By Patricia Leigh Brown for Architectural Digest
Like a good novel, the phrase "having it all" is open to interpretation. If you are living in Los Angeles and possess an East Coast soul, one way to have it all is to confound geography and build your own private Nantucket along the windswept dunes of Malibu.
That the New England of shingle roofs and wide-plank floors shares the same beach with stucco extravaganzas occupied by movie stars is a testament to the creative power of designer Karin Blake and her longtime clients Greg and Teresa Nathanson.
Tucked into coastal dunes on a quiet stretch of Malibu, the residence exudes East Coast groundedness, albeit among the palms. It is the third collaboration between the designer and her clients: The first one was 25 years ago, when the newlywed couple hired Blake, who was just beginning her formidable career, to design a house on a budget of $15,000.
For years the Nathansons fantasized about a beach residence where the extended family might gather. After renting for many summers, they were finally able to build their first house from scratch. Since they are honorary New Englanders (he's from Illinois; she grew up in the Bay Area), their sensibilities and Blake's fit together like a dovetail joint. "Teresa is more East Coast than a lot of my East Coast clients," Blake says affectionately.
The designer brought her singular eye to the residence's exterior architecture—painted her favorite green—as well as the interior design and detailing, including the wood double-hung windows. Blake has long been influenced by Shaker architecture. She combines her strong background in American folk art with a studied spareness: She regards white walls as "a clean palette."
The heart of the house—she dislikes the term "great room"—is a combined kitchen, dining area and living area that provides an elegant foil for exuberant folk art, which Blake not only finds but which also, quite magically, seems to find her. Who else but Blake would stumble upon a vintage iron Northern Pacific Railroad express wagon, still bearing faded traces of paint on its wheels? (It is now a low table). "I love industrial pieces," she says.
The touches of green echo the green paint on a rare cupboard from Connecticut. "I love paint, color and whimsy," she remarks. "It's not so much what I put into houses," she adds. "It's how I put it in."
The wood ceiling beams, for instance, were procured from Vermont barns. The staggered wide-plank walnut flooring was aged to suggest having been trod upon by centuries of boots and shoes. Blake's trademark white-painted "Z" kitchen cabinet doors are based on originals now in her own Montana residence. Those doors, which have hand-forged-iron latches and hinges, were salvaged from a stable owned by the late actor George Montgomery, who was a respected furniture craftsman in addition to being a film star. "Ever since the stable was dismantled," Blake explains with bemusement, "people have said, " I want those doors.' "
She sleuths antiques from New York to Camden, Maine. Her affinity for folk art is wide and deep, from important canvases like a portrait of a young girl with a dog by Ammi Phillips, which hangs in the master bedroom, to a whimsical cast-iron clown head from Coney Island. With its black bowler hat and wide red grin, the figure spent its life atop a garbage can along the boardwalk. "The dealer claimed it was a bean toss, because a bean toss sounds better than a garbage can," says Blake.
Blake's relationship with her clients tends to be ongoing. She has been known to call clients up five years later to say, "I've found something for your hallway."
Left Coast guests are often surprised to encounter a residence steeped in New England history and restraint, especially along the beach in Malibu. "Southern Californians aren't used to the style, but they walk in delighted," Nathanson says. "The warmth always wins them over."