IN these days when modest bungalows on small lots are replaced by looming mini-mansions, there's something pleasingly efficient and almost virtuous about a home that is small yet well-designed. Marianne Fox calls hers "our treehouse in the hills," a 1,100-square-foot one-bedroom that she shares with husband Jim high up on a Hollywood Hills ridgeline.
The couple met in London and began a vintage clothing business called Go Monkey, which brought them to Los Angeles in 2002.
"Our interest in 1950s architecture blossomed through our clothing business," Jim says. "We loved the '50s period clothing, music and furniture, and once in Los Angeles we started to meet people with architectural homes and learn more about them."
Jim and Marianne found their house online three years ago, but it already was in escrow, not to mention over their budget. They looked at it anyway and fell in love.
It's easy to see why.
The Beachwood Canyon house was designed in 1954 by the prolific Los Angeles architect Edward Fickett, known for popularizing a modern midcentury style in tract homes that he designed as well as in more elaborate properties for celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx.
Enter the Foxes' home, and one is struck by the interplay of light and space typical of Fickett's houses. A floor-to-ceiling glass wall points toward the magnificent canyon view and the Los Angeles skyline. Along another wall, the sun's rays pour in through a series of clerestory windows running under the roofline. The amber bamboo floor in the kitchen and living room glows, and the high ceiling and open floor plan maximize a feeling of spaciousness.
"When we first saw the house and the views, we could see the potential of what could be done with the place, and knew we had to have it," Jim Fox says. When the house fell out of escrow, the couple leaped. They sold their condo in West Hollywood and bought the Fickett, their first house. Then the work began.
The house was dilapidated, its cosmetic problems compounded by basic issues such as outdated wiring and plumbing. A previous owner had added a partition in the living room to create a second bedroom. The living room's 1980s cabinetry and a fireplace set next to the window blocked views and seemed incongruent with the original spirit of the house.
"We ripped everything out down to the bare bones and started from scratch," Jim says. "We removed the partition, pulled the old cigarette-burned carpet and put in new floors. We rewired and re-plumbed everything."
A lot of the work focused on the kitchen, where non-original cabinets were replaced and countertops were surfaced with stainless steel. Original elements, such as the fully functional 1950s Thermador oven, were left in place, adding to the vintage vibe of the house.
A spiral staircase leads to the lower level.
"Originally the house was just the top level," Jim says. "It was built for a couple as a weekend retreat for $9,000. It's probably one of the smallest houses on Fickett's resume."
The lower level's bedroom and bathroom feel integrated into the house but retain a sense of privacy. Sliding glass doors afford great views of the hills and, in the distance, the Griffith Observatory.
Outside on the patio, a bubbling fountain surrounded by horsetail reeds provides a peaceful murmur and space for the couple's two miniature poodles, Dolly and Duncan, to roam.
"This is a great place to relax," Marianne says. "It's really private and beautiful, especially in summer when the trees are in bloom. We're at home with nature here, and at night the views of the city are wonderful."
The Foxes not only brought the house closer to its original plan but also got it registered as a landmark and covered by the Mills Act, a state law that lowers property taxes in exchange for preservation.
"If we ever sell the house, we don't want somebody tearing it down to build something bigger," Marianne says.
As the couple stand on the patio looking up at their treehouse in the hills, she adds, "Sometimes less is more."
The backlash against McMansions and the growing awareness of house size as a major factor in green living has spawned several books about modest-sized homes and their potential for good design. Selections recommended by the staff at Hennessey & Ingalls architectural bookstore in Santa Monica:
"XS: Small Structures, Green Architecture" by Phyllis Richardson (Universe, $29.95). Includes a few dozen houses that aim to be handsome, functional and ecologically sound.
"25 Houses Under 1,500 Square Feet" by James Trulove (Collins Design, $35). Projects from around the world. Floor plans and elevation sketches included.
"Small Houses: Contemporary Residential Architecture" by Nicolas Pople (Universe, $35). This 2003 book is older than the others, but subjects include work by high-profile firms, and some historical context is provided, too.