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The Art of Living : Laguna Beach House Is Designed to Suit Work, Lifestyle of Painter and Family


When artist Chris Gwaltney and his wife designed their Laguna Beach house, they wanted it to reflect the way they live. A place where the smell of a painting in progress would not seem out of place. A place where the walls could hold a constantly changing art exhibition. A place where the light would play with color.

Their house, built into a hillside in this community known for its love of the arts, has a sculptural quality in keeping with the style of Gwaltney's paintings.

The art studio at the front of the house has a separate entrance and doubles as a gallery. Light streams in from the skylight and side window, while an easel holding a work-in-progress is on a far wall next to bright blobs of paint and brushes. Large oils, back from a recent gallery exhibition, lean or hang against one wall.

Throughout the house, skylights and expansive windows bring the outdoors inside. Gwaltney's large figurative oil paintings look different from one season to the next: in the bright light of summer the colors are vibrant; in winter they take on the softer tones of clouds and fog.

As well as the artistic qualities built into it, the house is a comfortable home for Gwaltney, his wife, Jill, president of F.E.C. Printing Co. in La Palma, and their two children, Dylan, 6, and Cooper, 2.

The couple worked with Laguna Beach architect Jim Lashley to create what was to be a dream-come-true home. They spent 11 months on the design work and approval process with Laguna Beach's design review board; the actual construction took two more years.

At the outset of the building project, the Gwaltneys decided they were going to enjoy it.

"We decided to make it fun. Each weekend we'd do one thing, like pick out the tile. That way we were never under a lot of stress," Gwaltney said. "And that was really Jill's doing. She's very organized and planned the order in which things would be done.

"We had to decide whether we were evening people or morning people. Obviously, since we both work and have two kids, we do not stay up late, so we decided to make the outdoor areas as important as the indoor ones. We positioned the house toward the south and Emerald Bay. That area is already built up and the houses won't go any higher. By doing that we get a partial ocean view and a great night view of Laguna."

The couple wanted to be true to both the heritage of California and to its climate, so the house has a hacienda style to it, with all the doors opening onto the back yard. From the street the house is relatively nondescript, with only one small, narrow window in front. The back of the house, however, has large, glass windows, French doors, a rambling, flower-filled garden, flagstone patio, Jacuzzi and fenced-in swimming pool.

Although Jill is not a painter, she is an appreciative audience and has her own sense of aesthetics. In the living room is a large, cheerful cotton striped rug she designed using a turquoise color she especially liked. It adds a feeling of warmth to the room, complementing the casual wicker furniture; it makes a nice counterpoint to the Mexican pavers found throughout the house.

"Interior designer Pam Nestande helped me with some of the ideas, like incorporating brick with the Mexican tiles to add interest," she said.

The house is a relatively small 4,000 square feet in proportion to the half-acre lot, with the rest of the footage given over to the gardens and pools.

The dominant room is a 2,500-square-foot living room that has a loft-like quality.

"We raised the living room three feet by adding tons of dirt to the lot," Chris Gwaltney said. "It is the largest room by far in the house. It seems even more expansive since it's a perfect square with soft curves, yet the high ceiling makes it extremely vertical."

The vaulted, 16-foot-high redwood ceiling comes to a point in a square skylight, which because of the pitch of the roof, resembles a large star. "In a square room all dimensions are equal, even with curves added to it, so the high ceiling creates an expanded space for a relatively small area," Gwaltney said.

One wall in this five-step-up living room is entirely windows and French doors looking out on the back yard, while the other two walls are expanses of white for displaying paintings.

The living room space is separated from the dining room by a built-in divider that doubles as a shelf for family photographs and interesting pieces of driftwood the children find on the beach.


On the dining room side, the divider has drawers built in to hold table linens. On the living room side, the divider is nearly waist high, while on the lower dining room side it effectively blocks the living room from view. One dining room wall has another of Gwaltney's paintings, while a curved, mitered window looks out over the yard and the hills of Laguna.

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