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Coastal Cottage

Life by the beach in Malibu calls for cool hues, nautical accents and an abundance of greenery.

To a less imaginative couple, this 1,600-square-foot English Tudor cottage on a stretch of sand a couple of miles past Pepperdine University on P.C.H. would have been nothing more than an obstacle. Though the house was built in the 1930s and was used as a mail depot back when all of Malibu was still a ranch owned by May Rindge (which is about as historical as it gets in this thoroughly modern slice of paradise), it wasn’t exactly the average person’s dream beach house. Its quirky pitched roof, diminutive dimensions and pair of petite bedrooms made the house seem a little oddball compared to its grander, more contemporary neighbors.

“When we bought it, the house had gross beige carpet, every ceiling but the living room was low, and all of the walls were plaster,” says Tim Clarke, an interior designer, who bought and renovated the house two years ago with his partner, hair stylist/salon owner/garden designer-about-town Art Luna. “The first thing we did was demolish the floor and put in this French Oak.”

Among all the pitch-perfect and carefully considered details throughout the house in its new incarnation, the floor is a perfect metaphor for the entire project: It’s new wood that was sent to Belgium and treated with a special process to make it appear aged. The process seems like the ideal solution for what amounts to a stylistic time warp: an old house re-imagined into something new, using new materials made to look old.

“We raised all of the ceilings. We installed wood paneling on the walls and put in all of these nautical theme light fixtures we found at Antiques of the Sea down in Sunset Beach,” says Clarke. The faded oak Belgian farm table, a Swedish Gustavian chest of drawers and even the fabric used to upholster the spare furnishings has a time-worn quality, like it has all been washed out by sun and sea.

“I’m not really like a lot of the contemporary California designers. They find flea market furniture and put a few coats of lacquer or paint on it, and that makes it fine. Or the alternative is this blocky, heavy, ebonized furniture that’s everywhere,” says Clarke. “But in California, with all of this beautiful, amazing light, I think it’s time for something different.”

That same desire for something fresh and new is what brought Luna and Clarke from West Hollywood to the far edge of Los Angeles County in the first place.

“In town, we had these amazing gardens and 4,000 square feet of space right off Sunset. The view was great,” says Clarke. “But we spent so much time going out and going to fund-raisers and dinners. It got so hectic. We’re both very busy dealing with people all day long. Art will see 20 hair clients a day, three days a week at the salon. That’s a lot of talking. We needed a place where we could recharge. So when we came out here, we wanted a clean slate. We got rid of most of our stuff and had to simplify a lot.”

Paring down their possessions before the move was a welcome challenge. It’s either a professional blessing or a curse, but both Luna and Clarke claim to have relatively short visual attention spans. “Art and I have never been attached to things. When we moved, a few of our favorite things made the cut, but we sold a lot of the pieces to the guy who bought our house.”

What remains includes a painting by Lari Pittman; a tiny loveseat covered in vintage French ticking that fits into a nook in the bedroom; a Fendi console covered in white crocodile; an impressive California pottery collection of Bauer and Gladding, McBean planters for the deck (spanning the back of the house); and two pairs of paintings of Vesuvius erupting in the day and night—one oil and one gouache—in the bedroom. Beyond that, Clarke, Luna, their three dogs and two birds came to the beach for a fresh start—and it wasn’t just the furniture that changed.

“On Friday night, when I’m driving home, the minute I hear that ocean, it’s like a little vacation,” says Clarke. “After two days here on the weekend, I’m feeling so relaxed. By Monday morning, I have to look at my appointment book just to remember what I’m supposed to do that week.”

Luna’s inventive garden adds to the otherworldly, getaway vibe. Much like the house, it’s a little bit English formal and a lot California original.

“It’s a topiary garden, really, with lots of hedges and green,” says Luna. “We chose plants that would look good all through the year and would tolerate this climate at the beach, which can stay very cool—a lot like England.” A ficus hedge, Carolina Cherry Laurel trees and rolling, rounded topiaries follow the topography of the property. “The anemones are in bloom now,” says Luna, “but it’s a green garden, not really flowery.”

A few dozen wooden planters hung from the branches of a mature tree hold epiphyllum plants, which look a little bit like flowering cactus, and will bloom with large and vibrant yellow, orange and pink flowers in the summer.

“I always say if you think you need five, you need 25,” says Luna. “Mass planting is how you get what you see in a magazine. Keep it simple and organized, but plant a lot. The impact is great.”

The landscaping, like the renovations, already feels settled in. “It’s nice that it’s a little crazy,” says Luna. “You’re in it; you’re surrounded by it, which I really like.”

Inside, plants also help define the tone of the rooms. On a wall in the dining area, prehistoric-looking staghorn ferns that live off of the moisture in the air cling to four square wooden frames. A large bamboo stalk thrives in the master bathroom’s shower. And an unusual palm tree dominates the living room.

“The tree in the living room is one of my favorites,” says Luna. “The trunk is a little wide and the fronds sort of sparse, but there’s a beauty in its odd proportions.” How typical of Clarke and Luna to see beauty in what a more conventional thinker just wouldn’t understand. “The scale is a little off. It’s a little strange. And I love it.”

By Christine Lennon.
PHOTO: Lisa Romerein.

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