CLIENT CHATS – A CONVERSATION WITH JEFF MARTIN
Client and collaborator Jeff Martin shares his perspective on the design process for his house in Venice Beach, CA
Residential projects are a chance to experiment at a domestic scale – they’re also an opportunity to get to know a client intimately, working collaboratively to develop a personal language of architectural self-expression.
It’s been a particular delight to work with Jeff Martin, whose home in Venice Beach will be located next-door to the three-story concrete house that WHY’s Creative Director, Kulapat Yantrasast, designed in 2012. Construction has just started on the project, and we caught up with Jeff to hear his take on the design process so far.
Most of us dream of designing our own house one day, but what prompted you to take the leap?
Working as a property developer for mixed-use and multi-family housing, I’ve had a lot of exposure to architectural plans and strategies for transforming a plot of land. So I thought, why not try building my own home? This was a chance to do something creative and exciting, to build something that was really for me. The opportunity to work with WHY was serendipitous. Of course I knew Kulapat’s house in Venice, and the site happened to be right next-door. We struck up conversation one day when I was visiting the area – I liked him and he liked me, and the process started from there. For me, WHY seemed such a next-level architecture firm – I hadn’t expected to work with them for my first project.
How did the collaboration develop?
Going in, I had a starter idea of what I thought I wanted, and the team was really great about absorbing that and coming back to me with new ideas. It was a huge learning process for me – they really pushed the boundaries of what I knew was possible. For the first meeting, I developed a whole formal package of inspiration and images – different houses and hotels I liked, and material references like the blackened wood façade of the James Perse store in Malibu. I knew I wanted the house to be really open, with an emphasis on earthy and organic natural materials. I also had some ideas about differentiating the levels of the house with a three-layer material palette. So I came in with this whole presentation and the team was pretty surprised – but I think they enjoyed it! They took it all on board and integrated it into a full design package, turning my initial thoughts into something architecturally compelling.
What key features of the site which informed the design?
The site is different from your typical Venice lot – usually they’re skinny and long, this one shallow but very wide. And you have two street frontages, Venice Boulevard and Grand, which means that the house would be fairly visible once built. I was originally thinking that one side of the building should be closed off for privacy, but WHY suggested that the second level could be transparent on both sides to maintain that sense of openness and give the impression of a floating volume. To solve the issue of visibility from the street, we ended up designing Mediterranean landscaping that would hide the perimeter while keeping that openness of the interior.
The idea for the concrete ground floor was inspired by Kulapat’s three-story concrete house in the neighboring lot. I wanted to carry over aspects of the design – such as the three stacked levels and the large double-height open floorplan for the main living space, but I also wanted the overall impression of the house to be a little lighter and softer. I think concrete is a beautiful material, but I like it as an accent rather than the primary material – shifting the emphasis to wood was a way to counterbalance that weight. Having Kulapat’s house next-door meant that we could transfer elements that we liked and imagine the narrative journey, knowing roughly how the plan would lay out on the adjacent lot.
How does the design of the house fit your own personality and daily life?
I’m a pretty structured and orderly guy, but I also like to feel relaxed throughout the workday and to wind down in the evening and at weekends – I think the house flows in the same way. The office on the ground floor feels removed from the rest of the house, which is intentional – that will be my “escape-to-get-stuff-done” space. I work from home, and I wanted to feel that transition of leaving for the office as I walk down the concrete stairs. I expect the shift in material will have a psychological impact, too – once I step onto the concrete, I’ll know it’s time to get focused.
During the working week I’ll probably spend most of my time on the ground floor in the main desk area which is designed with lots of storage to keep everything in order. In the evenings I might want to have a few people over, so the office doubles up as a lounge with a bar and a small kitchen area on the other side of the room. The office also leads directly onto the landscaping of the yard – ultimately, I wanted the space to be somewhere I could do everything, where I could feel really productive but also relaxed. Then, when you go upstairs, you’re prepared for that transition into the light and airy spaces of the upper levels, feeling centered by the raw and earthy concrete of the workspace. I expect I’ll spend a lot more time on the upper levels on weekends, either there or at the beach which is just a couple of blocks away.
What are some of your favorite design details?
I love the triple-height void which creates a core of natural light through the three levels of the building. That was Kulapat’s idea – it wasn’t originally part of the design, but he threw it in and I loved it as soon as I saw it. In general, the team’s thoughts on light and how it impacts experience really impressed me – they did a comprehensive analysis of how the sunlight will enter each room throughout the day.
That attention to detail really shows itself in the fixtures, which are super minimalist. I was intrigued by the way everything is concealed – like the linear diffusers for the air conditioning, the recessed lighting, the incredibly thin mullions for the windows, and the miniscule sliders which allow the wall of glass to disappear completely once open. That minimalist aesthetic directs your attention to the materials and the framing of sightlines – you’re not distracted by unnecessary seams or complexity.
I also love the fireplace in the main living area which you can use from both sides, inside and out – it visually connects the patio and the interior and it means that you can dine outside while feeling connected to the hearth of the house. Then there’s the balcony to the master bedroom, fully clad in white oak and overlooking the pool – the lighter color of the oak softens the impact of the blackened wood façade, preventing it from seeming too stark. Hopefully I won’t have people jumping off into the pool from the balcony – liability! – but I expect it will happen anyway when I throw a party.
Did you learn anything about yourself during the design process?
I learned that I change my mind a lot! Figuring out my own taste was a huge part of the process, and the way my initial ideas evolved really helped me to identify what I truly want from my living environment. At the beginning, you want it all! Then you start to refine your vision as you negotiate the budget while maintaining the impact of the design. For instance, we were going to install a window in the office space which would have allowed you to see inside the pool. That would have been fun, and I was originally really keen on the idea. But ultimately, as we discussed the issues of waterproofing and other implications, I realized how much I valued simplicity – I don’t want things to seem flashy or extravagant. Plus, it would have been a constant distraction while working – I would have wanted to swim all the time!
The process also increased my curiosity for design tremendously. Even when working on developing my own properties, I wasn’t aware of all the possibilities. Part of the fun of working with WHY is the way they expand your knowledge of what’s available – especially when it comes to the details, like the recessed lighting, the diffusers, and all the different plumbing and faucet fixtures. I felt I was learning every day, and it’s impacted the way I approach my own projects.
How does it feel to have started construction?
I’m excited to see the house built, and I’m confident in the team. When something comes up (which it always does, during construction), they don’t treat it as a roadblock – they just look at it as a challenge which they’ll find a way to solve. They’re true artists – I’m more of a finance and numbers guy, but WHY have really pushed me towards the creative side of design. I’m looking forward to experiencing the house once its complete, and when I move in we’ll have to have WHY round for a party – an excuse to jump into the pool from the third floor balcony!
Jeff’s house is one of a number of projects we’re currently working on in Venice – Kulapat’s home has long been something of a WHY clubhouse, and Venice might be considered the urban equivalent of the WHY mentality. Surf-town scale, off-the-beach informal, an intersection of diversity, an infinite appetite for creativity. Venice teaches us how to be.