, "surrounded by antiques and little personal objects," to come along for the minimalist ride. He initially resisted, on the grounds that "if you are going to be modern you have to flaunt it, like Frank Gehry," but he grew to embrace the idea of simplicity. "It took me a year and a half to realize it, but now, ‘less is more’ is a religion."
With Sant they developed a design for a compact but deceptively roomy home that makes the most of the 45-by-130-foot lot. Two things were important, explains Kozely: "We asked Michael to really give us the feeling of indoor and outdoor." And, because the couple entertain a lot (Kozely had a previous career in sound recording and loves throwing parties), "the other main concept was to have the kitchen in the center."
They decided at the outset to keep the house on one story, flouting the current trend to build upwards on pricey Westside land. "By keeping the entire house at ground level," says Sant, "you get a feeling of living off the land, you control what you see out of the windows, and you bring the gardens into every room." His design consists of adjoining front, middle, and rear pavilions, each flanked by an outside area. The yards, by Venice-based landscape designer Jay Griffith, are conceived as outdoor rooms—extending the interior while bringing a panorama of the gardens inside.
The clients and architect then decided to dedicate a full two-thirds of the house’s footprint to the open kitchen/living area, making it the energy center and dramatic heart of the home. This surprisingly spacious hybrid kitchen/living room is connected at each end to smaller private rooms.
Sant heightened the dramatic sense of scale with sloping ceilings—which rise from 9 to 12 feet—and, even more so, with light. "I like co-opting the sky to extend space," he explains. Sunlight pours in through skylights and a dozen seven-and-a-half-foot-high glass doors leading outside from every room but the bathrooms (where, in the case of the master bathroom, a floor-to-ceiling window provides the same effect).
The architect made even more of a feature of the light, and its sculptural, scintillating effect as it changes over the course of each day, by keeping the interior space as naked as possible. He fought to use a minimal palette of materials: The floor throughout is polished concrete, with radiant heating underfoot. All the doors, kitchen cabinetry, and built-in storage are plywood veneered in rift oak. The walls are bare and white, stucco on the interior, Venetian plaster on the exterior.
"I guess one of the things that I like about whiteness," Sant says, "is the ability to define walls as being one material. If you are making a transition from indoor to outdoor, there is something flattening if you lay color over it. White reads like a material when you can’t afford to build out of stone." It also made the house feel more spacious. But it was a theory that took some persuading.
"We even called him anal," says Kozely, in cheerful recollection of early battles, when he and Farmer still expected more looseness, texture, and color. "Michael pushed for white and I said, ‘Why don’t we try dark-green concrete on the floor? Let’s stain the oak in some places.’ Michael said, ‘No way, don’t try to make it look like something it’s not.’ Dawn was caught between us. But Michael helped blend our visions." Now, says Kozely, he revels in their home’s "serenity and quietness."
Four years after the design process began—and after much tussling—Kozely has come around completely to the minimalist aesthetic embraced from the start by Farmer. "I think if you have faith in an architect, he brings restrictions that in the end free you."
Not only did the design exceed their expectations in terms of its liberating and transformative effect, but the financial investment also paid off. Once the shell was built, Kozely and Farmer acted as contractors and did much of the building themselves with a team from Pietrarte. This enabled them to keep construction costs to around $430,000.
Kozely and Farmer says their goal is to eventually take an extended break from work and do something socially useful, like joining the Peace Corps. "We’d like to have a different life and contribute somehow," says Farmer. For now they are embarking on another makeover job: this time, a Federal-style house in the center of a small village in New Hampshire. Kozely welcomes the chance to restore old stone and wood, but vows that the adapted interior will be unabashedly modern.