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STYLE / DESIGN : FUN HOUSE : Two Artists Pack Their Sleek Home With Fanciful Furnishings and a Sense of Humor

June 25, 1995|Barbara Thornburg

About a half-hour's drive north of downtown San Diego, in the wetlands adjacent to Escondido Creek, a narrow concrete-block structure rises from the marsh grass and skunk cabbage. Coyotes wander past; great blue herons and white-faced ibis fly overhead. The place feels light-years away from civilization, which is precisely why artists Kim MacConnel and Jean Lowe chose to build on this secluded site in Encinitas.

The house "is simple yet substantial," says architect Ted Smith of Smith & Others in San Diego. It stands, shotgun-style, 112 feet long and 12 feet wide, with no hallways separating the living room, kitchen, bedroom and roofless outdoor salon. "You pass directly from one room into another," Smith says of the 12-by-28-foot modules, which were based on low-cost housing units that he had designed to maximize views (along extended perimeters) and spaciousness (with 13-foot ceilings). The plan was ideal for Lowe, who wanted her home to resemble a wing of an Italian castle as well as a Spanish hacienda: "I like being able to walk out of every room to the outside. I also wanted it to feel grand."

Built over four months last year, the building's pale desert hues harmonize with the land. Inside, walls are painted in hot-flash hues inspired by trips to Madras and Mexico. "We love intense colors," says MacConnel, who, along with his wife, painted the front door tomato red, the living room maroon and tropical gold and the bedroom apple green and shell pink. Faux dadoes on the plaster finishes, in the living room and bedroom, were simply eyeballed. As Lowe remembers it: "We held rollers in our hands and walked around the room."

The same informality went into the mix of patterns and furnishings in each room. In fact, Lowe says, the entire residence is like "a giant installation of our work." She and her husband are mixed-media artists, and they use their work to explore pattern and decoration as well as environmental and contemporary social concerns. "Kim keeps things from matching," Lowe says. "He's more accidental about color, where I would be mixing and matching." Their artistic preoccupations surface in exuberantly hand-painted thrift-shop furniture, clown sculptures of recycled beach trash and papier-ma^che coffee table books titled "Yosemite: Observations from Behind the Wheel" and "Great Golf Courses of the World." Carriage lamps from Tijuana and a crystal chandelier from Home Depot add to the cheerful chaos of a hand-painted polka-dot sofa and a mosaic of hooked rugs.

But the best part of living in this house is outside. "Because the house is so narrow, we can watch the moon come out over the marsh and see the moonlight shine through windows on the other side," MacConnel says. And if he yearns for a late-night snack, making a run through the outdoor room to the kitchen is part of the house's charm. Explains MacConnel: "I had no idea it would be so great going in and out of the house to get from one part to the other. It puts us in contact with the land. It's kind of like a sorbet between meals."

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ON THE BLOCKS

To build a house with a sense of permanence but without an outrageous price tag, Jean Lowe and Kim MacConnel used steel-reinforced concrete blocks--about $1 each--in stock colors such as natural, light gray, dark gray and pink. A special-order moss green, left over from another job, was also inexpensive and shuffled into the mix. The artists' house remains surprisingly cool in summer, and cross-ventilation from windows and doors makes costly air conditioning unnecessary.

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