The only consistent problem with the house, Taschen says, is that its technology often fails in subtle but frustrating ways. "Every day there is something not working," he says. "The maintenance is 10 times higher than in any other building. Everything is much more complicated. To get cable or Internet, they have to come 10 times.
"It's like having a vintage car — a '55 Mercedes. More difficult. But they have a personality to them, ya?"
In Escher's first meeting with Taschen, the restoration architect pointed out which pieces were original, which needed to be replaced, and which details deserved restoration. "He interrupted me in about half a minute and said in German, 'Herr Escher, why don't you do what you think is right?' "
For Escher, a native of Switzerland who loves the rational, structure-inspired work of Lautner, Neutra and the late Pierre Koenig, this was a gift from the gods. His firm, which he runs with partner Ravi GuneWardena, had been partly inspired by classic California Modernism, and here he could delve into a great Modernist's original conception. (Escher wrote the first book on Lautner a few years after moving to Los Angeles in 1988, and currently oversees the John Lautner Archives.)
The architect describes the job as a philosophical challenge. "I think the hardest thing was developing an intellectual strategy for how to deal with it," Escher says, calling the task, "a combination of research into history and technology, and to some degree into Lautner's psychology. You can't be afraid of a house like that: You have to, in some cases, be kind of forceful."
The forcefulness was balanced with the architects' own "sensitive and careful" respect for Lautner's intentions: The goal was to undo the damage previous tenants had exacted, and to simplify. The restoration team removed layers of paint, paneled the walls with the same shade of ash wood used for the original built-in couches and cabinets (some of which needed repair or restoration), and replaced the fixed-paneled windows with frameless glass.
"We wanted to make it as invisible and elegant as possible," says Escher. "That's something that's important to all our projects: We don't try to draw attention to a detail. It should disappear." GuneWardena compares the process to "pruning a garden, to reveal the clarity of the structure."
They also tried to match what they thought Lautner would have chosen if he'd had access to contemporary workmanship and a larger budget: The original drawings, for instance, described a floor of random broken slate, but the day's technology would not allow the stone to be cut thinly enough to keep from destabilizing the house. Escher's restoration ran the flagstone pattern inside and out, across the bridge that connects the front door to the funicular.
One of the biggest challenges was bringing art into the house, difficult when a home already exerts a bold personality. "The Taschens originally wanted to have more period pieces," Escher says. "But we didn't want the house to be a museum of the 1960s."
Today, Chemosphere is furnished sparely with clean-lined pieces including Eames chairs and a coffee table and an oval Florence Knoll dining room table. Taschen commissioned the suspended lamps of bent plexiglass strips by Cuban-born L.A. artist Jorge Pardo and the pastiche rug designed by German painter Albert Oehlen.
"These Lautner houses are like custom-made clothes," says Escher, "so you really have to find the right tenant for them. Taschen was perfect for the house — he immediately grasped what the house was about, and he was entirely open to our ideas for the place, like ripping out the glass and commissioning pieces by artists."
During the first few years the Taschens lived there, the house became locally famous for their parties, where photographer Bill Claxton and his model wife Peggy Moffett would carouse with porn stars, jazz musicians and director Billy Wilder.
These days, now that Taschen has an office in Hollywood and a bookstore in Beverly Hills, the place has reverted to being, mostly, a house for him and fiancée Lauren Wiener. He has canceled plans for a guesthouse designed by Rem Koolhaas at Chemosphere's base because he feared it would visually compete with the main house. His only major plan is to replace the bird-cage-like funicular with a more open one.
Taschen remembers going to a Beverly Hills open house where "a fashionable Hollywood film star" was selling his Neutra home. The young actor, in the publisher's estimate, "had robbed the soul of the house. If you make tiny changes that don't fit the integrity of the house, you destroy it. It's like a movie where you add a scene of someone with a mobile phone in 1958, or a style of shirt or car that wouldn't have existed until years later.
"It's the responsibility of the owner to preserve it for future generations," Taschen says, "because a house like this doesn't belong to one or two people: It belongs to mankind."
The Chemosphere restoration won an award from the Los Angeles Conservancy as well as the approval of its original tenant.
"Today there are materials that weren't available then," Malin says. "The place is much better than when I was in there — and it's in keeping with Lautner's vision."
Taschen says it's hard to get bored with the place — despite the rain this winter — since the enormous windows offer an expansive view on the world. "It's like a wide-screen movie," he says. "Always changing."
Times staff writer Scott Timberg can be reached at email@example.com.