A Vietnamese-American designer finds her dream house in Pacific Palisades.
The ideal house is as rare and elusive as a perfect marriage, especially if the owner-to-be is a demanding, stressed-out professional. For Chan Luu, a Vietnam-born designer of clothing, jewelry and accessories, it was love at first sight when she stepped through an open door in Pacific Palisades and gasped. Having recently left her former husband and the residence they commissioned in Rustic Canyon, Luu found the new house, built by Johnston Marklee & Associates, to be a perfect fit. The architects called it the Hill House for its precipitous site on the edge of Santa Monica Canyon; Luu calls it the Heal House for the calm and serenity she finds there on her return from frequent business trips to Asia.
Seen from the street, the house’s facade is enigmatic: tilted walls with narrow openings and a deeply recessed garage. From the yard at the bottom of the site, the house resembles a distorted cube that has been tilted on one corner and embedded in the hillside with sharply etched openings. The walls and roof are clad with Grailcoat, a white spray-on polymer that picks up the pale lavender tone of neighboring eucalyptus. The shape was determined by the client’s demand to create the largest permissible volume while still minding complex regulations limiting the height and bulk of new construction in this exclusive community.
Architects Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston sketched and used computer software to plan a concrete base that fans out from a few caissons to a steel frame that slopes back at the top to stay within the zoning envelope. The master suite occupies the base and leads out to the hillside garden; above, at street level, is a lofty living area, complete with a garage and open kitchen tucked in beneath a guest bedroom and the mezzanine gallery.
Stepping inside, it’s hard not to echo Luu’s initial burst of excitement. The all-white living area is bathed in light from above and from pocketing glass sliders that open two sides of the room to a panoramic view over the canyon. “I’m very athletic and I’m never happier than when I’m outdoors,” says the owner. “But I also love to cook, and here, I can be in the kitchen and feel as though I’m outside.” In every season and at any time of day—as fog rolls up from the ocean, or as the lights of Santa Monica Canyon sparkle among the trees at twilight—the interior is interwoven with nature. You feel you are floating above the ground in a tethered balloon.
Luu wanted to be a designer as far back as she can remember, but her parents had other ideas. She was a teenager when she and her sister moved to the U.S. as exchange students from Vietnam in 1972. Her father wanted her to become a doctor or to get an MBA and eventually run the family business. Reluctantly, she followed this path at Boston University, and then had plans of receiving an MBA from USC, until the family business was seized when Saigon fell in 1975, and her parents could no longer support her. She grabbed her chance to break loose and worked her way through the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing in downtown L.A. Then came another lucky break. Bored with lying in bed after a skiing accident, she began making jewelry from beads she had bought in flea markets. A sales rep asked her to make up some samples, and later that day faxed her big orders from Fred Segal and ICE Accessories. Today, Luu employs 65 people downtown, has a flagship boutique on L.A.’s Robertson Boulevard, and showrooms in Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and New York.
In what now seems another life, Luu shared a ranch house stuffed with Victoriana. “I woke up one day and realized that I craved white walls, modern furniture and no clutter,” she recalls. “The same thing happened with my cooking, which I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. I gave up sauces and gourmet recipes to focus on natural ingredients. In the home, as in cuisine and fashion, the challenge is to make simplicity interesting.”
When she moved, Luu wanted to start with a tabula rasa and brought little but clothes from her former home. As soon as escrow closed, she ordered a few basics—a dining table, a sofa and a bed. In the four months they took to arrive, she camped out and threw parties for friends in the empty spaces. Then (and now), everyone clustered around the kitchen as Luu poured wine and prepared tray after tray of Vietnamese street foods. “I needed time to form a relationship with the house before I started decorating,” she explains. “When I had worked out the placement in my head, I started filling in the blanks. I love bright colors—Indian saris and spice markets inspire me—and I invited friends from the fashion industry over to see my new fuchsia credenza. ‘Whoa! How girlie can you get?’ was one response.”
In fact, that splash of tropical exuberance and a custom-made CD holder in searing yellow are bold accents in a serene interior. Luu’s expertise with food and fashion has served her well in assembling diverse elements in a fresh way, and she’s avoided the trap of turning her house into an Italian furniture showroom. Vintage steel and leather stacking chairs she found in Paris sit below a witty Dutch chandelier, and a basket-like chaise plays off the cool hue of the pure-white sofa. Tribal objects complement black-and-white photos of Indian village life. Up the white tunnel of the subtly angled steel staircase is her mezzanine gallery office. Two comfortable armchairs by Finn Juhl have ear-like wings and make lively companions for a vintage red-velvet chair with pale blue legs by designer Paul Laszlo.
“I never thought I could live without a fireplace, and that’s my only complaint,” says Luu. She eliminated a noisy waterfall and cantilevered a second wood deck from the hillside, but she has changed nothing else. “I love this house so much, and the longer the trip, the more I yearn to return to my nest,” she says.
Written and edited by Michael Webb.
PHOTO: Lisa Romerein.