Libeskind looks around the acorn-colored interior and quotes Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space....” It’s his way of saying that even a small house can feel ample if it’s imaginatively designed and graciously inhabited. (With his penchant for optimism, he has forgotten the remainder of Shakespeare’s line: “...were it not that I have bad dreams.”) The architect has furnished the assiduously asymmetrical space with a trapezoidal table, a jagged kitchen counter, and a sofa conceived for people with pyramidal behinds. Even the plumbing fixtures have crystalline contours.
The clients knew they wanted Libeskind after they visited his tragic masterpiece, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which translates collective sorrow into an intricate composition of voids, diagonals, and tilted planes. It may seem like an odd leap from the Holocaust to a private home, but they were interested in the architecture of outsize emotions. “I find his architecture incredibly romantic—we were moved to tears,” one of them recalls. “The house is meant to be very emotional.” To Libeskind, interpreting a people’s pain in concrete and zinc is different only in degree from understanding a couple’s need for intimate seclusion. “You have to have a lot of empathy to design a house,” the architect says.
If the forms are avant-garde and idiosyncratic, the feel is one of romantic luxe. The carpet is woven rush and lavender—the friction of a footstep releases a little puff of summer scent. And a suite of flamboyant George III chairs offsets the architecture’s contemporary rigors (the furniture “is as extreme in its way as Libeskind is,” notes one of the owners). But perhaps the most luxuriant feature is the dark-stained oak that panels the interior in masculine slabs. Libeskind worried—unnecessarily, as it turns out—that it would make the house gloomy, but the couple had in mind Richard Neutra’s and John Lautner’s redwood-lined midcentury houses in Los Angeles, and the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, a cliffside hideaway where a cozy room cantilevered over the Pacific can run more than $2,000 per night.
It’s ironic that a house inspired partly by a hotel should be so stingy with its hospitality. The only guest accommodations consist of a Murphy bed, which swings down to fill a miniature basement vestibule. The place extends an equivocal welcome: Please come, but not for long. Ambivalence permeates the design, which treats privacy as sacrosanct and passé at the same time. A sliding door seals off the only bedroom; it vanishes behind a pleated wall like a secret chamber, yet the walls of the room are glass, so the sleeper lies in full view of the grounds on one side and the kitchen on the other. The bathroom, too, is semipublic. The walls part like a slit skirt, revealing a sharp-angled pit sunken in the concrete floor—the bathtub. (The toilet, mercifully, gets a door.) Withdrawn from the outside world but open within, the house has a built-in sexiness. Every surface is luscious, every glimpse tantalizing, every wall a swoon.