Street Cred: At the Corner of Genius and Ingenuity

Size and stats: 3,600 square feet
First floor: Open area includes dining, kitchen, studio and library/tea room.
Upstairs: Open atrium area and two bedrooms. Built in the 1970s by Edwin and Ann Janss, art collectors. Believed to be the first single-family home designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Location: Little Osaka, also known as Sawtelle Japantown, in Los Angeles. This popular neighborhood once included botanical nurseries run by Japanese immigrants. They settled here because other communities, including Bel-Air and Brentwood, excluded minorities. Today, many homes feature traditional Japanese gardens and landscaping and many residents are second- and third-generation Americans with Japanese heritage.
The most peaceful spot in the house: The tea room encased in walnut that opens to a garden area. The most flowing spot in the house: Walnut staircase that pays homage to architect Frank Gehry; the artist James Jean; and the architectural firm DBA.
The most brilliant spot in the house: Skylight retrofitted with diffusing material and LED lights.
Favorite material: Walnut – timeless classic that ages from dark to a lightened honey.
Signature DBA element: Pivotal wall that closes off the library/tea room and creates a guest quarter.

Artist James Jean wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted in a house, but when he came upon a home for sale in Little Osaka, he knew it was the right fit for his family. He immediately called his friend and architect Dan Brunn, who still gets excited recalling the 2015 conversation: Jean explained the home was in the neighborhood he wanted; it was designed by Frank Gehry and the former owners were art collectors.

After seeing the house for himself, the architect felt they were “sitting on this incredible opportunity.” The first challenge – to design a remodel that was both a home for a family and a working studio for an internationally-acclaimed artist – was at first intimidating.

Jean has designed graphics for Prada and Atlantic Records and his fine art has been exhibited in New York, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. “I respect him as a genius,” Brunn says of his friend, adding, “How do I meet my mind with someone who I revere so much?” But after expressing these concerns, Jean’s response was every architect’s dream answer: “Just go with it.”

And so he did. The first floor was gutted into an open space, functioning as both a living and work area. A signature component of his work – a pivotal wall – is both flexible and utilitarian. The 14’x12’ wall can close off and convert the library/tea room area into its own space – a necessary feature for an artist who has private studio showings and frequent overnight guests – or it opens the space into the main living area, perfect for a family with a toddler. The kitchen opens to the dining area, which flows to the living room – each area defined by furniture placement.

The three upstairs bedrooms were converted into two bedrooms with an atrium (the prior owners had made the atrium into a walk-in closet), and a huge skylight retrofit included color-changing LED lights for brilliance and a softening material for overall diffusion. “It gave a glow in the house that is just awesome,” shares Brunn. “It changed the whole environment.”

And connecting it all – in practicality and design – is the stairway.

“There was this magical moment of the staircase that connects the first floor and the second floor,” explains Brunn. “It was a sculptural moment. I was inspired by Frank Gehry, and the flowy lines and swirls of James Jean. I wholeheartedly took both into account, and I took the language of my firm, DBA, so it’s an homage to all three of us.”

The walnut staircase creates a play of light and shadows throughout the day, but the sculptural elements – a hard edge at the bottom and rails peeking into the first floor, evolving into flowing lines and the atrium beckoning above to the second floor – are awe inspiring.

Designing it was intense, but then the real challenge set in: getting someone to build it. Brunn’s technical, as well as design knowledge, was critical. The Israeli-born designer, who grew up in LA, credits his innate curiosity of dismantling everything as well as years playing with Legos for his mechanical skills, which always influence his design work:

“I knowingly used certain lengths of wood, thinking ‘how do you modulate it to make this happen?’ Ultimately, it’s how to have construction meet the dream.”

Enhancing the Japanese influence, the architect designed a tea room, wrapped in walnut, to enhance the Japanese influence – and in his words, “integrate and respect the environment.” A sliding glass wall opens to a garden designed by a Japanese landscape artist who used to work in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

The only thing left unfinished for Hide Out is that Frank Gehry hasn’t reviewed the site. “I would love to hear what his thoughts are on it,” says Brunn. “I would hope he’d be humbled by what I did to respect his work, but I don’t know.”

Photography Courtesy of Brandon Shigeta.

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