Midcentury Modern Architecture

A Tale of Two Owners

Two owners of a home designed by E. Stewart Williams share in the spirit of its creator

Lisa Marie Hart Modernism 0 Comments

Midcentury Modern Architecture
A reflecting pool that begins in the entry courtyard continues seamlessly inside the foyer. A bronzed corduroy jacket greets guests at the pool's far end.
Photography by Dan Chavkin

“Unfortunately, I’m really busy,” were the first words Diane Rubin and Lenny Eber heard from their future designer, Mark Nichols. They had just purchased a noteworthy residence in Mission Ranch off Clancy Lane and were referred to him by a friend. The 7,400-square-foot home they planned to enhance with their art collection demanded top-notch, experienced vision for its renovation and design.

“I’m right in the middle of several big projects,” Nichols had told them. Eber wasn’t fazed. “Let me share a few words about the house,” he offered. “E. Stewart Williams.” Nichols had once lived in a Williams abode. He understands significant architecture, in all its problems and challenges. He recognizes that enduring outcomes far outshine required efforts. Nichols was already grabbing his car keys. “So, when can I come over?”

This first  dialogue last spring was the first step in reinstating the five-bedroom property’s place of importance on the local modernism radar. The home is the last and the largest to be designed by Williams. As a famed local architect of the midcentury era, he is best known for conceptualizing Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate, the Edris house, and two striking Palm Springs structures that now house Chase Bank and the Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center, Edward Harris Pavilion. Under Nichols’ guidance, the home is once again an example of Williams’ timeless designs and their ability to magnify the beauty of anything placed inside them.

 

Midcentury Modern Architecture

Fit for a modern castle, the home’s original custom front door by Forms + Surfaces pivots its vast size to show chiseled stacked slate on both sides of the threshold.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

Just 10 feet past the pivoting slate front door, most guests need to pause. Simplicity seizes them in the open foyer. Here, harmony reigns through the decisions of every contributor: architect, designer, and homeowners.

The reflecting pool in the entry courtyard flows indoors, casting rippled sunlight in waves along the walls and ceiling. At the end of the pool, a classic corduroy jacket cast in bronze stretches out its arm in a handless greeting. It’s one of the more sentimental pieces in the homeowners’ art collection.

“When Lenny started out in clothing manufacturing, he had only one jacket,” Rubin explains of the welcoming sculpture that rises from the water. “He did really well in the business, so it became his ‘lucky jacket.’ On one of his birthdays, he received it bronzed as a surprise gift after he noticed it was missing from his closet! It just happened to work in this place.”

Midcentury Modern Architecture

Columns around the home show Williams’ fondness for split-face concrete block.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

The couple’s love for collecting and displaying art, and the immense size of many of their favorite works, compelled them to choose this particular home when they hadn’t set out to buy a home at all. Casual looky-loo home tours on sporadic weekends led them to Williams’ gallery-style gem on 1 acre.

The couple’s initial reaction to its charisma mirrors the feelings of their guests. “When we walked through the door, we stopped,” Rubin relates. It unabashedly flaunts a certain midcentury flair, but the home was completed in 1992. “We knew right away: This was our house.” Rubin felt it would highlight their art and sculpture, and would fit the two of them just as it would when their six children and their families were visiting. Rubin’s theory was put to the test during a family Thanksgiving celebration and sit-down dinner for 65, held shortly after completion.

“The house works well for all ages,” Nichols attests. “The pool is wonderful, especially when kids are jumping in then running out to the grassy play area. There are lots of places to lounge, take a nap outside, read the paper, or watch the sun come up.”

Midcentury Modern Architecture

The backyard pool reflects the home’s geometry.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

Williams laid out his most expansive home in four wings that flow smoothly and naturally off the main gallery area. They are: the kitchen, bar and living areas; the master bedroom and theater-style media room; Rubin’s office-library with two guest bedrooms; and two back bedrooms, one that serves as Eber’s office. Every bedroom is a light-filled suite with access to the exterior. People can come and go without disturbing one another, or even being noticed.

Original details are a preservationists’ dream. After a steam shower in what must have been a highly innovative spa-style bathroom, one walks just a few steps to the enormous master closets with floor-to-ceiling shoe displays. Floating nightstands, cabinets, and workstations are Williams’ original casework. Durable yet chic black granite floors — a rare sight on the West Coast — contrast with rugged expanses of fieldstone, which shows up again in the wide, curving steps into the pool.

Midcentury Modern Architecture

Columns around the home show Williams’ fondness for split-face concrete block.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

The pool must have made Williams smile. It nods to Sinatra’s piano-shaped swimming hole that the architect designed 40-plus years before. This one throws a reflective show of water and light against the house, imitating the pool’s similar performance inside. Nearby, an overhang on the west side keeps the home cool and shaded, an important element for the preservation of fine art.

“The art collection is very strong:  vibrant, colorful, and large-scale. And there is a lot of it,” Nichols says. Given the substantial and colorful pieces, the couple knew they wanted everything around the art to almost disappear. Nichols created soft-spoken, neutral backgrounds from which to relax comfortably and contemplate the works that Rubin and Eber placed with meticulous care.

The result is a subdued palette of attractive, functional furnishings that deliver unobtrusive clean lines. “It’s very neutral but the materials are very luxe with a lot of texture on texture,” Nichols says. “I wanted a juxtaposition of all that concrete with soft, velvety things and super sexy places to sit.”

Midcentury Modern Architecture

The precision-milled solid aluminum dining table and chairs by Holly Hunt are devoid of visible fastenings.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

“We didn’t want to over-decorate or over-furnish,” Eber says. “We wanted to focus on the architecture and the art without upstaging them or detracting from them. That’s what we all agreed to.”

“We were simpatico from the get go,” Nichols adds. “It was kismet.”

Kismet, however, does not imply an unlimited budget. His biggest challenge was to ensure the appeal and character of the furnishings reached the same level of sophistication as the architecture and art.

Midcentury Modern Architecture

Nichols strayed from the otherwise neutral palette to indulge Eber’s love for the color red in one guest bedroom.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

The galleries were intentionally kept spare for flexibility in hosting extended family and entertaining. On paper, the home might seem hefty for two people, but this pair finds it imminently livable. Bowls brim with fresh citrus from the fruit grove. Vases bear haughty buds snipped from the multicolored rose garden. From TV nights curled up in the media room to working in their offices, the owners exploit the home’s many sides. Flexible and inviting, it lives like a chameleon. Even its double-sided living room fireplace divides an intimate setting for reading on one side with generous seating for conversation on the other.

From coffee in the morning to cocktails at night, Rubin and Eber revel in easy outdoor living. They remark on the daily bliss inherent in architectural homes that remove any sense of traditional separation between their majestic man-made rooms and nature’s own grandeur. “When you’re indoors, the house brings you outdoors, and when you’re outdoors it draws you back in,” Rubin says. Collapsing sliders and an intuitive orientation take advantage of everything that’s spectacular about the Coachella Valley. Slightly sunken, the home offers views that tilt up and out, across the pool, flowers, plants, and palms out to mountains, sunlight, and the sky’s watercolor canvas.

Midcentury Modern Architecture

In the open living areas, a limited edition blackened steel bench on the far right is by Twentieth in Los Angeles. Terral floor lamp is by French designer Christian Liaigre; club chairs and sofa by Holly Hunt.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

Before the joy of residence, Nichols’ renovation elevated the home to modern-day standards. Neglect and time languishing on the market had taken a toll. The home’s progressive plans called for solar, and a dedicated, command central-style equipment room sits off the four-car garage. After rehabilitating mechanical systems and lighting, removing the roof to install the solar system, and attending to deferred maintenance, Nichols added custom over-scaled furniture.

When their grandchildren visit and take over the basketball court, pool, and reclining chairs in the home theater, it’s as if the home was designed for their pleasure. In a way, they are right. Nichols had guessed that the ample wall space and public areas would suggest the original owners’ needs were similar to the current owners’.

In 1990, the estate’s first owners had asked Williams to design a family house on their new piece of land. Dr. Adrian Graff-Radford and his wife, Cass, were personal friends of the architect and were comfortable approaching him about the project. Even at 80, Williams was comfortable accepting. It was the last home he would build, although he did design the 1996 Steve Chase Art Wing and Education Center at the Palm Springs Art Museum, where he had designed the main gallery building in 1974.

Midcentury Modern Architecture

Custom wall panels made of velvet by SAHCO finish a wall in the master bedroom. Custom bed and nightstand are by Mark Nichols Interiors. The table lamp is by Christian Liaigre.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

“My husband loved his work and its purist forms,” Cass says of the home known as the Graff-Radford residence. The couple was explicit with their direction to Williams: They wanted it very modern.
“We love concrete, we love wood, and we love glass,” Adrian says. “Using those three elements, he had a design with every single thing we had asked for. We wanted a terraced area going down from higher to lower and that was there, too.” The Graff-Radfords changed very little on the plans, other than doming the hall to the master bedroom.”

Cass recalls Williams was fond of the house that became roughly twice the size of the other residences in his portfolios. Not surprisingly, it took him a year to design and another to build it. “But because he had no ego about his work he wanted us to love it even more,” she says. When she saw the long, lean wooden cabinets lit from within in the main gallery area, she asked what they were for. “They’re for your eggs,” Williams had said, having noted her collection of 300-plus hand-painted and glass eggs. He was specific and deliberate in ways the current owners still appreciate.

Midcentury Modern Architecture

A Grand Repos Lounge Chair by Arne Jacobsen faces the double-sided fireplace and a television mounted on a steel column. The floor lamp in the foreground is a vintage Casella.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

The Graff-Radfords share the requirements of form and function with Rubin and Eber. An interest in art, myriad works showcased on large walls, and understated furnishings in a neutral palette characterized each of these eras of the home.

Only for personal friends, though, could Williams enjoy a deep involvement with the property. “Every time I chose something for the interior I would run it by him,” Cass says. “He was my guru. And so funny and humorous. He even helped the landscape architect and my husband to choose every single tree.”

Cass says the architect also explained how modern houses were built in modules, educating her and her husband along the way. Almost everything was custom-made for the house, even the air conditioning ducts. “He was building modernism in the late ’80s with all the comforts and conveniences,” she says, “yet he was working with materials that were very different from the ’50s and ’60s.”

Midcentury Modern Architecture

Homeowners Diane Rubin and Lenny Eber had no real interest in buying a new home when they stumbled across the last home designed by architect E. Stewart Williams and purchased it.
Photo by Dan Chavkin

 

Eber’s notion that Williams positioned the home based on the sunset was confirmed by those who witnessed his methods firsthand. “Every single day at 5 p.m. he stood out there (in the yard) looking at the sun, with his hat on and a pad of paper and pencil in hand. He was even there every day in that same spot, even during construction.”

At the time Williams’ last and largest home was built, no hedge encircled it. The openness allowed the structure to make a bold modernist statement on its Rancho Mirage street. “Every time I drove up to it, I just loved it more and more,” says Cass.

“Everywhere you go, from every angle, you notice things you’ve never seen before,” Eber affirms. “It’s 25 years old, but you would never know it. It’s simply ageless.”

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