Los Angeles-based product designer Brendan Ravenhill knows that his home is hard to find. The drive to the Echo Park three-bedroom passes rows of palm trees in Elysian Park before making an abrupt 180-degree turn uphill. At street level, the house is hidden from view, embedded into the hillside. This poses problems from time to time. “We’ve lost a lot of Uber drivers along the way,” he says.
For Ravenhill, his wife, Marjory Garrison, and their two-year-old son, Ash, the inconvenience is a trade-off for the house’s more stunning attributes. Designed by the Austrian architect R. M. Schindler in 1938, Southall House is one of those modernist gems that have come to define quintessential Southern California residential architecture. After you walk down the steep cement walkway and through the front door, you see the house unfold in a cinematic sequence of small entrances to big views: To the left of the airy, sun-filled living room, built large enough to accommodate the original owner’s pair of baby grand pianos, is a panoramic view to the Hollywood sign in the rolling hills. To the right is a glass door that leads to a multilevel patio that’s perched above a small grove of lime, lemon, and orange trees.
Ravenhill, 40, founded a namesake design studio in L.A. in 2010, and he takes a purist’s approach to furniture and lighting. His minimalist pieces, all made by hand in the United States, emphasize function with little decorative frill. You can find them on 1stdibs or in the guest rooms of the Los Angeles Athletic Club hotel. It was these credentials that put the previous owner, who bought the house in 1967, at ease when she first met the couple in 2012. She had the sense that they would respect Schindler’s work, unlike another buyer, who threatened to demolish the house. “I was a huge fan of Schindler before moving to L.A.,” Ravenhill says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine living in one of his houses.”
When Schindler designed this space for a piano teacher named Mildred Southall, the hills of Los Angeles were still wild and uninhabited. By carving into the landscape, he developed an approach to design that celebrated the local ecology and eternal sunshine. He arranged windows and rooms to follow the path of the sun throughout the day, and he connected his homes to the outdoors as much as possible. The Southall House, much like his others, abounds with balconies, clerestory windows, and floor-to-ceiling glass, features, he wrote in 1952, “which seemed to be necessary for life in California.”
The years had caught up to the house when the couple arrived. “Oh, it was rough,” says Ravenhill, recalling its state of disrepair. While previous owners had resolved a few of the architectural issues––adding a pitch to the roof so rainwater would run off the house, rather than into it, for example––Schindler’s experimental design and shoestring budget ($6,000, a steal even then) made more work necessary. Rotting plywood plagued the floors and walls, the stone fireplace in the living room and the tiles on the floors were in need of help, and there was no heat (the couple added an HVAC system). The house was also full of idiosyncrasies: The floor plan reads like a series of rectangles wedged together in the shape of an M, which resulted in all manner of odd features and awkward corners, including sci-fi, triangular recessed lighting; a pentagonal shower; and unnervingly tight doorways.
Despite the peculiarities, “a big important thing for us was to think of this house as a process of restoration,” Ravenhill says. From the beginning, the couple based their decisions on sensitivities to the original design. In their complete overhaul of the kitchen, they looked at “probably 100 sheets of plywood” before they found the three or four that would honor the original cabinetry. They ultimately decided against removing the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. “I wasn’t sure I could take a saw to it,” says Ravenhill, who looks at Schindler’s sensitivities to light and material as influences in his own practice. “It’s not on us to make those decisions.”
They painted various rooms a muted pistachio, a reference to Southall’s much louder pea green. They used period-appropriate, one-inch-square tiles for the bathrooms, and the dining room chairs were built as recreations of Schindler’s designs. The centerpiece of the living room is the Church chandelier, a fixture of simple rods and exposed bulbs that Ravenhill designed for the restoration of Schindler’s 1944 Bethlehem Baptist Church in South Los Angeles.
“It’s a house that challenges you to live a certain way,” Ravenhill says of getting used to its quirks, but he and Garrison have fallen in love with its considered charms. Schindler strategically built the living room sofa next to the fireplace within arm’s reach of the bookshelf, envisioning the residents reading by the fire. He also installed a bench next to the western windows so they could watch the sunset. The new residents have often been happy to oblige. “It’s been a labor of love,” Ravenhill says.