Lesson in diplomacy

Times Staff Writer

Fashion designer Tadashi Shoji outfits beauty queens, and he knows what he likes when he sees it. He has sketched thousands of sexy gowns on paper, then fussed with the gossamer fabric until the folds were flattering, flirtatious. But during a yearlong remodel of his house in the Pasadena hills, he found that some designs aren't so easy to alter.

Although he had approved the remodeling plans and the sample boards with their tiny swatches, he asked for costly post-construction tweaks. At one point, he had made three dozen requests. To help him test-drive some of the architectural elements before they were cast in metal or mahogany, his construction team built full-scale mock-ups. This way, Shoji could open cabinet doors, slide his hand along porch railings, see the way a crescent banquette would fit in the kitchen nook — and still make changes.

Sometimes the three-dimensional fakes were made of plywood or other inexpensive materials. In the backyard, clusters of green helium balloons stood in for shrubs near the waterfall. Other times, the team used the authentic materials so Shoji could see the texture and finishes. The guesswork was gone. And so were some of the original ideas.

One model made of steel and wood cladding added $3,500 to the budget but prevented a $40,000 staircase from being installed in the living room. When Shoji saw the original design in its life-size form, he thought the vertical tension rods made the stairway look busy — "like a jail cell" — and he worried that it would block the wall of glass behind it, says Curt Alexander, the project's general contractor. A simpler concept, with a single steel spine that holds floating treads, took its place.

Other mock-ups also led to change. The shelves in the hallway were widened in the final stage. The shutters in the master bedroom were reduced from four to three. An alcove in a guest room was moved a few feet. Shoji, who during construction lived in a spare room of the house with his Siamese cat, Misha, once climbed onto the roof to approve several feet of the copper gutter system.

"This is a client who is really observant, really involved," says Alexander, who likened Shoji's changes to "tailoring the suit" while preserving the architect's overall design. The finishing touches are being made right now.

This is truly Shoji's home. The two-story house, built in 1954, blends the woody warmth of ancient Japanese architecture with the clean-cut steel and glass of a midcentury modern while including another element that makes Shoji feel at home: eye-popping color familiar to a fashion showroom.

The walls are painted indigo, celadon and crimson. The kitchen banquette is upholstered in reddish-brown leather. The flooring is cola-colored cork, polished slate or sand travertine. These were Shoji's calls. "He makes his living as a designer," says Alexander, "so when he told me what colors he wanted, I didn't question it. I just asked, 'Where would you like it?' "

When Shoji first drove by the house four years ago, before it was for sale, he stopped and wondered who lived there. It was so, well, intriguingly Asian, so different from his contemporary home nearby, as sleek and spare as one of the models who wears his evening gowns.

The sloping frontyard was filled with camellias, azaleas and other classic Japanese garden plants. Masonry and redwood walls had rhythmic cutouts of traditional crisscross patterns. A pagoda-like canopy followed the steps from the front to the back.

The emotional tug of the Asian styling of the house surprised the man, now 57, who tried to close the door on his heritage when he left his family home in Japan three decades ago. The future fashion designer had traveled from Sendai, the humble industrial town of his birth, to jittery L.A. Within a few years he was dressing American institutions, including Miss U.S.A.s, Vanna White and Pasadena Rose queens. Assimilation, he thought, was part of the price of success.

"For a long time I forgot my roots, my 'Japanness,' " says Shoji, dressed head to toe in artistic black. "I now feel comfortable with it. Getting back to my roots was a part of getting older and of wanting to create a haven where I could relax and entertain. But I still have other sides as well." (They include a $25-million-a-year business selling gowns to Neiman-Marcus and Saks shoppers, among others, and making form-flattering numbers for such luminaries as Queen Latifah and Condoleezza Rice.)

The house's dominant Asian elements make it unique, says Todd Erlandson, the Santa Monica architect who oversaw the renovation and Modernist addition, "especially in the time of the Case Study Houses." Case Study Houses were experimental, streamlined dwellings designed from 1945 to '62 in Los Angeles by Charles Eames and other prominent architects. During the height of the Modernist era, there was little room for homages to the past.

Shoji's house, however, incorporates the modern ideas of its time and Japanese sensibilities, says Erlandson. "The original house was painted sage green, a favorite color of many early Modernist architects for its relationship to the natural California environment. The house also utilizes quite a bit of concrete and masonry. It's not delicate."

Its long horizontal frame is joined in a way so the house can safely sway when the ground beneath it does. Its compact entry opens into a sweeping living room with space-saving built-in cabinets. Overhanging eaves and wide doors and windows invite inside soft morning and afternoon light, moody shadows and cool breezes. The garden, too, seems to be a part of the interior.

Surprising to some, these hallmarks of contemporary homes, as interpreted by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Greene brothers, R.M. Schindler and other progressive architects, are based on centuries-old Japanese designs. By the 17th century, Japan had nailed down a practical system of using minimal well-placed wood posts to support buildings that had uniform dimensions and plenty of cherished empty space.

"Traditional Japanese houses have soothing, light-filled places that were inspiring then and [are] inspiring now," says Karen Tanaka, design editor of Inspired House magazine. "They make very efficient use of space in a clutter-free manner."

Shoji's property takes its Asian influence a step further than most contemporary homes. In addition to the fluid floor plan, which meanders easily from room to room, and the abundance of openings to the outside, there are Japanese motifs and sensibilities throughout. It's as if original architect Harry Simms Bent, who later designed public buildings in Honolulu, wanted to leave giant clues that Japanese elements were integral to his very modern design.

The house is a mix of rustic and refined materials, another characteristic of Japanese design. In the entry is a mahogany shoji, a movable partition with diaphanous rice-paper panels. The walls are curved and covered with fluted vertical strips of redwood. A good-luck symbol is embedded in the living room's plaster ceiling.

Japanese architecture's aesthetic of simplicity and restraint, says Erlandson, "allows Tadashi's eclectic collection of art and furniture to be the focus." The architect and his team knew their job was to make the rooms as uncomplicated, breezy and essential as one of the intentionally bare little black dresses with a Tadashi label inside. They seamlessly doubled the size of the house, adding 4,500 square feet including a master suite, guest quarters and wraparound terraces.

The expanded TV room is one example of Shoji's appreciation of global design. The walls are painted a deep red. Dangling from the ceiling are a dozen pendant lights with blown-glass shades in luminous royal blue, peach, green, orange and red. Chinese wooden window grilles are carved into a series of locking triangles. The sofa, ottomans and tables are from Shoji's world travels. Delicate Venetian mirrors hang on the wall.

Still, about 80% of the house remained the same. "Tadashi agrees with the philosophy that if it works, we keep it," says Alexander, who has gutted so many houses — including a Wallace Neff — during his 20-year career that he feels guilty.

The 1950s green tea-colored Formica in the kitchen was avant garde for its time, but it seemed likely that it would be torn out when the room was expanded. But it's still there, recut to fit the new counter. "Everyone smiles when they see Formica," says Shoji, laying his hands on the jet-age vestige.

Outside, ferns now nestle in the tiered 10-foot-tall waterfall sculpture where helium balloons once "grew." A shiny green dioon tree survived the cut when a parade of plants was brought to the site for consideration. And a deck, now crafted from sturdy ipe wood, once had its dimensions temporarily outlined with string.

The garden is an intimate sanctuary where Shoji can unwind among fragrant plumeria, ginger and jasmine flowers and the sound of falling water. It has enough poolside deck space to host a few hundred guests. Standing on the high-rise bridge that connects to the top of the waterfall, Shoji jokes that it could be used as a dramatic fashion runway.

"The garden is more flamboyant than a tranquil Zen garden," says Lisa Gimmy, the Culver City landscape architect who designed it. "It's geared to Tadashi's enjoyment and sensual stimuli. He likes to have parties but also appreciates quiet times. He knew what he wanted."

That is, once he saw it in 3-D.

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