One evening in Malibu, a young family stood on a craggy bluff overlooking the Pacific. “There was a harvest moon, this orange glow of a moon,” the wife remembers of the land where she and her husband would spend five years building their dream house, a peaceful spot far from the pressures of their previous base in Los Angeles. “I wanted some part of our home to capture that color.”
A guest who ducks into the downstairs powder room encounters just that. The custom-made rug is faintly sunset-striped, and the hand-combed plaster walls recall the raked sand of a Zen garden. Most striking, backlit panels of luminous onyx flank the mirror above the sink. The onyx casts a flattering golden glow, rather like that fondly recalled moon, the owner happily points out.
Madeline Stuart, the interior designer who collaborated on the house with architect Brian Tichenor, says her client’s vision of the project was subtle as well as ambitious. “She wanted it to be very comfortable and cozy, but very modern and spare,” Stuart explains. Understatement fits the temperaments of the owners to a tee—he is a top television producer, she is a jewelry designer. “They’re quiet people,” the designer adds. “There isn’t some big personality jumping off the page here.”
The clients had a few ideas to start the creative process. “I went to Little Dume beach, at the bottom of the bluff, and took long walks looking at the colors,” the wife says. The shades of the rocks, the sand, and the shells gave Stuart and Tichenor enough clues to proceed.
Wryly, the owner observes that she had plenty of time for detailed beachcombing. Obtaining permits to build the house took almost three full years. An archaeologist was brought in to confirm that the lot did not occupy an ancient Chumash burial ground, and after exhaustive local regulations were accounted for, only about 20 plant species could be used in the cliffside landscape. “Building in Malibu is like oral surgery,” Tichenor says, shuddering. Difficulties aside, the restrictions, with their sensitivity to site preservation, did help the couple realize their desire to “bring the outside in, and the inside out, meshing the two so that they would become one,” the wife explains.
Every room on the ground floor opens to the garden, and the pool, deck, and other outdoor living spaces are composed of the same materials as the house—galvanized steel, poured concrete, bamboo—all of whose tones blend into the natural surroundings. Indoors, Stuart utilized what she calls the “little pops of muted color” that had been spied on the nearby beach, including purples, oranges, and a fresh shade of sea-glass-blue that shows up in the family room’s dyed-shearling beanbag chairs. “I’m a child of the ‘70s,” the owner confesses.
The sharp eye that guided her fruitful seaside visits also informs her sophisticated taste in furnishings, which was exercised during major shopping adventures with Stuart. Among the team’s choice vintage finds for the main rooms are circa-1960 chandeliers attributed to the modern master Tommi Parzinger, armchairs by Paul McCobb (another desirable postwar talent), and a funky, Sputnik-style light fixture by an unknown Belgian. A 1940s leather lamp illuminates a rustic Japanese console in the entrance hall. Stuart also came up with more than a few objects made to her exacting specifications, such as a massive myrtle dining table; it’s paired with chairs of her own design, which were inspired by the streamlined aesthetic of T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. For the producer’s office, she created a desk with secret compartments and a driftwood cocktail table that evokes memories of the Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur, one of the couple’s favorite romantic getaways.
Stuart’s job involved pleasing more than just the grown-ups. She also took in hand the couple’s 11–year–old daughter (a remarkably advanced young lady who once startled her parents by asking, “Mom, am I an odd child because I like to read design magazines?”) to find the right wallpaper for her walk-in closet. The explosive pink-and-green floral pattern is pure Brady Bunch, and that preppy color combination is repeated in the paw prints that have been hand-painted on the daughter’s closet ceiling, a tribute to her orange tabby.
This stretch of California coastline offers mesmerizing seascapes. Magical, yes, but more important, the owners consider this spot their destiny. “After college, when my husband first came to L.A. from New York, he stayed in Malibu,” says the wife. “And we were married down the beach at Point Dume. It’s funny how where we ended up turned out to already be part of our history.”