Before construction had wrapped on Vanessa Choy and Andrew Wong's house in Studio City, the rumors had started swirling. The couple were building a halfway house for addicts, passersby speculated. The home was some sort of mean joke on the neighborhood, others feared. One woman screamed from the middle of the street: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
The consternation didn't seem rooted in the size or scale of the house, but by its style. After all, here in the middle of metropolitan Los Angeles, who would build a farmhouse?
Hong Kong practice to be in L.A., and anyone surprised by their house's facade might be even more intrigued by the compelling juxtapositions inside. The urbane sensibility of Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs, a glossy grand piano and the sleek Poggenpohl kitchen is balanced by a purposefully unfinished plywood staircase, unpainted structural beams and other elements that give the space some charming country grit. The resulting home feels apropos of its city -- conscious of style but in a laid-back way, with a penchant to defy convention. Choy, who was trained here at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, says the house may take a classic American form and its designers may be of Asian descent, but its spirit is distinctly European.
"We always think Italians live an elegant lifestyle, but in a very casual way," says Choy, whose stint at SCI-Arc included a class trip to document Hadrian's Villa outside Rome, where simple tasks such as setting the dinner table became an exercise in design inspiration. "Everything in the routine of daily life was about being creative; it was about looking with fresh eyes."
Which, fittingly, is a fine way of describing her house.
Choy met her future husband when he was working on his thesis at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. In 1992, they won a competition to design a cinema complex in Hong Kong, and during the next 10 years they built a successful practice designing cinemas as well as high-end retail stores in that city.
"Hong Kong is a special place," Choy says. "It's very Westernized, very cosmopolitan. However, it's China."
Thoughts of moving back to the States grew stronger as their family grew. First came Georgia, now 9, named after Georgia O'Keeffe, then Jasper, 7, named after Jasper Johns. For their 5-year-old, the couple had considered names of philosophers. "But they're all horrible," Choy says with a laugh. "We said, 'Hmm. Jillian. That sounds good.' "
In December 2003, the family moved to Los Angeles.
"Here I really feel carefree," Choy says. "You can be yourself. There's no one to judge. I have a lot of arguments with my friends. They think I'm crazy to feel this way. But that's how I feel."
After two years of fruitless house-hunting in Brentwood and Westwood, the couple changed tactics and bought a 12,000-square-foot lot adjacent to Wong's parents' house in Studio City.
They quickly developed the general footprint of their future house: an L-shape wrapped around a rectangular swimming pool, with living spaces on the first floor and bedrooms on the second.
"We could either make it a flat-roof modern box, which would have been beautiful as well, or try to blend with the neighborhood," says Choy, who put her career on hold to oversee construction. "We chose the latter."
Look up and down the street, and one sees an amalgam of traditions: Spanish-style stuccoes, white picket fences, faux shutters with an Old West look. Choy and Wong focused on the roof lines and saw nothing but gables.
"So, naturally, a barn," Choy says of their conclusion. "A modern barn would be the right thing. It will fit in."
In her book " The Farmhouse: New Inspiration for the Classic American Home," Minneapolis architect Jean Rehkamp Larson notes that the defining aesthetic elements of this type of house echo contemporary design: crisp lines, a formal sense of order and symmetry, restraint in decoration. Farmhouses reflect a way of living that is elegant in its simplicity, sophisticated yet functional, she says.
"There's a simplicity of construction that's true to its function and form," Wong adds. "On the other side of the coin, there's a figurative quality too."
But the neighbors? They weren't so convinced. "My husband is a diplomat," Choy says. "He took them on and explained, 'We're not done yet. We haven't finished construction. We haven't even started landscaping. So reserve your judgment."