"I never professed to be an originator," Los Angeles architect Frank Israel told his audience at UC Irvine's Beckman Center on Wednesday night. "I'm more of a stylist."
Indeed, as he showed slides of a number of the private homes he designed during the past decade, his "stylist" profile was paramount. Here were lush sweeps of color, sybaritic fountains and pools, amusing details and fanciful furniture designs. Very often the project was a remodeling, a Cinderella transformation of a building that was too ordinary, too decrepit or simply too small to accommodate the Southern California lifestyle.
"The client is almost always the best critic," Israel said, joking that his office staff says he "gives in too easily" to client demands. He maintains, though, that "many times a client can inspire the most avant-garde solution."
Take the Hancock Park home of fashion designer Michele Lamy and her husband, avant-garde film maker Richard Newton. They hated their Colonial-style dwelling, bought only because it is near their daughter's school. Newton had already made anarchic patterns on the lawn with a machete when Israel came in for a consultation.
The couple wanted to build onto the front of the house, but Israel thought it prudent to respect the setback of the neighboring houses, each with its tidy handkerchief of lawn. The solution was a monumental "pavilion" built onto the back of the house and overlooking the pool. Intended to "transform" but not "upstage" the existing house, it nevertheless features a startling facade of yellow and red pigmented stucco that abuts the white and blue clapboard of the original structure.
It was so startling, in fact, that a neighbor threw rocks at Israel one day. "She just hated the color," he said. "I don't want to offend people with my work, but I don't believe in design controls."
Lamy and Newton, he added, are now contemplating redoing the house in a Caribbean motif "with a thatched roof," a notion that drew hoots of laughter from the audience.
Israel's sources--or "references," as he repeatedly called them--are the airy houses of leading architect Rudolph Schindler, who was active in Southern California during the '20s, '30s and '40s. (Schindler once said his houses "combine the solidity of the cave with the lightweight character of a tent.")
In the Lamy-Newton house, the lavish use of glass creates "situations where you're not sure whether you're inside or outside, in the old or the new house," Israel said.
Israel, a reedy 6-foot-3, was jokingly introduced by Newport Beach architect Alex Caragonne as "Little Frank" to distinguish him from his better-known Los Angeles colleague, "big" Frank Gehry. Israel, who is 45, is an associate professor at the UCLA School of Architecture and
founder of Franklin D. Israel Design Associates in Beverly Hills. He was recently appointed a director of the American School in Rome, where he studied in the mid-'70s as the winner of the Prix de Rome. He was for a time an art director at Paramount Pictures, and he has designed film production offices and homes for a number of Hollywood folk.
Israel's remodeling of a Malibu condominium owned by director Robert Altman was inspired by the client's desire for the openness of his New York City loft as much as by Altman's desire to make the most of the innate qualities of the beachfront site. Because the Coastal Commission forbade any changes to the exterior, Israel was obliged to focus on the interior.
He opened it up, installing "a light scoop--a periscope to the sun," redid the floor in limestone, and he used lots of his favorite pale sea-green. A pivoting transom in iridescent glass--it reflects rainbow patterns on the wall--was a typical Israel touch. So was the bedroom, designed to suggest the odd experience of "sleeping under the hull of a ship." A spiraling banister on the stairway imitates the curve of a Nautilus shell.
During the question-and-answer period after the presentation, Israel was asked whether it isn't easier just to build a new house rather than attempt to revamp an existing one. "It costs as much to save as to tear down," he acknowledged.
Then there's the other phenomenon that seems to accompany remodeling. "A lot of my clients are getting divorced," he said. "During a period of three years, I went through five divorces. . . . (Some people) feel they can save their marriage if they remodel their house. . . . But we got a lot of work out of it."
Israel's talk was the last lecture in "California and Beyond: the State of Design in the '90s," an architecture and design series sponsored by Newport Harbor Art Museum's member group, the Forum.