Arvy gets an exclusive tour of the Palm Beach institution before its long-awaited public debut
“The space feels balanced between masculine and feminine qualities,” says architect Robin Nanney of the intimate residence in Pasadena, California, she shares with her husband, Christopher Norman, also an architect. “And the view from the bed in the mornings is a combination of gingko leaves and pure, abstract form—it’s like we’re living in a painting.”
This oasis-like home, constructed in 1976, is an enthusiastic exercise in Eastern-influenced modernism. Conrad Buff III and Donald Hensman, its architects, were students of Greene and Greene—the illustrious firm that has been credited with California’s introduction to the Arts and Crafts movement. Here, in Pasadena, Buff and Hensman have embraced a Japanese aesthetic and their warm brand of modernism.
Inside, the home breathes. Light is abundant. The interiors are fashioned from redwood (with the “tongue and groove” method), featuring oakwood floors and teakwood details. “The structure and the exterior have a slight roughness, and the millwork is smooth and refined,” comments Nanney. “The woods and the different finishes create a hierarchy together in a way that the many warm surfaces are differentiated and each serves its own tactile and functional role.”
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These wood materials can also be seen in the furniture, which the architects had installed into the structure. This collection includes the bed, the desks, and the tables as well as the cabinets and the shelves. “The dining room table was built by Conrad Buff, one of the original architects,” explains Nanney. “The only furniture that is strictly necessary to bring are the sofas and the chairs for the table and built-in desks.”
The homeowners collaborated with Caroline Feiffer, the interior designer, to decorate—and soften—the interiors. Caroline contributed plush and other elements to create a sense of comfort that wouldn’t emasculate the architecture (and the furniture). “Caroline has a very natural approach and she added organic forms and materials to contrast the symmetry of Buff and Hensman's linear layout of the house,” says Nanney. “For example, she sourced Isamu Noguchi’s light sculptures to soften the contemporary space, emphasizing how their forms were a complement to Norman's own wood sculptures.”
The Japanese-style gardens have been maintained since the house was constructed. (Several of the plantings date to 1976.) These are tended to by a specialized team of experts who, Nanney says, “are trained in hand-pruning and go from modern house with Japanese garden to modern house with Japanese garden.” One of her and her husband’s favorite spaces is the indoor/outdoor entrance, which is punctuated with gingko and Japanese maple trees: “It’s remarkable to walk to the front door of the house with Judy Jansen’s stained-glass windows on either side. You step in, and you’re still outside. It’s sensational. It feels instantly peaceful to be in this threshold between the house and the world.”
Indeed, there’s a pleasurable solitude to this one-bedroom house, which feels in balance with the nature surrounding it. “It’s at its most glorious when it is hot out and the doors and windows are wide open, connecting the gardens with the interior: The flow is so easy and intertwined," says Nanney enthusiastically. "This is how homes should feel in Southern California—the gardens are as much a part of the living space as the rooms are!”