Joe Day and Nina Hachigian's ultra-contemporary Silver Lake house, built primarily with industrial materials used in airports, looks down on the lights of Los Feliz and Hollywood like a control tower.
An electronic sign facing the street displays changing messages for the public, as though it were about to announce flight arrivals and departures. Some weeks, Day and Hachigian express their thoughts with a line from a poem or a quote from a French philosopher. Occasionally they post notes to family members, enthusiastically sharing milestones in their lives with passersby.
Day, a building designer who helped plan Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, could see nothing but possibility when he and his wife bought the pale pink 1947 tract house in 1998, embarking on a four-year effort to remake it into a dwelling reminiscent of some of Los Angeles' early Modernist architects, such as R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra.
Most of the doors and windows of the original wood-sided structure — perched on a hillside with commanding views of Griffith Park and the dark-domed observatory — faced interior courtyards, turning a blank facade to the city below.
"I knew from the start that I wanted to give the house a broader urban orientation and to place the observatory in the sightlines," said Day, 37, who teaches building design at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc. "It became the running joke: the observatory observed."
The influence of Schindler and Neutra, along with Day's own experience as an airport designer, is unmistakable: The remodeled 3,163-square-foot house is a well-tailored structure that has made liberal use of aluminum paneling, brushed stainless steel, fiberglass and perforated and corrugated steel.
"I wanted to explore the ways a house could both serve as a dwelling for a family and a public presence," said Day, who runs a firm called Deegan-Day Design, which is part of HEDGE, an independent association of designers and architects with specialties ranging from landscape architecture to floral design.
(Day also produces his own line of casual clothing, called Dayware, which he sells on the Internet. He started the line — a collection of neutral-toned, sleekly tailored pants, jackets and shirts — for his architect friends, who were searching for stylish yet affordable clothing.)
When preparing to renovate his house, Day turned to a number of his colleagues at HEDGE to assist him with the plans. "It's rare that we all do a project together, but very common for a few of us to join forces or bring one another's firms in for different parts of jobs," Day said.
Architects Mike Ferguson and Phil Trigas, of the HEDGE group Space International, were very involved in the early development phase of the project. Project designer Bonnie Solmssen, who works for Day's firm, assisted with the final phase.
The LED sign was installed about a year ago, once all the construction was completed. It immediately became a neighborhood curiosity. "It wasn't just about making a private space public, but actually opening up channels of communication," Day said of the sign.
The messages are ever changing, everything from "An artist is a mediumistic being. Marcel Duchamp" to an announcement that Day and Hachigian's baby, Sosi, had just turned 1. (The neighbors responded with gifts and good wishes.)
"The messages are really a combination of public and private," said Hachigian, director of the Rand Center for Asia Pacific Policy. "Sometimes they are public service messages, reminding people to vote or whatever. Others are happy birthday messages to our friends and family. Sometimes people leave notes on the door, making suggestions like, 'OK, it's time for something new now.' "
Although the messages on the sign need to be constantly refreshed, Day is hopeful that the new design of the house will remain timeless. When drawing up the plans, he visited some of the landmark homes in the area. Schindler's Oliver House, a 1933 rectangular structure on a steep nearby lot, especially interested him. Day found it ingenious the way the architect was able to construct the building on several levels along the hillside. With the help of Kent Snyder, a childhood friend and general contractor, Day used that same concept on his house.
When figuring out some of the finer details of the project, Day looked for inspiration to Neutra, who was one of the first 20th century architects to use innovative materials — plywood, enamel-coated metal panels, cork flooring and inexpensive concrete floor joists — in home designs. Using the industrial materials sources he developed while working on airports, Day installed heavy restaurant-type rubber mats in the patio, lightweight polyurethane and concrete blocks on the deck and room dividers made of undulating frosted plastic and reeded glass.
The interior of the house is accented with spare wood and metal furnishings, also designed by Day with the help of his brother-in-law, Garo Hachigian, a furniture maker. "If it's not upholstered, we probably made it," Day said.
Two queen-size beds are formed of brushed steel, fastened with bolts. In the guest room, a built-in bench is lined with spongy blue exercise mat material. An ottoman is made of sheet aluminum.
The living room is accented with two upholstered couches and a set of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chairs. Garo Hachigian created the coffee table, with a top made of amber resin. The fireplace was refaced with Pennsylvania bluestone, which was also used extensively in the exterior stairways.
The adjoining dining room features an old-school lab table, from Nina Hachigian's law school days at Stanford University. The top was recently covered in stainless steel. Tongue-and-groove planks, made of honey-colored cork, cover the kitchen floor, complementing maple plywood cabinets with stainless-steel countertops. The kitchen opens to a patio with a built-in barbecue and a bare-wood picnic table. A series of long metal slats provides shade.
The layout underscores the house's overarching feature: Decks, patios and gardens complement each interior space so that most rooms spill into one another and into the outdoors.
One of the first features Day added to the home was a narrow lap pool at the top of the hill. The water reflects the long, willowy leaves of an overhanging tree. The gardens include salvia, cactus and other drought-resistant greenery.
In addition to opening the house up to the outdoors, Day added a lower bedroom and a blue-tiled bathroom, with no doors or walls separating them. Recently, however, Day said he has been reconsidering this concept. "Maybe the bathroom is a little too public," he said.
Certainly, the open design is not for everyone. The steel components give the house a clean, although somewhat cold, feeling. Day and Hachigian have warmed the house with colorful art, created by friends and family.
Friend Peter Haberkorn, who crafted a sculpture of sorts from discarded ironing boards and a radiator panel from Schindler's Kings Road house in West Hollywood, created two pieces in the living room. Day's mother, Marina Day, also contributed nearly half a dozen paintings and collages to the décor.
Overall, the couple renovated 2,521 square feet and added 642 more to their home. Day estimates that the four-year project cost about $440,000.
Although the renovation was long and expensive, Day and Hachigian say it was worth it. "I love it," said Hachigian. "I grew up in New York with leather couches and good art — not expensive art, but modern art. I think Joe and I are lucky that our styles are very complementary."
Added Day: "We saw this as a chance to blur the lines between public and private while exploring how architecture and new media relate to one another. It's all an experiment."
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Materials from off the beaten path
The renovators relied on an unusual array of industrial materials, including brushed stainless steel. What they used and where they got it:
Lexan panels in stairwell and laundry
GE Polymershapes, Gardena
(310) 532-9151, http://www.polymershapes.com
Aluminum bench seats used in patio
Goal Sporting Goods, West Chester, Pa.
(800) 334-4625, http://www.goalsports.com
Aluminum shelving in study
Aluminum sheeting on front addition
Atlas Sheet Metal, Costa Mesa
Bluestone on pool deck, entry stairs,
Bourget Brothers, Santa Monica
(310) 829-4010, http://www.bourgetbros.com
Felt seat padding on bedroom chair
US Felt, Sanford, Maine
(800) 444-3358, http://www.usfelt.com
Hex laminate sheets on doors and
Panelite, Los Angeles
(310) 202-1115, http://www.e-panelite.com
LED sign in entryway
Trans-Lux Corp., Norwalk, Conn.
(203) 853-4321, http://www.trans-lux.com
Pavers on front deck
(800) 572-9029, http://www.stepstoneinc.com
Reeded glass in kitchen, bath, living room
Downey Glass Industries,
Pompano Beach, Fla. (800) 533-0026,
Rubber matting on front deck
Surfas Restaurant Supply, Culver City
(310) 559-4770, http://www.surfasonline.com
Specialty hardware and faucets
EuroConcepts Inc., West Hollywood
Their talking points
Since Joe Day and Nina Hachigian installed an electronic messaging sign facing the street, they've carried on a constant digital dialogue with the neighborhood. Here are some of their messages:
Count your blessings.
Let freedom ring!
Vote early and often.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." (Joan Didion)
"I used to be arrogant, but now I'm perfect." (Hernan Diaz-Alonso)
Go Red Sox. Go Cubs.
"Love comes singly and leaves accompanied." (fortune cookie)
"Anything that can delay the categorization of beings or ideas — that can, in a word, maintain ambiguity — has my full approval." (Andre Breton)
Sosi Maren Day.
Sosi is one!
Sosi says hhhhggffrrg.
"I want to live on an abstract plain."
[sic] (Frank Black)
"I had a dream. It was an awesome dream." (Lionel Richie)