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Lesson in diplomacy

The fashion world's Tadashi Shoji wanted echoes of traditional Japan in his midcentury modern house. His exacting standards required creative give and take.

February 03, 2005|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Fashion designer Tadashi Shoji outfits beauty queens, and he knows what he likes when he sees it. He has sketched thousands of sexy gowns on paper, then fussed with the gossamer fabric until the folds were flattering, flirtatious. But during a yearlong remodel of his house in the Pasadena hills, he found that some designs aren't so easy to alter.

Although he had approved the remodeling plans and the sample boards with their tiny swatches, he asked for costly post-construction tweaks. At one point, he had made three dozen requests. To help him test-drive some of the architectural elements before they were cast in metal or mahogany, his construction team built full-scale mock-ups. This way, Shoji could open cabinet doors, slide his hand along porch railings, see the way a crescent banquette would fit in the kitchen nook -- and still make changes.

Sometimes the three-dimensional fakes were made of plywood or other inexpensive materials. In the backyard, clusters of green helium balloons stood in for shrubs near the waterfall. Other times, the team used the authentic materials so Shoji could see the texture and finishes. The guesswork was gone. And so were some of the original ideas.

One model made of steel and wood cladding added $3,500 to the budget but prevented a $40,000 staircase from being installed in the living room. When Shoji saw the original design in its life-size form, he thought the vertical tension rods made the stairway look busy -- "like a jail cell" -- and he worried that it would block the wall of glass behind it, says Curt Alexander, the project's general contractor. A simpler concept, with a single steel spine that holds floating treads, took its place.

Other mock-ups also led to change. The shelves in the hallway were widened in the final stage. The shutters in the master bedroom were reduced from four to three. An alcove in a guest room was moved a few feet. Shoji, who during construction lived in a spare room of the house with his Siamese cat, Misha, once climbed onto the roof to approve several feet of the copper gutter system.

"This is a client who is really observant, really involved," says Alexander, who likened Shoji's changes to "tailoring the suit" while preserving the architect's overall design. The finishing touches are being made right now.

This is truly Shoji's home. The two-story house, built in 1954, blends the woody warmth of ancient Japanese architecture with the clean-cut steel and glass of a midcentury modern while including another element that makes Shoji feel at home: eye-popping color familiar to a fashion showroom.

The walls are painted indigo, celadon and crimson. The kitchen banquette is upholstered in reddish-brown leather. The flooring is cola-colored cork, polished slate or sand travertine. These were Shoji's calls. "He makes his living as a designer," says Alexander, "so when he told me what colors he wanted, I didn't question it. I just asked, 'Where would you like it?' "

When Shoji first drove by the house four years ago, before it was for sale, he stopped and wondered who lived there. It was so, well, intriguingly Asian, so different from his contemporary home nearby, as sleek and spare as one of the models who wears his evening gowns.

The sloping frontyard was filled with camellias, azaleas and other classic Japanese garden plants. Masonry and redwood walls had rhythmic cutouts of traditional crisscross patterns. A pagoda-like canopy followed the steps from the front to the back.

The emotional tug of the Asian styling of the house surprised the man, now 57, who tried to close the door on his heritage when he left his family home in Japan three decades ago. The future fashion designer had traveled from Sendai, the humble industrial town of his birth, to jittery L.A. Within a few years he was dressing American institutions, including Miss U.S.A.s, Vanna White and Pasadena Rose queens. Assimilation, he thought, was part of the price of success.

"For a long time I forgot my roots, my 'Japanness,' " says Shoji, dressed head to toe in artistic black. "I now feel comfortable with it. Getting back to my roots was a part of getting older and of wanting to create a haven where I could relax and entertain. But I still have other sides as well." (They include a $25-million-a-year business selling gowns to Neiman-Marcus and Saks shoppers, among others, and making form-flattering numbers for such luminaries as Queen Latifah and Condoleezza Rice.)

The house's dominant Asian elements make it unique, says Todd Erlandson, the Santa Monica architect who oversaw the renovation and Modernist addition, "especially in the time of the Case Study Houses." Case Study Houses were experimental, streamlined dwellings designed from 1945 to '62 in Los Angeles by Charles Eames and other prominent architects. During the height of the Modernist era, there was little room for homages to the past.

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