The door-to-door connection

Top deck
A guest, Peter Rabitz, enjoys Mike Deasy’s Santa Monica Canyon home designed by Harwell Harris.
(Gina Ferazzi / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

Afew months ago, Kirk Nozaki, a clothing designer, decided to do something radically out of character: He knocked on 31 doors and invited total strangers to a party at his home in Silver Lake. When he stepped up to the first house, Nozaki worried about how he would be received. “Would it be, ‘Who’s this dude?’ ” he wondered, “or ‘Come on in.’ ”

One by one, a widow in Sierra Madre, a mother in Holmby Hills, a Superior Court judge in San Marino and a couple of dozen others agreed to come to dinner last May. People wearing name tags and eating eggplant lasagna on Nozaki’s deck broke the ice not by asking the usual questions, like what the others did for a living, but asking what their houses looked like. Although they didn’t know each other, at least one thing united them: Their residences were designed by an unheralded Modernist architect, Harwell Harris.

Most of the owners at the party, Nozaki found, were like himself. They knew little, if anything, about Harris when they signed their escrow papers, or even that he had designed their homes. They bought the structures simply because they liked them.

“The most famous architects are not necessarily the best,” said Ted Wells, an architect and member of the Southern California Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, who attended the party. “Harris could be considered the grandfather of California Modernism. He took a look at the climate, terrain and the mythical connection we have with nature and created a California lifestyle architecture decades before what others were promoting in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

Harris, who designed houses in Southern California in the 1930s through 1950s, merged elements of Greene & Greene’s Arts and Crafts style such as wood, bold roof overhangs and Japanese influences with Modernism’s lean lines and liberal use of glass. His small houses showcase walls of windows and see-through doors in every room. One of his homes, a modest 1,350-square-footer built in 1934 in Altadena, has 21 exterior doors.

But Harris’ softer approach to Modernism made him less interesting to the architectural press, said Wells. “Everyone’s looking for the next new thing to write about, and Harris’ work looked like a reinterpretation of the old thing. His was a homegrown message, and that’s never as interesting as those coming from another place.”

Admirers of Harris, who died in 1990 at 87, say he lacked celebrity because he was not a self-promoter. “He designed for people, not his ego,” said Nozaki.

His clients felt instantly comfortable in his unpretentious, wood-framed homes, which were easier to add on to than the European Modernist steel boxes espoused by contemporaries R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra (who trained Harris in the 1920s). A California native and sculptor, Harris became an architect after seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in L.A., which struck him as not just a place to live but as a spectacular sculpture. He realized what architecture could do.

Harris thought houses should be experienced as a slow journey of discovery. He hid front doors at the end of extended walkways. He constructed compressed entryways that seemed boxed in at first, but with a turn to one side, opened into expansive living rooms.

Rooms with low ceilings also had a look-to-the-sky feeling with their bands of clerestory windows and skylights. Indirect lighting was tucked inside beams to keep the minimal lines uninterrupted by bulky fixtures. Colors, mostly the yellows, blues and browns in nature, played a big part in creating living spaces that breathed.

John Entenza, the influential editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, was so impressed with Harris that he commissioned the architect to design a house for him in Santa Monica Canyon, and a Case Study House, a project in affordable housing that the magazine sponsored. Entenza lived in his 1937 house for years but he withdrew his support of Harris’ Case Study House before it was constructed because Harris veered from pure Modernism.

Wells said Harris was also pushed aside because of his retreat in 1951 to teach architecture in Texas when Southern California builders were copying some of his ideas for suburban living. “He felt it was below him to promote the importance of his work or lecture outside the academic world,” said Wells. “And there was no one promoting his legacy in Southern California.”

Enter Nozaki, a designer for éS skate wear. When he first walked into his house in 1993, a real estate agent told him it was designed by Neutra. That seemed unlikely to Nozaki, who was familiar with Neutra’s rather stark approach; this was warmer. But Nozaki wasn’t as interested in who drew the plans as much as in the home’s streamlined layout, wood details and garden views. These reminded him of traditional Japanese homes.

“It was calming,” said the 42-year-old, a fourth-generation Japanese American. “When I was younger, I didn’t embrace my culture…. But now I love everything about it.”

He met the sellers, who were the original owners of the home built in 1950, and thanked them for not changing it. “The place was like going back in time,” said Nozaki. “They didn’t have a TV or a garage-door opener.”

Nozaki asked them who the architect was, and they told him Harwell Harris, but that was about it. Then he set out to fill his home with authentic period pieces — a Marcel Breuer chaise longue, Vladimir Kagan recliner, George Nelson tables and Isamu Noguchi lamps. He allowed two groups of architectural students to tour his home, but mostly he spent 11 years enjoying it alone.

Then early this year, Nozaki enrolled in a self-expression and leadership program requiring him to do something for his community. He considered volunteering at a dog park because of Keiko, his Jack Russell terrier. Instead, he focused on the architectural community.

His original plan, which he still hopes to realize in February, was to organize a tour of Harris houses to raise money for the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Society of Architectural Historians. He turned to Lisa Germany’s book, “Harwell Hamilton Harris,” published in 1991, and made a list of area residences.

“I had never met anyone living in a Harris home other than the couple who sold me theirs, and I thought, I can’t just walk up to these people and say, ‘Wanna do a tour to benefit … ?’ They wouldn’t do it,” recalled Nozaki. “Then I thought of another approach. I told them that I also owned a Harris home and asked if they wanted to come to a party at my house and meet other owners. That changed everything.”

Architect Raun Thorp brought original plans of her 1940 home in Holmby Hills to the dinner. She got goose bumps when she saw photographs of another house with some look-alike traits. “It was like finding a relative with your DNA that you didn’t know you had,” she said. Thorp was thankful that other potential buyers didn’t know enough seven years ago to drive up the price of the house because of the Harris factor.

Another partygoer, real estate agent Mike Deasy, said he used to bike past a home in Santa Monica Canyon when he was a kid and liked its rounded, white exterior walls and a curved porte-cochere so much that he vowed to buy it once he hit it big. He didn’t know until later that it was the one Harris designed for magazine editor Entenza.

Deasy moved in last year when he was ready for a “pared down, disciplined existence” that would fit into 1,000 square feet. It’s a squeeze when he parks his beefy SUV in the driveway made to accommodate Entenza’s smaller 1925 Ford, but Deasy isn’t complaining. He loves the views from his living room and rooftop deck, which is reachable by a steel staircase. “It’s a Bauhaus jewel with Craftsman influences,” he said.

As one of the founders of the Beverly Hills real estate firm Mossler, Deasy & Doe, which focuses on selling status homes, he was surprised to meet several owners at the party who had lived in their Harris homes for half a century. “Some of the older owners, many of whom had met Harris, were aware of what he had done for them but not the range of his work or that he’s famous,” he said. “Harris didn’t socialize like other architects to create name and value. Instead, he was a thinker and attentive to the needs of his clients.”

Harriett Lyle, who attended the party, said that when she had Harris over to her Sierra Madre house in 1983, he suggested she soften some paint colors. Harris wanted ceilings in a light hue to imitate the sky, and floors dark to look like the earth. Dick Holmes, who lives in Altadena, called Harris in the 1980s when he wanted to install Berber carpet. Harris suggested grass cloth because it was natural and textural.

Wendell Mortimer also talked to Harris long ago to discuss making room additions to his San Marino house that he and his wife bought in 1966 from the original owners. It was the Mortimers’ first house and, like several other Harris homeowners, they’ve stayed put.

“At first we really appreciated the built-in chest of drawers, bookshelves and lamps because we didn’t have the money to buy furniture,” said Mortimer. “But 10 years later, when we found out who designed it, we appreciated other things about it. At Kirk’s house, it was great to learn that there are other people as enthusiastic about Harris’ style as we are.”

What prompted these homeowners to accept Nozaki’s invitation? Curiosity and a chance to connect to a new community, said cultural historian Jane Brackman.

“There is an instant familiarity between people who live in the same type of house,” said Brackman, who cites the fast friends made at Craftsman and Modernism shows and other gatherings centered on a specific style, architect or residence. She recently had a lively reunion at her Altadena Craftsman bungalow with three generations of previous owners.

“These strangers don’t have that awkward, blind-date period of trying to get acquainted because they are thinking, ‘If I live in a house like this and you do too, then we’re similar.’ ”

Nozaki noticed that the Harris homeowners had something else in common. They bought because the houses were understated and inviting, and that’s how he describes the owners.

“They’re not about flash and ‘I live in a cool house,’ ” said Nozaki, who is planning another get-together at another Harris house in September. “It’s so amazing that they welcomed me into their homes. This is L.A. Who would do that? But that says a lot about who they are. They’re appreciative of what they have; they’re proud of where they live and they have a curiosity about meeting others like them.

“Architecture,” said Nozaki, “brought us together.”