Earthy Minimalism

A creative use of space and materials yields very large results in this Manhattan Beach home by Dean Nota.

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  • Written by
    Suzanna Cullen

Exposed wood joists. Ardex floors that look like concrete.  Caesarstone countertops. Plain sliced light maple cabinets. Simple steel staircase railings. These are the hallmarks of the home Dean Nota designed for Blair and Greg Harless, but they also evoke the tactile, earthy quality of the homes of northern California in the 1980s.    

After attending college in Los Angeles, Blair and Greg decided to settle in the South Bay to feed Greg’s surfing passion. They happened to rent an apartment across the street from Dean Nota’s first residential project, the Marsh House. Watching the building process, they marveled at the sense of space and light in the contemporary house. 

When the couple purchased their first home in Manhattan Beach in 1988, they had no idea of the impact of the specific location. Raising their children in the house built strong ties to not only the community but to their specific street. There was never a question of moving; they simply needed to find the right architect to rebuild on their lot. They immediately recalled their first architectural experience and the impact that the Dean Nota home had on them.  

“He literally gave us the house we wanted the first time we met with him,” says Greg. Like most Manhattan Beach lots, the site is small and narrow. However, small spaces force great creativity, and the Harless home is no exception. 

“By creating the entrance on what is otherwise a partial below-ground floor, we gained space,” says Dean Nota. They also created a very livable floor plan by creating several split-levels. Not only does it maximize space, “it gives us breathing room so that we’re not on top of one another,“ says Blair. 

A wonderful sun deck opens off the living area and provides views of the ocean, while a breeze floats through the house. 

On the entrance level is a family room and the laundry room. A half-flight of stairs leads to the master bedroom and bathroom. Another half-flight of stairs leads to the children’s rooms and bathroom. Finally, a full flight of stairs leads to the main living area and kitchen. 

Like all Nota homes, light is important. Every room on each floor takes advantage of creative uses of windows, doors and types of glass, so the sense of space feels larger.  “The large, frosted-glass window above the shower is the perfect way to wake up and start my day,” says Greg.  

Another architectural feature is that the main floor ceiling is gabled with exposed joists. Not only does this create an open sense of space, it also acts as both a sound buffer and a design element. The sandblasted, construction-grade fir with exposed beams lends an earthy feeling to the contemporary space.  

A request for low maintenance required that flooring be minimal. Concrete was too heavy, so Ardex was used. “It’s typically a subfloor material, but in this case we used it as the actual flooring,” says Dean. Like concrete or terrazzo, it provides a uniform visual element that is a cool, hard surface compared to the warm, red tones of the wood above. 

From an interior design standpoint, the house is a study in minimalism. The room sizes are not grand, but they are comfortable, and each room holds only what it needs. With both children away at college, their rooms are now simple and spare. 

The master bedroom is Zen-like with only a bed, built-in cabinets and a simple wooden bench at the foot of the bed. It is open to the master bathroom for a complete en suite experience.  


The main living area boasts large windows on each side of the house, thereby ensuring that natural light moves throughout the house from dawn until dusk. Designer Marina Mizruh selected a smoky grey for the walls that changes from a cool, blue undertone with the marine layer to a warm, soft, mousy feel when the sun hits. The grey kitchen countertops echo the tone and link the rooms together.  

A wonderful sun deck opens off the living area and provides views of the ocean, while a breeze floats through the house. Greg loves to cook, and the kitchen is the perfect entertaining place—with a long, raised countertop facing the cooking area and windows looking out toward El Segundo. While he sautés at the stove, Blair and guests have views not only of what to expect for dinner but also of the wonderful coastline.  

As industrial as the house might seem with metal paneling, glass blocks, exposed joists and poured floors, there are a few surprises. The Arne Jacobsen egg chair with voluptuous curves in the living room is a classic 20th-century form that invites sitting.

However, the true mark of the easy-going nature of Greg and Blair Harless waits in the lower-level family room. There sits a black and white, pony-hair chair so atypical of a Nota home that it is iconic. But it doesn’t stop there. With a wink, Blair Harless leans back in the chair to reveal that it’s a recliner. 

For all of the pared-down, pure elements of this Dean Nota house, it’s evident that it is truly loved and very representative of the relaxed, happy family that calls it home.

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