All the shades of nature

Times Staff Writer

Architect Richard Landry's sweeping Malibu home is filled with color, but not a drop of paint. Beeswax rubbed onto walls makes them look buttery. Swirls of burgundy and green stain brighten the concrete floors. Silvery veins shimmer through wood cabinets and door fronts. And, with help from the ocean air, steel railings are darkening to a locomotive black, their edges rusting to a soft ocher.

Landry has sidestepped paint not only because of its strong fumes, messy brushes and wayward splashes. The biggest problem with liquid color, he says, is that it doesn't age well. It chips, fades, gets boring.

He has had to fuss with paint at other places, but not this one. This is the house he built so he and his partner can raise their daughter. The home that reminds him of his childhood. And the one that gives the Earth a break by using recycled materials and not utilizing the harmful formaldehyde or ammonia found in some finishes.

Landry plans to stay here. And that means paint is out.

"I can live here forever," says Landry, whose Los Angeles architecture firm, Landry Design Group, has created more than 300 homes, from an Italian villa for Eddie Murphy and an English estate for Rod Stewart to a Georgian for Wayne Gretzky. "I will never get tired of these colors because they look natural and continue to change over the years."

The timing of Landry's no-paint quest is interesting, given that paint companies are rolling out more cans in more colors than ever before. And the first rule for weekend makeover shows is to shoot latex through a cannon at anything that can stand it. If it doesn't look good, redo it. What's $40 for another go-round?

Landry's approach to adding color takes more time. Study. Commitment. If he were, say, unhappy — which he isn't — with the raspberry and yellow squiggles trapped by nature in the Greek marble he has in his master bath, he'd have to rip out the floor.

This would not be a quick fix. Neither would replacing the straw-colored concrete blocks on exterior walls, the raw rough-cut poplar beams that intersect the three-story living room or the hefty plate of steel that boxes in the fireplace.

But that's what he wanted: materials not selected because of their fleeting, superficial good looks.

"I have no problem with paint," says Landry. "But you don't need it. When you consider the natural or original colors and textures of materials and see how light and shadow play on them, you can take color to the next level."

Natural colors, he reminds us, are never flat or unflinching. Take, for example, his walls. Yellow beeswax, a substitute for paint used in ancient Egypt, was applied with a rag onto a layer of acrylic plaster. The built-up surface changes when light hits it, making some parts look as pale as parchment and others as thick as butterscotch. The beeswax treatment costs the same as painting, and applying it is as easy as waxing a car, he says. (Home and paint stores and do-it-yourself websites offer tips on beeswax.)

Color, also, doesn't stand alone. There are dozens of shades in a leaf, the ocean and the sky outside his back door. Landry, who based his color palette on his view, mixed variety even into uniform concrete.

"When the sunshine comes in, the [concrete] floor has more contrast between the gold and browns compared to the portion in the shade," says Landry, who hired a professional to swirl cloths dipped in stains — gold, burgundy, green and orange — onto the concrete slab to imitate stone. Blending them in some places created browns and reds. "Light gives color movement almost like music. It's quieter and more subtle at night; more vibrant during the day."

More than light, his house also brings in memories. Most of the timber was recovered from century-old barns that were torn down in Landry's native Quebec, Canada. His home is also shaped like a barn, with aluminum-clad grain silos on two ends, a sloping gambrel roof with cupolas on top and exposed trusses that shade the balconies and decks.

"Farmers where I grew up are replacing their wood barns with metal structures, but look at the character of this wood," he says, poking into a pitted spot on an entertainment center built from old logs. "These are wormholes and bug marks. You can't get that texture from new wood. And that silver patina comes after 100 years of rain and snow."

He left the wood without a protective finish so it will continue to age and gain even more personality.

Barns were a favorite play place while Landry was growing up in the countryside. He built tree forts based on their simple design. "Nothing is hiding in a barn," he says. "It is casual but also warm and romantic, even though everything about the structure is exposed."

The same is true of this home, which — he jokes — he spent a lifetime designing.

Look up and see the brown-sugar-colored rafters, hand-cut with an adze before there were sawmills. Below them are modern black and silver air ducts and copper pipes. Look at the floor, far from perfect. "There are two guarantees with concrete," says Landry. "No one will steal it and it will crack. But the more cracks we get here, the better it looks to me."

There are other inviting, unpolished elements. A powder room wash basin is an unsculpted chunk of green granite with an old water-pump faucet and wood-post legs. The enameled cobalt-blue body of an old-fashioned pot belly stove in the second-floor master bedroom is reflected in the stainless steel fireplace flue that juts up from the floor.

Some of the darkening steel guardrails are shaped like picket fences. At the top of the stairs, flat sheets of steel feature cutouts of graceful cattails. Landry drew these reedy marsh plants, which grew wild near his boyhood home, and had them cut into the railings. Orangey rust outlines the shapes.

Color is added to his home in other ways as well. Art and fabric brighten the earth-tone background just as flowers do in his garden. Pastel landscape paintings by Ted Larsen hang on the walls. Bronze statues by Jim Stuckenberg rest on sofa tables and colorized black-and-white photographs of Landry's family are arranged on bookshelves. He also brought in colors with patterned area rugs, green-paisley upholstery and wispy cotton window sheers. A few pieces of furniture have been stained celadon green.

"Colors affect your mood," says Landry, who shares his life with Robert Carrola, who helped design the garden, interior and some of the furniture, and daughter Samantha, 3. "When I get home to my family, I can relax with these colors. I feel closer to nature."

Other ways to add color

It can be easy and inexpensive to add luxurious color to a room without relying on the old standby, paint, says Kristan Cunningham, host of HGTV's "Design on a Dime."

In her Pasadena home, she is staying true to architect Conrad Buff's modern vision of high ceilings, white walls and minimal furnish- ings. She counters the starkness, however, by making contrasting wood her focus: golden oak and wengé, a chocolate-colored African hardwood.

Here are a few other ways to make rooms pop without paint:

Tactile textiles: Fabric can brighten more than pillows. Cunningham is installing panels of stretched canvas — spaced 3 inches apart — to her office walls. Quilted foam board takes the place of expensive artwork, adds soundproofing and can serve as a tack surface for pinning inspirational messages or cherished photos. For more traditional settings, she suggests suspending fabric from a pole like a tapestry. "Wall-to-wall fabric is faster and easier than painting," she says. "And you can change the pattern or texture with the seasons."

Smooth and see-through: Colored glass can be bought at boutiques selling pricey Venetian pieces or at flea markets. Mix mismatched vases and milk pitchers around a room for "small punches of yellow, green and purple," she says. "There's nothing more vibrant than glass."

Coverups: Most window treatments and slipcovers come in common neutrals, but put red, eggplant or orange pieces against a bland wall and "you get instant visual presence, something grand," she says.

In bloom: Flowers do more than scent a room, they dress it up. Fill in spaces that need a little oomph — such as the void between the light fixture and dining room table — with tall gladioluses. "They are architectural," says Cunningham, who uses the deep purple variety for dramatic effect, yellow ones for a clean look.

Plant containers can be formal or streamlined. A painted or glazed urn is traditional while a glass cylinder layered with black river rock is contemporary.

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