Often, when we virtually step inside a well-designed home, the story is either about the homeowners or the designers. Today, we’d be remiss not to mention both parties. This Rustic Canyon home belongs to Jamie Price (the daughter of Dallas Price, an art collector and MOCA board member) and her husband, Brad Schlei, whose folks were good friends of Robert F. Kennedy. Both Los Angeles natives, the couple grew up immersed in art and design — her childhood home was designed by architect Ray Kappe, while his was by the iconic Paul R. Williams.
The unique property has a storied history. John Lautner protégé, architect Duncan Nicholson, began the project before his untimely passing. Kristopher Conner and James Perry, now of Conner + Perry Architects and formally with Nicholson’s office, completed and enhanced the design. With interior designers Olivia Williams and Matt Merrell of Olivia Williams Interior Design and Merrell Design Co., the finished space is an impressive work of art in itself. We had a chat with the architects to learn more:
Tell us a bit about this home. Where is it located, and how did you honor its location and history in the design?
The property, which began as a test station for the Forestry Service during their Eucalyptus tree testing in the 1910-20s, is set in Rustic Canyon, a unique part of Santa Monica. The serene property features a creek at the rear of the residence, a consistent mild ocean breeze, and oak and eucalyptus groves. The resulting design flows around the landscape, creating outdoor rooms around which the house’s program is organized.
The property’s surrounding Oak and Eucalyptus trees served as inspiration for a home design that allows for reflection, openness, and serenity. It was important that Jamie and Brad honor this history and so we repurposed the fallen Eucalyptus wood found on the property into outdoor seating and key elements within the house.
With their art and design infused upbringings, both Jamie and Brad felt a strong connection to the design of the home. Brad, craved streamlined, usable space; Jamie desired the serenity of a retreat that integrated with the surroundings. As Brad describes, “[We] wanted something that looks like it belonged in the canyon. We wanted to feel like we were living amongst the trees.”
The clients have an impressive art collection. Was this considered in the home’s design?
Jamie and Brad came to the project with a notable art collection that was a key consideration from the very beginning of the design process. One experiences the breadth of their collection moving through the continuous open public spaces of the house and discovers more unique and compelling pieces as they are allowed to explore individual rooms and more private spaces.
The clients also brought a collection of vintage hardware and lighting pieces to the table that were integrated throughout the design. Examples of note include the Murano glass chandeliers over the main dining table, and in the master bedroom the Murano pendants hanging in the trees of the atrium garden, as well as the beautiful brass and enamel door pulls that were adapted for the main entry and master suite doors.
What were some of the biggest challenges, either with the location or the structure?
The site is home to several protected California live oaks, and it contained several century-old specimens of different species. The house was designed to weave around the trees, preserving them while creating a series of outdoor rooms and gardens that both visually and physically connect the interior spaces to each other and to the outdoors.
It was particularly technically challenging to achieve the large free spans necessary to allow the house’s multi-sliding glass doors to completely open up and pocket away around the pool courtyard and at the rear deck. The effect when the house is wide open is really stunning and at the same time completely tranquil.
As well, the few trees that were cut down to make the property buildable were repurposed for key elements throughout the house including the main front doors, fireplace mantles, a built-in daybed, and outdoor tables and stools.
The project began with Duncan Nicholson. What was it like completing it?
The project began in 2013 under the direction of architect Duncan Nicholson. Duncan, a protege of John Lautner, had previously worked for Jamie’s mother, Dallas Price (a prominent Los Angeles art collector), collaborating with the artist James Turrell on her private Skyspace installation at her Ray Kappe-designed home. The Rustic Canyon Residence was developed through the schematic design phase, with us acting as project architects, when Duncan unexpectedly passed away at the beginning of 2015. When we set out to form our own practice, Jamie and Brad decided to continue on with us to finish the project.
The essence of the design had been laid out, including the approach to the siting and spatial configuration of the programmatic elements of the house. The general aesthetic qualities and a rough idea of exterior materials had also been established. We did a fair amount of redesign to accommodate requests from the clients and scale back the size of the house a bit. We developed all of the construction details, and finalized all of the material selections with the team and oversaw construction. We were responsible for the design of some of the key architectural elements of the house, such as the main entry doors and feature stair, built-ins and casework, etc.
Though we implemented some significant design changes to achieve feasibility and accommodate client requests, the spirit of Duncan’s original concept can still be seen in the finished building.
Do you have a favorite element in the home?
Kristopher Conner: I’ve been back a few times to spend time with Jamie and Brad since the house was completed, and I have to say, when the house is completely opened up on the ground floor it is really spectacular. You feel as if you are in an enormous outdoor space but simultaneously sheltered and at peace. The ocean breezes coming up the canyon permeate the house as you move effortlessly between the gardens and the pool courtyard. As the landscape has had a chance to grow in, the spaces have become even more serene and beautiful.
James Perry: My favorite element of the home is the cantilevered copper eaves. They were actually conceived from the interior, even though they have a dramatic effect on the exterior form of the house. The glass openings were raised to the ceiling so that when you stand in the spaces your view opens outwards and upward to the unobstructed sky above. They also provide protection from the rain and provide shade in key places. They are an element that carries through the entire project, and being clad in copper they will age gracefully into a natural patina.