On a gritty Venice side street, photographer Philip Dixon has crafted a sanctuary for the senses woven with natural hues, broad swaths of soothing stone and calming water.
Philip Dixon is a compelling sight to behold, with a face mixing equal parts Klaus Kinski and Sting, and an affinity for wearing caftans. A photographer’s photographer, his extraordinary Venice Beach house and garden is a reflection of his unique vision—a finely tuned aesthetic of minimalism, natural beauty and ethnic accents.
His early years were spent working in a photo lab, where he soon became a master printer. He then turned his sights to photography. Having made his break-through at Playboy (where he liked to portray women as “strong and in-control heroines”), he went on to an expansive career in America and France, shooting for fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and French Elle. Always in motion physically or mentally, women in Dixon’s world are sculptural, formidable beauties in tune with their environ-ment. He has photographed celebrities like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Sean Combs; record covers and advertising cam-paigns for brands like Nike, Patek Philippe, Victoria’s Secret and Yves Saint Laurent.
With a budding career in home design and photography books in the works about Africa and Mexico, Dixon is finally working for himself. Having moved to Venice in 1972, Dixon has shared this house with his girlfriend—photographer Veronique Vial—for the past 12 years. C Contributing Editor-at-Large Kendall Conrad spoke with Dixon about his overlapping realms of home, work and life.
C Tell me the inspiration and story behind your house. Why did you build it? Why in Venice?
PD I did it in Venice because it’s the best place to live in L.A. You can walk everywhere—it’s a village. It was a nasty neighborhood at first, but I always knew it would change; it just took much longer than I thought. In architecture, everything designs itself based on what you want. You have to look at where the light comes from; you have to look where the wind comes from. And then you have to know how you want to live. And the way I wanted to live was with the pool and the garden and the house all incorporated into one. Then I built the big walls so I could keep the house more open and have priv-acy and security.
C Do you find Venice has changed a lot?
PD Drastically! Now I have heard it is one of the most expensive areas per square foot in all of Los Angeles.
C How long have you lived here?
PD I bought the property in ’78 and I built the house in 1990.
C What was there back then?
PD A little wood cottage and next to it, an old market that I then made into my studio. There were gangs shooting at each other outside, killing each other. It was a nightmare. And then it slowly got better and better. I tore down the little wood house, kept the studio the same and built every-thing that you see.
C Did you work with an architect?
PD I got a contractor who could do plans. I did it so we could get the permit. I fought with him all the time because he was more traditional than I was.
C So it came out of your head?
C The most predominant elements that stand out when you first see the house are stone, wood, water.
PD It’s all natural.
C And everything is open to the outside.
PD Yes, it’s all open so you can live with the water and plants and the house all together instead of having them separate.
C And the giant doors?
PD When I designed the house, I thought there should be wooden doors and glass doors—if it was cold, I could shut them. But I never shut them downstairs. Very rarely. Upstairs, maybe in the winter I shut them—at night to sleep, but that’s it. Most of the time it’s all open.
C How many rooms are in the house?
PD Well, that’s a way of designing, too. I like large spaces that you can live in separately. I don’t like a bunch of little rooms. And so there are basically four large living areas in the main house. That’s it. But it’s about 6,000 square feet.
C And those living areas are?
PD A living room with a big fireplace; dining, kitchen and an outside living room; a master bedroom; and then an extra bedroom that doubles as a sitting room upstairs.
C And then you have outside rooms and decks.
PD Yes, everything has an open wall with a deck outside, so you’re inside-outside even when you’re upstairs.
C And you chose the plants for your garden?
PD I chose cacti and succulents because I travel a lot, so I didn’t want to come back to a dead garden. I have low-maintenance plants. I like them because they’re sculptural. Every time I would buy a plant—whatever it was, a palm tree or a plant of any sort—it happened to be from Madagascar. I’ve never been, but I like all the plants from there because they look primitive.
C Yeah, you expect to see a dinosaur rounding the corner. And this sort of almost Middle-Eastern feeling of the walls and the stairs and furniture that you’ve built in?
PD The best architecture in the world, the most beautiful architecture, as far as I’m concerned, is in Africa—the parts that weren’t colonized. In, for example, southern Morocco and farther south, they make their houses out of materials that are around them, and in the process of building their houses, they put their personality into it. It’s not self-conscious, so they’ll make their houses, their bowls—their everything—in a pure way.
C So you applied that thought outside and in. When you built in the banquettes and the sconces, everything was built into the house?
PD Yeah, because I think, for me, normal furniture and paintings and all of that stuff is just jewelry. When a place is done, you shouldn’t have to put anything in it or on the walls. It’s already decorated; it’s already furnished. And also, it flows. So you have the seats, the tables, everything works together. And you just put the cushion on it and it’s easy maintenance. I’ll pick up a stick or a rock—to me, that’s art.
C What about the texture you’ve captured on your walls?
PD I didn’t want to use a cosmetic color. I wanted it a little bit warm because the light that comes into the room is open shade, which is blue, so I wanted to have them beige only because it looks like the stone I like—sandstone. So I put brown sand with white concrete which made an organic color, not a cosmetic color, and then I put acid on it to expose the sand more so that it looks like sandstone.
C And the rocks that are in your fireplace and around?
PD I went up and picked out 40,000 pounds of rock in Lompoc in Central California. And I wanted the walls to have a similar feel to the rocks that I picked out.
C And the treatment of metal in your house?
PD I just put a little acid on it to give it a patina, then I finished it with a sealer.
C And what’s your favorite room?
PD It depends on what time of year. In the winter, I like upstairs because the sun is prominent there. In the summer, I like downstairs. So, it just depends on the time of year and the time of day. I like different places in the house at different times of day. Depending on the light.
C Tell me about the pool and the mosaic floors and the mosaic in the pool.
PD The mosaics are made by Xavier Llongueras. He had always done pieces with lots of color, but I wanted, tone on tone, the same color as the walls—like beige stones. That was before you could buy all those cut stones. We cut them all ourselves, and I fashioned it after a Moroccan bowl, which is behind the dining room table. And that was my inspiration. And then on the pool we did something that looks like it’s been there forever, you know, broken and…not perfect.
C The mosaic under the dining table looks like a carpet.
PD Yeah, that’s what I wanted: a stone carpet. So that you could—once again, low maintenance—wash it.
C Do you collect anything?
PD No, I only collect rocks and sticks [laughs].
C How did you get into photography?
PD When I found out I like to arrange things. It’s easy to be complicated and difficult to be simple in any kind of thought pattern. And when I realized that, I went down to the simplest form of what I was good at, and I thought, “Oh, I am good at arranging things. Now what can I do as a job where I can arrange things? Aha! I can arrange things and take a picture of them.” And then I taught myself photography.
C How does your house influence your work? Do you use your house often in your work?
PD I’ve shot here a lot over the years. Because I’m a photographer, I’m sensitive to light, so I designed a house where natural light plays a key role. I have a studio next door, but I’ve ended up shooting at my house more than I shoot at my studio because the light is so beautiful. But now I’m into plants, because photography was one-dimensional. Then architecture is three-dimensional, and you can use it. Now I’m into gardens, which are three-dimensional, but they’re alive and they grow. It’s another thing that’s really satisfying—using the same muscle in my head that I use in my photography, for architecture and for gardening. Basically, I’m a gardener now. Most of the time I’m in the garden. If you look at my pictures, my pictures look like my house; my house looks like my pictures. And they all look like me. It’s one point of view.
By Kendall Conrad.
PHOTO: Philip Dixon.