May 2011

Act 2

ROY MCMAKIN reimagines the setting of one of his landmark houses with the aid of garden designer ART LUNA
by MAYER RUS / photographs by JASON SCHMIDT

  • A truncated, lime-green metal gate to the new front garden winks at an archetypal white-picket enclosure. 
In 2000, McMakin grafted porch and bathroom additions onto the house in the form of white boxes.
  • Intersecting geome­tries of gables, beams and brackets animate the rear facade.
  • The feet of McMakin’s spinning wingback chairs never hit the ground.
  • McMakin’s table and chairs happily center the paneled dining room. Designer Sarah Walker worked with Berro on deco­rative appointments.
  • A custom living-room rug underscores the renovation.
  • Water features include a bronze door fountain.
  • A cascading pool.
  • The designer’s table and demilune benches anchor the reconfigured yard, lushly replanted by Luna.

The new living-room rug, serially inscribed with the words things and change in a variety of typefaces, pretty much tells the story: life unfolds, people evolve, children grow, houses age, cities morph, plants die, others flourish. And so it goes, on and on. Resistance is futile—to borrow a nerdy phrase from Star Trek—and the best one can do is greet that inevitable change with probity and grace.

When Roy McMakin first visited the Berro residence in 1997, the label-defying artist/craftsman/candlestick maker was just hitting his stride, boldly trespassing the boundaries of professional identity. He had been commissioned by a young couple, Jodie and Alan Berro, to bring both order and imagination to their derelict (albeit historically significant) white elephant of a house.

The hydra-headed project produced not only a milestone in McMakin’s career but a highly visible landmark along the boulevards of Beverly Hills—one familiar to design junkies across the globe, thanks to countless magazine articles and books. The Berros’ tutti-frutti-timbered Tudor was built in 1907 by Burton E. Green and Max Whittier, two of the original developers of Beverly Hills.

Photographs from the period show the house as a solitary presence, with just one other home nearby, in the flats north of Santa Monica Boulevard. The two structures were joined by a massive arched Beverly Hills sign, which was resurrected several years back, and an immense reflecting pool, which was not.

McMakin approached the original renovation in 2000 as an exercise in the artful marriage of new and old. After faithfully restoring extant millwork and other details, he confidently grafted additions—a front porch and master bathroom—onto the gabled dowager in the form of minimalist white boxes. He employed a similar strategy of teasing out tensions—between things familiar and strange, defiant and discreet, puckish and profound—in his ministrations to the interior.

“This house came at a point in my career when I was working out certain issues, like making sense of white as a color filled with content,” McMakin says. “The table I did for the stair landing was the first mesh piece I made using a found object. A lot of ideas that had been incubating came to fruition.”

Fast-forward a decade. The Berros have since gone their separate ways, with Alan Berro retaining custody of the house. His feeling for the place—at first a bit ambivalent as he grappled with the scope and cost of McMakin’s vision—has blossomed into a full-fledged love affair, marked by diligent maintenance and an overall 2007 renovation that involved refinishing the oak floors and tackling various shortcomings of the original contractor. The next bit of caretaking business involved the yard, which had taken on the role of neglected stepchild in the 2000 renovation and had since been treated in an ad hoc manner.

“The longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve come to appreciate the house,” Berro explains. “The care and detail of the garden never really matched the house. I wanted to get it right, so I called up Roy and gave him artistic license to do his thing.”

Once again, McMakin’s “thing” was to probe the conceptual and pragmatic tensions between conflicting goals: first, to enhance the connection of the house and yard to the adjacent Beverly Gardens Park and the bustling activity of the city beyond as a gesture of civic openness; second, to insulate the house from the noise and commotion emanating from that very activity.

No small feat. To find a suitable theoretical response—and, frankly, to ensure that such a response came wrapped in a lush, beautiful landscape—McMakin brought in garden designer Art Luna as a trusted collaborator. “We didn’t want to build a giant white stucco wall or crazy jungle wilderness that would completely cut the house off from the street,” McMakin says. “The front yard had to function like the porch we added in 2000, which allows in light and views while still maintaining privacy.”

The reenvisioned landscape plan includes three new water elements: a broad, shallow reflecting pool and lily pond in the front yard that nods to its extinct forebear in the park; a crisp, minimalist, circular pool that flows into an organic, amoeboid pond in the back; and a discreet rectangular bilevel trough in the newly installed outdoor dining terrace at the side of the house.

“Roy knows exactly what he wants, and so does Alan, which makes my job much easier,” Luna says. “When it comes to plantings, Roy tends to like bits of everything—tropical, meadow, arid—and we installed it all in a way that adds color and texture to the gardens and together form a cohesive and lovely landscape.”

McMakin’s coup de theatre—a delightfully curious bronze sculpture of an open door with water mysteriously flowing through the keyhole and down a narrow channel into the lily pond—takes center stage smack in the middle of the front yard. It’s one more way of mediating the transition from public to private space.

“Alan really trusted me with this one. Architecture is the most ephemeral of art forms. Paintings, photographs and videos are relatively easy to store and conserve, but architecture is tied to real estate, which trumps art,” McMakin says. “To see someone treating this house with so much respect and integrity is deeply gratifying—and very rare.”