BEAUTIFUL BEGINNINGS

More than two decades after he completed his first solo residential project in the South Bay, esteemed architect Dean Nota revisits his client and their successful collaboration.

Dean Nota’s 1988 Modernist project, the Marsh studio-residence, garnered awards and set the bar for his subsequent work. At once functional and luminous, Nota’s 1,200-square-foot gem captures a joyous, almost sacred light reminiscent of Matisse’s tiny, exquisite Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France. Dean recently sat down with his client, Peggy Marsh, at the house he built, which she’s enjoyed for the past 26 years. 

Peggy, how did you pick your architect?

Peggy Marsh: I saw his Volkswagen bus and asked him what color paint it was. At one time I had three Volkswagen buses. 

Dean Nota: I had it painted a pastel grey, which was a Mercedes color that I liked.

PM: It was a warm grey, probably similar to the one we used in this house on the stucco. I asked him what he did.

At the time, Dean, did you have a portfolio?

DN: I was teaching at SCI-Arc , and all the work I had done was tied to Raymond Kappe, who’s had a huge influence on me. 

Peggy, at what point did you say to Dean, “I own this lot. I’ve got 1,200 square feet. What can you do with it?”

PM: I had seen architects who had portfolios, and Dean did not. I’d been to Berkeley. My husband had been an architect, and I knew that I wanted it to be both a place to live and a place to work. I was terrified to think of building a house. I was by myself. I had just finished supporting four children, and I didn’t have much money. But I intuitively felt that Dean was the person to do the job.

“It’s like living inside a work of art. It needs to be cared for. I feel responsible to the architect.”

Dean, when or how did you decide you were going to be an architect?

DN: In teaching, I would ask students the same question. Some would say they wanted to be an architect since kindergarten. Sometimes I would not understand their motivation. I never thought about being an architect until I was two years into college. I was studying aerospace engineering, and they would take us a room with 500 guys sitting at drafting tables at TRW or General Dynamics and say, “This is where you’re going to work when you graduate.” And I really didn’t want to go back to engineering school.  

Looking back, I realized I had been preparing to be an architect my entire life. My dad was a steel contractor, and when I was 8, he started showing me the architects’ plans. 

In middle school, I took drafting classes. In high school, I continued with all the college prep classes like calculus, but I always took the shop classes too. I liked building things. 

I started out grinding welds in my dad’s shop to make money, and he figured out that I could read plans. After two years in engineering school at Cal Poly, my dad got a contract to build a new architecture building on that campus. 

In the San Gabriel Valley in the summer it’s really hot, and I was standing down in this hole, sweating, while we installed the steel. I looked up and saw this guy standing at the top, wearing a tie and his coat with a roll of plans under his arm, like a scene in a movie.

I asked, “Who’s that guy? I want his job.”  

Was this designed as Peggy’s artist studio?

PM: It’s a live and work space. I knew I needed a place to sit, to cook, eat, work and sleep. It was that simple. I don’t have categories, and I think that’s true of art in general. There has to be an openness. I was interested in how Dean saw things, and I felt like it was his call because he was the artist on the project. 

You very generously exhibit other people’s work in your home, but why is there not a single item of your own work as an artist?

PM: I don’t like to put up my own work and look at it and live with it. It’s a private struggle. I have no problem giving my paintings to other people to exhibit. I’m very critical of it, and I don’t want to live with that. 

Dean, what was your initial response to the site?

DN: I remember thinking it was a unique opportunity because the site was basically a right triangle, which is five feet across in the back. Many of the Hermosa Beach lots are narrow, usually 25 by 30 feet—an almost urban, row house proportion. Peggy’s frontage was about 50% wider. 

I knew that we were going to have to build something up high to capture the maximum view. It was also quite public; it had an alley, a side street and a front street, so I felt the most amount of light would come from the top, from a skylight. 

You lived around the corner, so did you visit the site at all times of day, kind of like Monet who painted his cathedral in Rouen at different times of day?

DN: I understood the way the light worked because I lived so close. The challenge of working on small lots is to create an illusion that the building is bigger, so that it feels as if it extends beyond its physical boundaries—which is why I feel a Modernist approach is appropriate. You’re trying to open the house as much as possible to let in the view and light.  

Do you think in square feet?

DN: No.

PM: I remember Dean standing in the stairwell, looking down and saying, “Look at the light.” I think it was pleasing that he had thought it through.

DN: I can’t take 100% credit for that. And this is the part I like the most. If you set things up in the right way, you’re going to get some surprises.

Peggy, what have been the most surpris-ing or even challenging things about living here?

PM: It’s like living inside a work of art. It needs to be cared for. I feel responsible to the architect. It deserves to be preserved. People and architecture students stop by and ask to see the house. I’m very protective of it. 

Dean, I have to ask you about The Gamble House in Pasadena.

DN: I have a love-hate relationship with The Gamble House. Greene and Greene, at the pinnacle of their work, was extraordinary—the craft, the sequence of spaces. With The Gamble House, there was perhaps too much money. As an architect, I can tell that there are details and spaces the Greenes would not have done, which were controlled by the client. There’s a more modest house they did in Pasadena that’s in private hands and is totally original, with all their furniture and frescoes.  

You chose Modernism. How do you relate to Greene and Greene?

DN: I think the Greenes were part of this California tradition of Modernism. I think Modernism goes back to the pyramids, because there are design principles that are inherited in all periods of architecture.

PM: That’s what Louis Kahn thought too.

DN: Exactly. And Kappe was influenced by Kahn, so it all came together for me. 

Other than your mentor, Raymond Kappe, and Louis Kahn, which artists have informed your aesthetic?

DN: Donald Judd’s work in Marfa, Texas. Walter De Maria’s installation The Lightning Field in Alamogordo, New Mexico. And James Turrell. Their work is all very architectural. They’re just dealing with it on a more abstract level, which inspires me. 

PM: Like the pyramids. They’re great thinkers, making something so essential, which is what this house is—with nothing extra in it. 

DN: There’s nothing fancy about the finishes in this house. It’s very bare-bones.

PM: Formica counters in the kitchen.

DN: This is not a house that services the building industry. It set a standard for me that I have to live up to. I was very encouraged when it was validated by other architects. It’s the essential minimalist example and a perfection that I’m not sure I’ve achieved in any other house. 

PM: What I wanted from the house was poetry. I wanted light. I wanted to be surprised. I wanted inspiration from the light at different times of day. I feel well-served and very considered in our collaboration. Building this house was a totally intense, creative project that was one of the high points of my life.

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