THE RANCH, REFINED

Times Staff Writer

STEVE SHARPE looked at his land in rural Ventura County and envisioned his future home as an East Coast country estate with arched doorways, white columns, even a formal ballroom. Standing next to him was architect Zoltan Pali, who saw less Monticello and more modern California ranch -- something that could disappear among the orange and lemon groves.

Fortunately, the two men didn't have to argue. The year was 1987, and soon after Sharpe bought the property in Somis, the economy, the building industry and his income as a drywall contractor took a dive. Monticello-meets-Southern California was put on hold, much to his relief today.

The recently completed residence is a dramatic departure from what either man imagined so long ago -- the result of Sharpe's acquired taste for minimal design and Pali's sharpened skills as an architect of sleek, almost transparent homes. This house, Sharpe says between puffs of his cigar, is the product of two decades of personal evolution and architectural maturity -- a design that presents an alternative picture of what country life can be.

"I don't see the house as 'metropolitan' but as a country house responding to its setting," Pali says.

"Rural has always been associated with simplicity, sparseness and function. That is this house. I see it as a simple architectural expression with elements boiled down to their essence with no fussy moves, just large and bold geometries. That is as rural as it gets."

SHARPE'S Lucky Dog Ranch covers 40 acres, blanketed by a lawn the size of a Little League diamond, plus orchards, a tropical garden and a tennis court. The L-shaped house sits at the end of a 1,000-foot-long, tree-lined drive. Set against the hills, its smooth white stucco and metal-panel exterior walls act like a beacon, as welcoming as a lighthouse.

In the backyard, an 80-foot lap pool unfurls like a bolt of fabric toward a concrete pad with a fireplace and the terraced landscape beyond.

Sitting on a sunny deck, Pali remembers those early days, when he and Sharpe first tossed around ideas for the design.

"I thought this, my first house, would put me on the map," Pali says. "Little did I know I'd have to wait 20 years."

Pali had just opened his own firm, since renamed Studio Pali Fekete Architects (or SPF:a, in Culver City), when he started the Sharpe project.

"Thankfully, this idea sat around because of the poor economy, and I had time to continually refine the design based on what the land was doing," Pali says. "By 1992, it was radically different than the initial sketches."

The symmetrical plan evolved into a layout based on a precise grid. Pali took a cue from the ranch's tidy rows of fruit trees positioned 14 feet apart. Walls and stucco screed lines were then spaced at half that measure -- 7 feet -- and windows and doors were placed at 3 1/2 -foot increments. The overall effect is a sense of order and alignment, of harmony and beauty.

The 7,100-square-foot main floor of the house contains living and family rooms, a dining area and kitchen, as well as bedrooms for Sharpe and wife Laura, and their daughter, Estelle, 9. A lower level with about 3,000 more square feet has another bedroom, laundry area and a wine cellar next to a small prep kitchen with a dumbwaiter. Also down below: a three-car garage.

"When some neighbors saw the house under construction, they mistook the outside railing and the driveway into the garage as a loading dock," Sharpe says, laughing. "They couldn't figure out what we were building."

A separate guest wing has a parlor and four bedrooms, including one for Sharpe's elder daughter, Skylar, 20, when she's on break from American University in Washington, D.C.

Inside and out, the house retains little of Sharpe's early vision, the neoclassical details replaced with aluminum doors, pop-up clerestory windows on 14-foot-high ceilings and uniform corridors leading from one doorless room to another. In two powder rooms, Sharpe installed glass ceilings, "which kind of rattles guests when they look up," he says, smiling and clearly enjoying the response.

To some visitors, the look is so minimal it may appear unfinished. In the entry closet and a butler's pantry, walls don't reach the ceilings, as though these modules landed from the sky. The void at the top allows natural light to flow into the space.

"One can make the assessment that its 'style' is modern, and that it is odd to see it in a rural setting. This is true," Pali says.

"But Modernism is not a style but rather a way of living. I know that recently Modernism has become a style, and that frightens me. The over 'coolification' of everything is turning Modernism into a style and sort of a commodity -- something that it should not be. It should remain in the high road, intellectual and philosophical."

Los Angeles architect and author Eric A. Kahn points to other examples, such as Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, a mid-century steel-and-glass masterpiece on the banks of the Fox River in Illinois.

"Mies avoided the cliche that country life was about unrefined and nostalgic images of the past," says Kahn, co-founder of Central Office of Architecture. "Instead he proposed a sophisticated, intense architecture. . . . It was about the notion of mathematical and philosophical order, set in the backdrop of nature."

PART of the beauty of Pali's design is the way it frames each view like some plein-air painting and connects the interiors with the landscape beyond. Walking through the long, narrow master bedroom, Sharpe points to the two parallel glass walls, one facing the front yard and one the back. He refers to his bedroom as "the observatory" because land and sky are so, well, right there.

He wanders past the open kitchen and the dining room, then stops.

"This is my favorite room," he says, his feet planted on exposed aggregate concrete in the space off the entry that was originally conceived as the ballroom. Far from its initial sketches as a round room with a domed ceiling, the 600-square-foot rectangular box has two floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Dominating the room in color (red) and height (6 1/2 feet) is the resin sculpture "Indian 4 (Spear)" by San Francisco artist Yoram Wolberger.

"I actually call this the field room rather than the ballroom because it looks out on the field and it resembles multipurpose rooms in country homes," Sharpe says. "We can do anything in here."

When Sharpe and his wife are hosting 40 guests for dinner, they set up tables and chairs. But most of the time it's their gallery, the white walls holding contemporary art and the floor left so empty that Sharpe's words render a slight echo.

In one corner sits a white, upright rehearsal piano once owned by family friend Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. It looks more like an art statement than a musical instrument, and the black upholstered bench nearby is reminiscent of those offered in museums for contemplative viewers.

Although Sharpe's appreciation of modern design has bloomed during the long, off-and-on construction period -- the site was excavated 20 years ago -- the San Fernando Valley native still thought that the antiques and furniture from his old Cape Cod-style house would blend. "I grew up in a tract home in the Valley where there were doilies on everything," he says. "This is the decor I knew."

When he and Laura uncrated their traditional furniture, which looked old and heavy compared with the new clean-lined architecture, they cringed. "It just sucked the life out of the place because this house is so pure," Sharpe says.

He selected a few pieces: studded red leather chairs that now surround a table in the wine cellar and refurbished 1940s dining chairs inherited from Andrews.

Sharpe ditched the rest of their "treasures," and the couple bought contemporary art by Vernon Fisher, Tim Bavington, Robert Therrien and a stainless-steel sculpture by Cheryl Ekstrom that replicates the Eames chaise longue and ottoman.

"This house has really been a shedding experience," Sharpe says. "Because of it, I realized I don't need all this junk I was dragging from place to place, and I no longer have the need to decorate every wall. Maybe I won't feel the same way in another house, but too much stuff just doesn't look right here."

He pauses, looks around.

"It was a leap of faith for me to start this project with Zoltan. He was so young," Sharpe says. "Back then, I was driving my motorcycle across the country looking for a theme. Once I even considered something to resemble a barn.

"This house is a result of a long, long collaboration. It's about an architect and a client coming of age."

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janet.eastman@latimes.com

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Ideas to steal: table for 4, 14

NEED a large table for some occasions, a smaller table for others?

Steve Sharpe solved this problem by buying four 3 1/2 -foot-square tables that he pushes together to make one large dining surface. When needed, the tables can be parted and used either to seat guests or as serving stations.

The Neolitico tables by Italian Massimo Morozzi were purchased at a now-defunct Los Angeles store. Strips of wood screwed to the underside of the Macassar tabletops keep the four pieces together. Underneath, the spool-like, aluminum pedestals are aligned in perfect geometry.

Designers Ramiro Diaz-Granados and Heather Flood of F-lab had a similar idea. They created a circular board-of-directors table for the Southern California Institute of Architecture that is actually 11 wedge-shaped tables that can be joined to accommodate two dozen people. Called CHUB, for "central hub," the layered Baltic birch plywood tables with glass tops are mounted on casters so they can roll into place and plug into power and data lines.

"How often would someone need a table that's 19 feet in diameter?" Flood asks. "Eleven individual tables that can be refigured in so many ways are more practical."

-- Janet Eastman

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