Open house

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 March, 2009, 12:00am

Growing up in Realty Gardens in Mid-Levels in the 1970s and 80s, Coralie Langston-Jones and her brother, Harvey, had the opportunity to enjoy the finer things in life. First of all, there was the view. The verandah of their family's flat boasted a stunning panorama of Victoria Harbour. At the time, Realty Gardens flats, with their luxurious pools and gardens, and 1,200 sq ft of living space, epitomised fashionable living.

'As a child, I thought the rest of the world lived the same way,' says Langston-Jones, who says her years in Hong Kong have shaped the way she approaches life. 'Since then, I have always insisted on living in homes with notable vistas, either of lush gardens or valleys and hills.'

Three decades later, when it came time for Langston-Jones and her husband, Brett Wickens, to buy a home of their own, they set their sights on an Eichler house. In their heyday - the 50s to the 70s - the communities created by Joseph Eichler were considered the essence of smart, chic design. What distinguished Eichler from his contemporaries was that he built not for the elite but the middle class. 'He was a developer who did a marvellous job constructing affordable, Californian-style houses loosely based on the American Case Study houses for which Neutra, Eames and Craig Ellwood became famous,' says Harvey.

Eichler partnered some of the most progressive architects - A. Quincy Jones among them - to build more than 11,000 modernist homes that came to be known as 'California Modern'. Most featured floor-to-ceiling windows, mahogany panelling and a distinctive indoor-outdoor flow as well as post-and-beam construction and open floor plans inspired by Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. Flat or low-sloping roofs and simple, geometric facades were also favoured, as were concrete slab floors and sliding doors. Inviting the outside in helped enhance their fresh, airy aspect, but although superior in many ways to other mass-produced post-war homes, Eichler homes did not win immediate popularity.

In 2000, Langston-Jones, who had since founded a public relations firm, and Wickens, a creative director, bought an Eichler of their own in the tranquil, verdant San Rafael neighbourhood of Upper Lucas Valley. But even though the house had great form, Langston-Jones and Wickens found a few poor alterations had been made. The worst was that the family that had owned the house for the previous 25 years had closed off the kitchen, creating a tiny capsule of a room, and filling it with dated appliances. 'I asked Brett if we could replace the 1980s kitchen with an Ikea kitchen,' recalls Langston-Jones. 'We ended up deciding to renovate the kitchen, floors and walls, too.'

And they resolved right then not to settle for Ikea. Instead, the couple called on Harvey, now a London-based architect and co-founder of British design firm Modern Architectural Practice. They asked him to restore the house and then to bring it into the 21st century by marrying Eichler principles with their own aesthetic of modernist austerity with the warmth of natural materials and splashes of colour.

'We called upon the basic principles of fung shui by improving the flow through the rooms and increasing the connection to the lush outdoors,' says Harvey, who spent a month at his sister's home, watching the play of light through the glass walls, taking notes and sketching plans. 'We agreed it was important not to overdesign the space, but to give it a touch of Zen.'

Down came the capsule kitchen, and in its place Harvey designed low-slung kitchen cabinetry in black walnut, which accommodated under-the-counter appliances, including two refrigerators. The stovetop is a sleek German model, not a chunky American unit.

'We didn't want to sit in the dining room and see a bunch of appliances,' says Langston-Jones. 'We wanted the kitchen to look as minimal as possible.'

To all this, they added a dash of environmental concern. 'A streamlined, sleek kitchen - more in keeping with European-style kitchens - is more our thing, and more ecologically sound,' she says. 'Unnecessary refrigeration is wasteful.'

Then the couple chose an Eero Saarinen table with Tulip chairs for the dining room and added a bespoke sideboard by LA-based architecture practice Marmol Radziner and Associates. A photograph of the Zurich Opera house by German artist Rafael Neff hangs on the dining room wall.

'It makes me feel like I am a ballerina preparing for a grand performance,' says Langston-Jones, adding that the work provides a complement to the family heirloom pieces lining the sideboard, among them cut-glass crystal decanters and a Suzy Couper mid-century ceramic coffee set.

Harvey extended the black walnut walls to the living room, in an echo of the wooded garden outside. Then he stripped linen fabric from the walls and put up graphic wallpaper, throwing a bit of London panache into the mix.

Harvey suggested a Marmoleum floor made from sustainable products to unify the look and provide a spare backdrop for the couple's mid-century furniture. Langston-Jones was barely out of university when she bought the Le Corbusier sofa that now sits in the living room.

'It was a major purchase for me,' she remembers. 'I think I survived on Heinz baked beans to pay for it.'

An Eames side table adds more cool, but it's the unexpected personal choices that bring the room to life. In the living room, gold leather pouffes from Dosa by Korean-American designer Christina Kim, and a filikli rug add layers of texture and warmth, as does the miniature Eric Pfeiffer table and chairs which the couple's twin daughters use to draw and paint. A carved camphorwood chest, which Langston-Jones' British father bought in the 1960s on Hollywood Road, connects the family's present with its past. And one of Wickens' favourite prints, Jeff Brouws' Burning Car, I-40, gives the room an edge.

The house is 1,950 sq ft, and its thoughtful layout makes it feel even more spacious. 'In the summer, you can double the size of the house simply by opening the glass doors out to the garden,' says Langston-Jones. 'The garden becomes an outdoor living area. Our daughters move freely in and out, and the big windows allow tonnes of light to flood in all day.'

Langston-Jones' appreciation of spatial economy, developed during her Hong Kong childhood, directs the way she and her family live in the house.

'We love the fact that everything has its own place,' she says. 'If we don't find a home for it, we toss it. We really can live with very few possessions. I like our girls to appreciate that you don't need to live in an oversized home, gathering too many material possessions.

'I learned the value of living with limited material possessions and space while growing up in Hong Kong,' she says. 'Everything is small there. It really is more ecological and I think that's an important value for our girls to learn.

'I hope our aesthetic vision of clean lines, with unique counterpoints such as bold graphic wallpaper or a carved Chinese chest, will help our girls acquire a trained eye and an inspired way of seeing the world.'