IT ALL BEGAN WITH A PAINTING.
Linda Usher fell in love with a beautiful work by artist Keiko Hara. The triptych pays homage to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stretches in height more than 6 feet, mimicking the iconic work in its large size. Rich hues of blue and green are dotted with fragments of fabric from different cultures, reflecting people’s place in the world and the experience of their shared history.
Titled Topophilia — Imbuing in Monet, each of the painting’s panels is 14 feet long, too large to fit in Usher’s Chicago home. Thus began the planning of a vacation home in Palm Springs, California, to house the beloved work of art.
The resulting structure equals the painting in its artful rendition. Designed by Booth Hansen, the home — named Reflections by the architect — celebrates its setting and complements a primary residence on a neighboring lot. Usher and her husband, Malcolm Lambe, own the adjacent Frederick Loewe Estate, a prime example of Mid-century Modern architecture in the valley. Built in 1956 — the same year Loewe partnered with Alan Lerner to compose the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “My Fair Lady” — the glass walls of the 5,000-square-foot estate overlook the manicured grounds, the couple’s extensive sculpture collection and unparalleled views of the San Jacinto Mountains. Loewe so loved these views that his bed and nightstand were placed on a turntable, allowing him to enjoy the vista from any angle.
Reflections stands in awe of this same landscape and was named for its ability to frame the view. Embedded in the arid hillside, it admires the valley and distant ranges beyond.
The operable glass façades, handmade in Palm Springs, are often mistaken for ordinary windows. Photo: Nick Merrick, Hedrich Blessing
“It’s amazing that this painting has so much influence on the house,” says Larry Booth, principal of the firm. “The piece is about reflections and the house is about reflections. I’ve been there when the sky reflects off the pool onto the ceiling of the living room. It’s a great experience.”
The vacation home is located on a 3-acre parcel in Little Tuscany, a desirable neighborhood that includes such iconic homes as the Kaufmann House, Edris House, Raymond Loewy House, Elvis House and Bing Crosby House.
Completed in 2015, the 5,000-square-foot house was designed as two offset linear buildings, one containing the public spaces and the other the private spaces, each with its own patio. These two volumes are linked by a light-filled kitchen.
Glass walls constitute the east and south façades and open to connect the interior to the outdoors, providing views, daylight and natural ventilation. Deep overhangs and the relocation of existing olive trees provide shade from the harsh desert sun. Outside, an infinity pool reinforces the angular rooflines. “Day or night, everyone hangs out in the 1,500-square-foot area that includes the pool, pool patio, kitchen and bar area with the siding doors open, as weather permits,” Usher says.
The painting, located in the living room and dining room, carries natural themes and colors indoors. Additional works by Claire Sherman, Jim Dine, Nicole Eisenman, Simi Dabah, David Wallace Haskins, Ingólfur Arnarsson and William J. O’Brien enliven the space. Diners at the table for 12 can enjoy the view and the painting’s richly hewn blues blending with the color of the sky.
“Imagine designing a home with a painting in mind,” says Booth. “Here, you have a 42-foot-long, and 6-foot-2-inch-tall painting, so the wall must be 50 feet long or more, and tall enough so the painting doesn’t appear to be crammed into a space.”
The master suite has an elevation change that, when entering the room, renders the bed invisible and directs the eye to the views beyond. Photo: Joe Schmelzer
The next deciding factor for the design was a neighboring house, the architect explains, adding that they designed a solid wall adjacent to block the view. “After that, it was all about celebrating the view. The views from the living room, dining room and kitchen are to the southeast looking down on the Coachella Valley with the Santa Rosa Mountains as a background.”
Fellow architect Joseph King, who collaborated with Booth, adds, “The San Jacinto Mountains are directly west of the home and in full view from the kitchen’s west windows, from the study and the outdoor terrace to the west.”
A specialist created the custom glass walls, which dissolve the separation between the indoors and out. “They are homegrown — handmade in Palm Springs,” Booth says. “They are thin-profile and roll on ball bearings easily with the touch of a finger. When closed, you can’t tell they are a door.”
The master suite, at 630 square feet, is an additional unique element of the home. “Usher wanted to have a desk in the master bedroom,” says King. “The master bedroom is on two elevations: The bed is on the lower level and is not seen when one enters the room; the desk is on the upper level of the room, so while sitting at the desk, one can see the views.”
Booth is quick to praise landscape architect Hoerr Schaudt for designing a native and low-maintenance landscape. Drought-tolerant vegetation was used on 60 percent of the site and sod was removed. More rocks were used in the design than plants to keep with the natural setting. “We were lucky that we didn’t have to deal with any large rocks,” King says. “The general contractor had warned us in the beginning that we might find Volkswagen-sized rocks when digging for the foundation.”
The home’s exterior keeps with the neighborhood and much of Palm Springs itself; it’s finished on the outside with a smooth, white plaster known as Santa Barbara. “The finish is similar to an eggshell with no texture and so smooth at times you wonder what you are looking at,” King says. “The interiors mimic that sense, the walls are smooth white, and the concrete floors have a clear seal on them.”
The couple now use the home as a winter vacation spot or as a guest house. And they love the setting for the Hara painting just as much as they love the work itself.
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