March 2010

Surf’s Up

  • The house is designed as an efficient, rectangular box—architectural sleight of hand makes the pitched roof appear flat, which enhances the structure’s image as a perfect modern object.
  • The fireplace’s copper box reads like a minimalist sculpture floating within the space. The decorating scheme is anchored by Moroccan Art Deco carpets by Mansour Modern, which provide a textural counterpoint to the polished concrete floors.
  • A Monique Prieto painting is a splash of color on a largely neutral palette.
  • The open dining area features Danish Modern furniture, a wall of objets de virtu, a drum set and, right, a painting by John McLaughlin.
  • Photos by the likes of William Klein, Elliott Erwitt and the master of the house line the corridor to the bedrooms.
  • Six-year-olds Madeleine and George frolic with their folks in the kitchen.
  • George gets to work on the house of the future.
  • A Walter Darby Bannard painting overlooks a Warren Platner chair in the master, off a hallway with walls of Finnish plywood.
  • The master bath—a wet room of sorts—has a concrete-tile floor.
  • The house opens to embrace the pool in back.

The Santa Barbara home of photographer Dewey Nicks and his family makes the most of its prime location
by MAYER RUS /photographs by WILLIAM ABRANOWICZ

Sometimes it takes a few beats to realize a new day has dawned—and that seemingly radical change may not be so radical after all. When photographer Dewey Nicks and his wife, Stephanie, acquired their heavenly parcel of land on a small oceanfront cul-de-sac in Carpinteria, they intended to build a casual weekend home for surfside sport and repose. As design and construction unfolded, however, certain changed realities in their lives sent the family down a different path to domestic bliss à la plage.

The couple’s twins, Madeleine and George, were starting school. Suddenly, they were on a schedule, and that schedule had to be coordinated with papa’s frequent travels. “There wasn’t going to be a lot of opportunity to use the house. We compared the lifestyle in Santa Barbara with the life we had in Los Angeles, and we decided to make this our full-time home,” Nicks says. “My whole professional life is digital now. I don’t have to be in L.A. to deal with model casting, location scouting and film deliveries from the lab. This move wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago.”

Stephanie also frames the resolution to step away from the bustling metropolis (still easily accessible) as a lifestyle change. “The kids surf and play in the ocean, and they have the freedom to hop on their bikes whenever they want. This is the perfect neighborhood for their growing-up years. It feels like the 1950s.”

At first glance, the couple’s home feels a bit like the ’50s, too, with crisp, modern lines and echoes of classic midcentury California architecture. But on closer inspection, the house reveals itself as decidedly contemporary in both form and sensibility—very much of its own particular time and place and very much in tune with the exuberant, idiosyncratic spirit of the Nicks clan.

“I was interested in the Sarasota scene and the early houses of Paul Rudolph,” says architect Barbara Bestor on the inspiration for the design. “The vibe is what I’d call humanist hippie. We didn’t want to regurgitate expected modernist tropes.”

In the pages of glossy shelter magazines, one low-slung modernist box tends to look a great deal like the next. But of course, all modernist boxes are not created equal. It is through the articulation of building details and subtle manipulations of scale, plan and proportion that architecture distinguishes itself, and on these counts the home appears distinguished indeed.

“Santa Barbara is the land of restrictions,” Bestor laments. “On this project, we were kept to a building height of 13 feet. We made about 20 study models of simple volumes to determine the best way to maximize the space on a tight lot.”

Indentations break up the main volume of the structure and help establish a fluid, intimate connection between inside and out. Along the facade of the house, the living room pushes out into the front yard, while a picnic table and barbecue niche pushes into the kitchen. Large glass doors that open from the same position at the front and back of the house enhance the bond between indoors and alfresco.

“From the exterior, the house presents a finished, comprehensive image—a modern object in the landscape. The color blocks are part of that,” says Bestor. “The interior is not meant to be so perfect. It has a homey quality that is all about comfort and ease.”

The simple exposed-wood construction of rough-cut fir sets up a warm backdrop for the relaxed drama of the decorating. “We wanted the Paul Fortune experience,” Nicks says, referring to the much admired Los Angeles designer, a longtime family friend. Fortune’s home in Laurel Canyon is widely regarded as a masterpiece of subtle, effortless chic—a rogues’ gallery of international tastemakers and bon vivants swears by its charms.

Fortune brought the same sensibility to bear on this project, gathering choice pieces of furniture and art from Nicks’ collection, filling in where necessary and tying together the assemblage in a cohesive, vibrant living space that reflects the unique character of the family. The decorative scheme includes furniture by Roy McMakin and Warren Platner, vintage Moroccan Art Deco carpets, elegant bits of Danish Modern, paintings by John McLaughlin and Monique Prieto and prints by Ellsworth Kelly in the children’s rooms. Altogether, it’s a handsome, modern mix for a handsome, modern family.

“We call this place the ashram,” says Nicks. “We all get to be a little closer and to simplify our lives. This is who we are right now. It feels good.”