December 2009

Beyond Modern

  • A massive Dutch door opens into the 14-foot-tall entry hall, where KeeBee waits for her masters.
  • The architecture in the living room, as throughout, emphasizes framed views and natural light.
  • The dining room/library is crowned with a series of White’s ceramic chandeliers.
  • The master bedroom, with its floor of polished concrete, extends out to a central courtyard.
  • The guest room has a traditional aesthetic, if slightly tweaked.
  • White created the master suite’s headboard and collaged bedspread with computer technology.
  • The master bath combines polished and matte surfaces to underscore the textural contrast.
  • Bright yellow stucco and lemon trees announce the house’s entry.
  • Insets of concrete with crushed glass add a pop of color to 
the verdant landscape.
  • Marble, White and KeeBee relax in the outdoor room between the house and the studio-office pavilion.

Artist PAE WHITE and architect TOM MARBLE aren’t afraid of a little fanciful color and offbeat form by Mayer Rus / photographs by Jason Schmidt

Whimsy is not among the virtues typically associated with serious contemporary architecture and art. But for Pae White and Tom Marble, the quality of playfulness—as evidenced in their home in Montecito Heights—is essential not only to their professions but to their lives.

White works in many media across a wide range of scales—from gossamer paper mobiles and cast-iron barbecues to habitable environments and arresting urban installations. She embraces seductive colors and idiosyncratic forms that transgress the boundaries between high art and its nemesis, high-style design. Marble’s practice similarly skirts anti­quated distinctions in professional identity. In addition to designing buildings and planning urban spaces, he writes essays and screenplays and collaborates with White on public art.

Natives of Southern California, White and Marble met as children. White recalls having a crush on her future husband even as a wee tot. Marble is a bit foggier on the nascent romance. After parting ways, the couple reconnected after college—she attended Scripps and Art Center College of Design; he went to Berkeley and Yale—and in 2000, they married at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, a late-modernist confection designed by Edward Durell Stone. Their choice of venue is instructive, reflecting a fascination with formal modernism animated by unapologetic decorative flourishes. “We came together through architecture and common interests,” says White. “When we decided to build a house, there was already a consensus about what kind of place we wanted.”

Perched just below the crest of a hilltop near Pasadena, the house is designed as a continuous corridor around a central courtyard. All of the major interior spaces have access to outdoor rooms and views, which extend from the San Gabriel Mountains to downtown. “It’s all about light and sequences of space,” says Marble. “We focused on the way one enters and leaves a room and vistas from one space to the next.”

Despite its modest size and deceptively straight­forward plan, the house has the psychological impact of a more elaborate, expensive design—an effect achieved through manipulations of scale, proportion and surface. The most obvious of the latter is the gray-and-white striping of the stuccoed exterior. “I wanted a striped house,” White says matter-of-factly. “I was traveling a lot when we started the design, and I’d see these striped service buildings at the end of airport runways. They worked really well as sculptural objects set in the landscape—utilitarian but with a sense of whimsy.”

At the entrance, the subtlety of the gray-and-white palette erupts into a riot of bright yellow, as the colored stucco is echoed by a ring of lemon trees. A massive 10-by-4-foot Dutch door that opens onto a 14-foot entry hall gives extra punch.

Strategic jolts of color and White’s own creations enliven the interior spaces, notably in the dining room cum library—arguably the heart of the house—which is crowned with three of the artist’s ceramic chandeliers in shades of red, black and terra-cotta. Even Mother Nature has been enlisted in the couple’s chromatic escapades. “The ginkgo trees in the courtyard are visually so important,” says Marble. “They’re very dense and green, but in the fall they turn electric yellow, and all the leaves drop at once, creating an incredible carpet of yellow. When the ginkgos are bare, the magnolia bush presents a few flowers. It’s landscape theater.”

Landscape architect Mark Rios devised a garden that draws on the geometries of the house to accentuate axes and frame views. Within this artful plan, White and Marble installed feli­citous roundels and diamond pavers of poured concrete and crushed glass that give outdoor rooms the feeling of a giant hopscotch field or supersize Twister mat.

The decoration of the house is a tasty olio of high and low, raw and cooked, traditional and avant-garde. The mix includes flea-market furniture, Nymphenburg porcelain birds, Hella Jongerius fabrics and vases, outdoor lighting fixtures that once graced Monty’s Steak House in Pasadena, peace-and-love posters by Sister Corita Kent, midcentury soup tureens by Environmental Ceramics and Heath tiles in the master bath. In the guest bedroom, the decor takes a turn to what Marble calls a “grandma aesthetic in overdrive,” with classic William Morris wallpaper, inherited family furniture and a childhood portrait of White’s grandmother holding a creepy wax doll.

Attached to the house is a two-story studio and office pavi­lion where artist and architect work side by side. This fall, White had solo shows at Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, California, and the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia. Early this month, when the international art world gathers for the annual orgy of kunst and commerce at Art Basel Miami Beach, attendees will find a bold new oceanfront exhibition and social space designed by White and commissioned by Creative Time, the New York–based public-art organization.

The highly charged scene in Miami, however, is a long way from the hillside oasis White and Marble have created. “This is not an architectural manifesto or statement of any kind,” says White. “It’s the coming together of our sensibilities and aesthetics. It’s about us.”