On The Edge

Two Southern California Institute of Architecture graduates took on a modern problem of making the most of limited space with a design that recalls the simplicity of traditional Mediterranean villages.

John K. Hirsch and Michael Ferguson are members of the Hedge Design Collective, established by a group of SCI-Arc alumni six years ago to tackle diverse projects in architecture, fashion, interiors and graphics. For the Venice beach cottage, they were asked by the owner, an apparel executive, to turn a little-used storage attic into a guest room so that visiting friends would not have to sleep on the living room couch. The primary challenge was lack of room for a conventional staircase. The owner approached Hirsch after he was struck by the look of a stylized set of steps at the Library Alehouse in Santa Monica, designed by Hirsch with Stewart, Romberger & Associates in 1996.

The challenge was to install stairs in the narrow space between the pitch of the roof vault and the sliding kitchen door, while enhancing the casual light-filled living room. Inspired by the metal box sculptures of the late Donald Judd, Hirsch persuaded his client to accept a minimalist design of cantilevered steel treads and risers welded to a steel stringer, which he concealed within the hollow wall that divides the living room from the rest of the house. A slender steel rod serves as a handrail and flows into a springy balustrade for the sleeping gallery, which was given a new floor of finished plywood squares. Philippe Cantareil, a French-trained architect and craftsman, fabricated each piece and completed the assembly within three months.

A simple off-the-shelf step ladder and handrail bolted to the wall would have served the practical need, but Hirsch and Cantareil pushed beyond functionalism to create a sculpture that enlarges and enriches the two-level room, making it feel more spacious. The steps cast shadows across the white drywall and trace a path up to the skylights. The concept is as simple as the stone treads that project from the masonry of village houses around the Mediterranean. Fifty successive drawings and many hours of cutting, welding and grinding paid off in a structure that is sharp-edged, yet sensual and infinitely complex.

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