Home Tour: A Modern Getaway in Malibu
When you picture the ultimate beachside pad, you envision sophisticated comfort and razor-sharp architecture. Here, two maestros deliver just that.
Autumn in Malibu brings bright, wind-chilled mornings and quicksilver sunsets. On Broad Beach, the mile-long stretch of coastline just north of Point Dume that’s something of a celebrity Valhalla, one family is making the most of their weekends in a house designed to eke out every last drop of California sunshine. Clad in glass and wrapped in a burnished red metal façade, the getaway is a collaboration between hometown design heavyweight Michael S. Smith and international architect Rafael Viñoly, who met through clients Smith has known for decades.
Smith grew up just down the coast in Newport Beach, and he’s worked his magic all along the Malibu shoreline. (Better known, it’s safe to say, would be a certain project at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama and family.) Viñoly entered the picture through the homeowner, as the husband was an investor in 432 Park Avenue, the needle-thin residential tower by the architect that’s currently New York City’s second-tallest building. Celebrated for his work on similar large-scale projects around the globe, Viñoly is best known for the crystalline Tokyo International Forum arts center and London’s “Walkie-Talkie” office tower, named for its soft-shouldered profile.
In Malibu, Viñoly brought his own seaside experience to bear—he was born in Uruguay, not far from the beachfront bohemia of Punta del Este, and he understands the seductiveness of living by the water. And the designer and architect bonded over the belief that, when the Pacific Ocean is your front yard, a certain elemental thinking should guide the planning of your new home. “Michael and I shared a clear vision of a house with a strong sense of connection to the outdoors and the ocean,” Viñoly says. “Materials and details selected were sophisticated but quiet, so as not to upstage the house’s exceptional setting.” The dwelling that existed on the sliver of a lot was a 1980s-era Spanish colonial without much to recommend it. Over four years, Viñoly pulled off a painstaking renovation that transformed the character of the two-story house, making the most of sea views to the south and mountain views to the north and carving out a central courtyard where the family can enjoy some undisturbed pool time. Tuning in to the keyed-down vibe of surf shacks in Punta, Viñoly designed an open-plan ground floor that culminates in twin indoor-outdoor oceanfront living areas. He paneled parts of the interior in honey-colored slats of rift oak, evoking the days when beachcombers would arrange their shells and well-thumbed paperbacks along wood-frame cabin walls. And upstairs, a louvered bridge open to Malibu breezes—Viñoly calls it “the birdcage”—provides the only access to four of the five bedroom suites. (The master is accessed by its own spiral staircase.) A rooftop hot tub practically hugs the stars.
As the project coalesced, architect and designer teleconferenced from points around the globe. Viñoly has been commuting regularly to China; Smith was in the midst of setting up an office in Madrid, where his partner, James Costos, had been serving as the U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra until this past January. During a two-decade career, Smith has proved to be a decorative chameleon, equally at home refreshing the neoclassical style of the White House and kicking Palm Springs modernism up a notch. In Malibu, he saw an opportunity for a strong contemporary collaboration. “We took the vocabulary from Rafael’s office and pushed it,” he says. “If there was a red tone to the façade, then we introduced red detailing and highlights inside. We used the same wood as the paneling in the custom furniture. The idea was to be tonal, for continuity. The architecture is a real immersion in the outdoors, and it’s almost nautical in its reductiveness. The decoration could be a bridge—comfortable, restful, and serene.”
That being said, when the sun goes down, the interiors Smith and his team brewed up have that made-in-California flavor that is anything but boring. The designer has a favorite maxim: A house should be just as interesting when empty as it is when furnished. (“Imagine it upside down for a minute: Everything that stays in place—floors, walls, ceilings, hardware—needs to be part of the story.”) He complemented Viñoly’s wood paneling with soothing plaster walls in a range of creams and beiges inspired by the sands of Broad Beach. Fossilized-limestone floors extend out onto beachfront and the pool deck; book-matched onyx lines the ocean-view tub in the master bath; and saddle-leather tiles pave the master dressing room. Throughout the casually furnished rooms, wood venetian blinds create a welcome sense of intimacy.
“Malibu houses have so many issues with light and privacy,” Smith notes. “Taking cues from Rafael’s birdcage louvers, we’ve filtered the light, but in a romantic way. It’s a little film noir to stir memory and warmth. And it’s just pretty.”
Viñoly may have been a continent away, but he was paying close attention: “Michael would suggest smart adjustments to the design of cabinetry, bathrooms, etc., that would break symmetry or rigidity to add to that casual, easy feeling we were after. He possesses a unique and varied vernacular.”
The designer made countless subtle moves throughout the rigorously modern interiors, softening the dining room, for instance, where a wall-sized Cecily Brown painting holds sway, with a suite of Mark Albrecht interlaced leather chairs around the dining table. In the media room, he introduced a 1940s-style jute sofa brimming with tie-dyed pillows. He carpeted much of the house with custom-woven Moroccan kilims in the sea-glass palette his clients love. In other words, in his own inimitable way, he brought Viñoly’s picture of easy seaside style to life.
“Listen, to work with a prestigious firm is an honor,” says Smith, no shrinking violet himself. “This project was really about trying to be part foil for the architecture—and part pep squad.”