12 May Spring Home Design: Northwest architecture, materials and craftsmanship shine in a one-of-a-kind California house that really feels like home
AHHH. VENICE. California’s — maybe all of America’s — quintessential surf’s-up beach town. Where top-heavy palms pass as skinny skyscrapers; sneaker-filling sand stands in for tree debris as “that pesky stuff you track in”; and all manner of vibrancy, creativity and humanity amass under intensely magnetic sunlight.
We are far from home. But we are not entirely adrift, and we are not alone.
Millions of visitors alight in Venice every year. More than 40,000 Venetians live here every day — meaning all manner of homes amass here, too. At the high-energy coastal edge, boxy blocks of glassy modern design align to salute the sea. Venturing inland and eastward, the neighborhood’s celebrated eclectic vibe pulses a little less exuberantly, along placid canals and citrusy streets, where funky bungalows chill with sensual Mediterranean villas, classic ranch houses and avant-garde wonders.
The flora feels unfamiliar. The breeze feels body temperature. It is all so perfectly somewhere else, and then … one single, surprising home stands out. It’s recognizable in that giddy, initially disorienting way, like running into a teacher at the grocery store: I know you, but what are you doing here? It is extraordinarily out of the ordinary here — undulating, angular, sculptural. Supercool and radiantly warm. Distinct, and evocative.
Straight out of A-list Northwest-contemporary casting.
This is The Venice House.
Seattle’s own Nils Finne is the architect behind this masterwork. He is an ardent, influential proponent of craft, sustainability and honest design — in his work, and in everything that goes into his work. For The Venice House, Finne turned to numerous Seattle-area architectural artisans for their unmatched talent and creations. Seriously: Finne could not find people in Los Angeles to take on his refined designs.
“The local guys just kind of said no,” Finne says. “This house really is a Pacific Northwest house that landed in L.A., demonstrating to the L.A. crowd what true natural beauty looks like in terms of materials and craftsmanship. I can’t tell you how many times on this project I heard the comment, ‘Sorry, Nils. That is a Seattle detail.’ ”
For starters (there are more): the oversize offset-pivot glass entry door (and, farther in, the giant Douglas fir lift-and-slide doors) by Quantum Windows & Doors in Everett. The glistening cast-glass breakfast counter by Seattle’s Glassworks, Inc. The custom steel pendant light fabricated by Landbridge Lighting in Seattle. “Even the suspended steel mirror frame in the powder room was made in Seattle [by Distinctive Glass], since the L.A. mirror subs did not dare to provide a mirror with this detail,” Finne says.
So much quintessential Pacific Northwest — our craftspeople, our expertise, our sensibility.
Ahhh. The Venice House feels like home.
THE VENICE HOUSE is home to the four Californians who live here: Andy, an entertainment attorney; Tannaz, a doctor; and their sons, Mays, 8, and 7-year-old Jules (along with big, sweet Gracie the dog). They really live here.
“It’s just a house, not a museum,” Andy says. “We swim in the pool. We cook in the kitchen. We watch TV. It manages still to be a family house, even with all the design considerations. It’s 100 percent family-friendly.”
Before this particular iteration of their family, Andy and Tannaz owned an architecturally designed, but troubled, home on a small lot closer to the beach.
“It was a house I bought as a bachelor,” Andy says. “We were going to do a new home there.”
After water issues drove them to temporary housing, one realization floated to the top, he says: “We needed a family house.”
Just not your typical Venice house (lowercase “h”).
“When you see contemporary architecture here, it tends to be stucco, very rectilinear,” Andy says. “That’s great, but we wanted something different.”
Finne specializes in “different,” in the best way, and dabbles in Southern California, in a couple ways. He is among those millions of Venice visitors, flying in regularly to see his father-in-law and, before bringing FINNE Architects to Seattle in 1994, he worked here for a few years (including as the project architect for the museum component of The Getty Center).
His all-star reputation and inspiring portfolio — Finne is dedicated to the concept (and the creation) of crafted modernism — have reached even further. Among Northwest projects, his Elliott Bay House, Mazama House and Lake Forest Park House alone have earned enough enthusiastic media attention that an appreciative California fan base is really not all that surprising.
“One of my law partners was going to use Nils for a renovation in Brentwood,” Andy says. “He said, ‘You should check out the work of this architect.’ When I looked at the photos, they were warm, but not in a colonial way. He marries contemporary and midcentury-modern in a way that’s very unique. I love wood, and cool materials are so much a part of what Nils does. It’s a whole holistic approach — interiors and exteriors. I looked and said, ‘We’re done.’ ”
Finne recalls: “Andy and Tannaz are passionate about modern craft. They did not think anyone in L.A. would design the house they wanted, and I honestly think they were right.”
FOR THE FIRST six months of California collaboration, Finne worked on a new house for the old lot.
Tannaz was pregnant with Jules, Mays was 5 months old and that lot was only 2,400 square feet. “We’re not builders; we’re a family,” Tannaz says. “I just knew we would have to have room. We started looking for larger lots.”
They found a rare one: long and narrow, 1½ miles from the beach and home to a rundown 1940s rental in the section of Venice called “the Big Lot area.” “These lots are deep,” Andy says. “To have 11,000 square feet is like a farm. I called Nils and told him, ‘I’m buying a whole new lot. Stop drawing!’ ”
From afar, Finne drew something new. He calls this “cheating.” Andy called it perfect.
“We met, and Nils said, ‘I did something I never do — I went on Google Earth and saw the lot and just sketched something,’ ” Andy says. “He opens up the picture, and it’s exactly what I wanted.”
What everyone wanted here was not what everyone else does in Venice. “Most people build perpendicularly,” Andy says. “When I saw the lot, I knew we had to run the length of the lot. In my mind, we had the house on one side, and we’d flange it out a bit. We didn’t want the front elevation at the street too large.”
As for the design, Andy says, “It had to be pretty, and it had to work as a family home. … Cooking is my passion. Our social life and how we operate as a family center around the kitchen. We knew we’d have a pool, and we’d be serving inside and outside. We knew we needed a family room adjacent to where we’d be entertaining, so the TV could be on with the doors closed.”
Equally practically, Tannaz says: “It had to be durable. I have two boys and a 100-something-pound dog.”
Finne kept drawing, and kept in close touch with Andy and Tannaz.
“There were a good three years Andy spoke with Nils more than he spoke with me,” Tannaz says. She is smiling.
“It’s always a challenge with out-of-town projects,” Finne says. “From start to finish, I probably came down 18 to 20 times. There were months Andy and I talked almost every day. Every day, we had a video from Andy. He’d walk the site. We’d study and freeze it. It made the distance kind of disappear.”
Andy estimates he and Finne “must’ve exchanged 40,000 emails and calls,” copying Tannaz on every message.
“When Tannaz responded, we listened,” Finne says. “They both are very sophisticated visually. They got it. It was a really fun process.”
RECRUITING A CALIFORNIA TEAM? Not so much.
“We had a couple contractors say, ‘We can’t build this house; it’s too complicated,’ ” Andy says.
Clearly, Jay Bruder of Bell Canyon-based Bruder Construction enjoys a challenge. But he had a condition.
“Jay only would take the job if Jaime [Aguinaga, of JA Framing Systems] could frame it,” Andy says. “We needed a level of expertise and craftsmanship. Jay essentially said, ‘There’s one person in L.A. who can frame this house.’ ”
And now, with steel, wood, water and nature framing what Finne calls “a garden sanctuary in the city,” The Venice House is a composition of contrasts, of exquisite craftsmanship, of asymmetry, of seemingly weightless flotation. And, yes: of potentially (understandably) intimidating construction complexities.
Like this: “The house comprises a dramatic series of folded roof planes and a collage of textured metal and wood exterior surfaces,” Finne says. “The unique wood living pavilion projects into the garden space, with a soaring hyperbolic paraboloid roof formed by exposed, tightly spaced Douglas fir beams. The beams gradually reverse their slope from one end of the living space to the other end, creating a gentle rhythm and a curving interior line where the beams frame into the wall of the bedroom wing. The curvature … is made entirely with straight beams.”
And this: The two-story bedroom wing is clad in metal siding, with the roof swooping from front to back, he says, “culminating at the southern end with the dramatic cantilever of the second-floor master bedroom, forming a broad overhang for the entry porch on the ground floor.”
Sixty tons of steel were used, requiring 100 sheets of steel shop drawings. “That’s a record,” Finne says.
“People thought we were building a Costco,” says Andy.
Nah. Just the eminently livable Venice House.
JUST INSIDE its majestic pivot door, Mays is playing the grand piano in the entry, which actually is a lyrical music room. Balmy light from the pool — from sunshine! — courses through low horizontal windows and radiates shapely waves across the built-in cabinetry framing the door to the powder room.
You can go up, or you can go back. Either way, Finne says, “The space grows and unfolds as you move through the house.”
Floors and cabinets are beachy-warm oak. Walls are “calm white plaster, which acts as a backdrop for artwork,” Finne says.
Andy and Tannaz’s artwork holds its own rich story of originality and emotion. Much of it — the elegant, sometimes-mysterious, always-compelling pieces on the entry wall, over the living-room credenza, in the powder room, along the stairway, in the guest room — is by Los Angeles artist Jeff Reese, “a friend who passed away,” Andy says. “He’s kind of in the house — his spirit. Part of the house is so people can see his work. When we were building, we knew which walls would have what. We knew what the furniture would be, and knew where to put lights. We also knew specific pieces. When we moved in, we knew where everything was going. It was on the plans.”
Another thing everyone knew: The Venice House is for its entire family.
• Tannaz “had a lot of input” in the ergonomical, practical, beautiful laundry room. “It’s very user-friendly,” she says. “We have two boys and a dog. We do a lot of laundry.”
• For brotherly harmony, the boys’ rooms, connected by a “jack-and-jack” bathroom, “are identical,” Finne says. “There is not 1 inch of difference.”
• The family room, defined by raumplus sliding doors, is just off the bustling kitchen. “You want to be able to keep your eye on the kids,” Andy says.
• A mudroom across from the detached garage acts as a “decompression area,” Finne says, with a comfy bench and multiple cubbies.
• The custom sofas in the living room are upholstered in gorgeous Sunbrella fabric. “It’s very durable,” says Tannaz. “We knew the kids would be climbing over it.”
• And the shelving unit along one wall of the upstairs hallway (whose floor ramps up about a foot so all the bedrooms can see over the roof) pulls at least double duty: Andy’s guitars park inside, and the boys’ toys line the top. “When Nils designed the house, we knew there would be Lego display areas,” Andy says.
Adds Finne: “Michelangelo said that in order for a sculpture to be good, it has to roll downhill. In architecture, it has to work for a family and adapt to how they function.”
THIS FAMILY HOME sits on a superstrong (seismically and metaphorically) foundation of form and function, further grounded by Finne’s commitment to lasting design. Lasting beautiful design.
“The high level of craft evident in the house reflects another key principle of sustainable design: Eschew ‘throwaway-ism,’ and make the house last many years,” he says. “Everything in this house is designed to endure. If you’re not building for the long term, you’re building obsolescence. This house is built for 100 years. Maybe longer.”
Consider the exceptional must-touch brick, handmade and sinewy, on the living-room fireplace and exterior accent wall.
“Andy really enjoys crafted materials,” Finne says. “We originally had a stone cladding but started talking about a more-organic feel. This was designed by Peter [Zumthor, a Swiss architect]. He used the brick on a museum he did in Germany. It’s Kolumba brick, in a custom color blend and an unusual dimension: 21 inches long and only 1.5 inches high. It’s like a Roman brick on steroids.”
Overhead, the roof is planned for photovoltaic panels. All over, there’s abundant natural lighting, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, low-VOC paints and stains, and LED lighting. High-up clerestory windows open for cooling summertime circulation, under deep protective overhangs, while winter’s lower sun peeks in through high-performance, low-E insulated glazing, passively warming the floor.
Outdoors, Tannaz says, “The roof drainage goes through the planters, and filters the water to the storm drain. The pool cover is solar and keeps the temperature in the winter in the 70s, almost 80s. In summer, it’s in the 90s.”
For those elements that didn’t ship from Seattle, Finne used locally sourced materials and, as always, lots of his own designs: the sculptural quartz vanity in the powder room, the steel-and-wood stair, the wood screen wall outside the master bathroom, the curved robe hooks and towel bar inside it.
“The depth and breadth of Nils’ work is amazing,” Tannaz says. “People come in, and it’s like a piece of artwork. They’re incredibly impressed with how warm it is.”
Ahhh. It is so warm — in sunshiny Venice, and in The Venice House: a lasting, authentically lived-in family home, and an achievement of Northwest know-how that transcends geography, and the challenges of supreme craftsmanship.
“It’s a very comforting feeling after spending all these years, going through this very complex effort, all the effort results in something that’s going to endure,” Finne says. “It is extremely difficult to build things. It’s like things are set up to stop you from building. When you do, it’s like running a 26-mile marathon: Your shoulders hurt, your back hurts, but there it is. A number of people made this happen … At a certain point, everyone starts to smile to make something like this.”
There were offers to buy The Venice House once it was completed.
They were not entertained.