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River of Light: A Contemporary Westside House Designed to Follow the Sun

River of Light: A Contemporary Westside House Designed to Follow the Sun
The house balances the density of brick, steel and wood with glass, light and openness. Landscaping softens the edges. “I wanted to create a kind of yin and yang,” notes Mercier. ((Dominique Vorillon / Photography Dominique Vorillon))

Christopher Mercier grew up in the midwest, where the notion of a stucco home was anathema. “In Detroit, everyone grows up in a brick house,” he says. “We didn’t even know what stucco was.” When the architect was engaged by a client who had also migrated west from Detroit, he decided to instill some midwestern aesthetic values: He designed a brick-clad house that would also celebrate contemporary southern California living.

Set on a corner lot surrounded by a mix of conventional single-story houses, bungalows and Spanish- and colonial-style homes, Mercier’s design makes a strong statement but doesn’t overwhelm the site. He set the house back from the sidewalks, creating ample space and a margin of privacy; the brick on the front—framed by crisp metal trim—and the stained cedar siding along the side also add texture and color that play nicely with the mature pine trees bordering the north edge of the lot. He then balanced the structure’s gravitas with the lightness of a two-story glass entrance volume that reveals a walnut staircase and the vestibule, creating the illusion that you can see through the house. “Brick comes out of a Roman past,” Mercier notes. “It’s heavy, it’s durable and it implies substance—it suggests that the building will be there for a long time. But in this case, by contrasting it with glass, I wanted to create a kind of yin and yang reference to the interiors, which are light and open.”

While Mercier’s Detroit provenance may have helped him win the commission, it was his muscular designs and willingness to create a contemporary home with an industrial feel that convinced the clients he could execute their vision. The goal: a light-filled three-bedroom home with a private first-floor master suite, a gallery-like setting to showcase art, outdoor dining and cooking areas, and accommodations for their grown children, who visit often.

In the living room, Diep covered a custom sofa and chaise in Holly Hunt Great Outdoors fabric. Lounge chair by Sergio Rodrigues from Espasso. Custom rug from Woven; Herve Van der Straeten lamps from Ralph Pucci. Outdoor furniture, B&B Italia; Caravaggio pendants from Lightyear.
In the living room, Diep covered a custom sofa and chaise in Holly Hunt Great Outdoors fabric. Lounge chair by Sergio Rodrigues from Espasso. Custom rug from Woven; Herve Van der Straeten lamps from Ralph Pucci. Outdoor furniture, B&B Italia; Caravaggio pendants from Lightyear. (Dominique Vorillon / Photography Dominique Vorillon)

The clients were also impressed by Mercier’s pedigree. After completing his undergraduate architecture degree, he went to Milan to work with Daniel Libeskind. From there he earned a graduate degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where an interdisciplinary approach enabled him to pursue painting as well. Then he landed a job with Frank Gehry. From Libeskind, Mercier learned precision in both model making and execution; Gehry’s more rough-and-tumble approach gave him the freedom to stray from conventional grid designs. Since Mercier founded Inglewood-based (fer) studio in 2002, this flexible approach to space and form can be seen in residential projects like the Davis Factor House and in restaurants like Officine Brera and Connie and Ted’s.

For this project, the clients had an affinity for California modernism—indoor-outdoor living, and lots of natural light. “I took those notions and stretched them,” says Mercier. “I merged volumes and created flow, but not in a modular fashion. I wanted to allow for more shifting and diagonal movement.” Much of that movement comes from the architect’s use of light and transparency as guiding principles. When you enter, you can’t help but follow the light toward the spine of the house, which is marked by a soaring skylight that not only spans the length of the structure but also trails the sun’s path from east to west.

Beyond the transparent vestibule, an art-filled hallway seamlessly blends into the public living area, where two-story ceilings and dramatic spatial volumes are flooded with natural light. “I wanted to emphasize light and air with high ceilings,” Mercier explains. “Anchored by exposed steel struts, the skylight is like a river of light. It splits the house open and allows light to pour in with a warm, lantern-like quality.”

The back of the main living area opens up to a covered patio, where an outdoor kitchen, dining and seating area are protected by a concrete overhang that folds down from the roofline, giving the space the feel of an intimate outdoor room. Most of the rooms in the house have access to the outdoors, and throughout the house Mercier strategically placed windows to ensure privacy while aligning with the movement of the sun.

Interior designer Vinh Diep chose finishes and furnishings to soften the house’s bold geometries. Instead of polished concrete, he suggested an elegant porcelain tile for the ground floor (Q-Stone by Provenza), and he stuck to a consistent, serene color palette throughout. When it came to furnishings, Diep honored the couple’s love of midcentury modern furniture and the wife’s affinity for classic, well-tailored fashion that’s a bit subversive. “I wanted to create a tension between the masculine structure, the beautiful volumes of the architecture, and the interiors,” says Diep, “so I chose French, Italian and Brazilian pieces that felt more organic, feminine and sexy.”

Interior designer Vinh Diep and architect Christopher Mercier of (fer) studio.
Interior designer Vinh Diep and architect Christopher Mercier of (fer) studio. (Dominique Vorillon / Photography Dominique Vorillon)

For the entry, the designer chose a geometric Bec Brittain chandelier that complements Mercier’s complex angles. And in the living room, a subtle area rug by Woven and a custom-designed sofa and chaise covered in Holly Hunt Great Outdoors fabric reference the architecture in their emphasis on form rather than decoration. The sculptural lines of Brazilian pieces—a lounge chair by Sergio Rodrigues, a coffee table by Branco & Preto and a pair of vintage rosewood-and-glass side tables—add a tropical airiness. The finishing touch: a pair of jewel-like bronze table lamps by Hervé Van der Straeten. Opening off the living room, the outdoor living area showcases more linear designs—a B&B Italia table and chairs, and Caravaggio pendant lights from Lightyear.

Diep’s designs for the dining room—an elongated hexagonal walnut table and a built-in walnut-and-steel sideboard—eschew conventional right angles to reflect the angular nature of Mercier’s design. Vintage dining chairs by Jorge Zalszupin surround the table, and a Stalingrad chandelier by Bourgeois Boheme illuminates the room, which easily accommodates 10 for dinner. The airy white kitchen with Elysian stools by Lawson Fenning is just steps away.

Even though the house is nearly 5,000-square-feet, it never feels cavernous. In fact, there’s an intimacy to the dining room and den, which have lower ceilings and emanate out from the center like appendages. “I wanted to play with the ceiling heights—using both high and low—and room sizes to create contrast and intimacy at the same time,” Mercier explains. Perhaps the most intimate space in the house is the master suite. With two-story ceilings and a street-front orientation, light spills into the room from windows set high enough to provide privacy and framed views of the tops of palm trees. Add to that a private garden, a luxurious bath and a custom bed inside a paneled niche designed by Diep, and the clients have a cocoon-like retreat.

Upstairs, a bridge-like walkway aligned with the skylight leads to two bedrooms, two baths and an office. The couple admit they rarely make it upstairs, doing most of their living on the ground floor. But their daughters and niece have availed themselves of the second floor, admiring the green pine-tree views and the outlook on the living spaces below. “Chris is a renegade, and he had his own way of approaching design,” says the wife. “I loved that he is a painter, too. That told me we were going to get something different, because ultimately he’s an artist first.”

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