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John Melfi's daring house

Architect Steven Shortridge wanted to experiment with a narrow Venice lot, and film producer Melfi was game. The result: seven levels of rooms that zigzag through a tall, slender box, leaving the interior remarkably open and affording an unexpected sense of spaciousness.

March 14, 2009|David Hay

When John Melfi, the New York producer of "Sex in the City," "Rome" and the upcoming Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," decided to become a true Angeleno, he asked Steven Shortridge to build a house for him here. The Culver City architect, however, was a little apprehensive. The daring design he had in mind was for a narrow lot in Venice where he proposed jettisoning the traditional town house layout of small rooms stacked three stories high. Shortridge wanted to experiment instead with seven levels of rooms that zigzagged through a tall, slender box, leaving the interior remarkably open and affording an unexpected sense of spaciousness.

Melfi looked over the plans, and once he got over misgivings about Venice -- the producer worried it was too far a drive to business in Hollywood -- he signed on. Now, when you enter Melfi's home, you have to applaud his instincts. With its high ceilings and tall windows, an ocean breeze gently blowing through, his house feels expansive, even grand. It's hardly what you'd expect on a lot that measures 80 by 30 feet.

Beyond the feeling of spaciousness, the 2,220-square-foot house is the epitome of easy living.

"I can't wait to drive home -- it's this wonderful retreat," Melfi said. "I literally exhale the moment I step inside."

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Even though his first job in Los Angeles was working for the late, flamboyant Frank Israel, Shortridge (now a principal of the firm Callas Shortridge Architects) is known for the disciplined precision of his designs. Working out the intricate placement of levels in the new house appealed to him.

He often would step out from his own home on an adjacent lot and walk 20 yards to examine the spot where Melfi's house would rise. The design started in an obvious place for a Los Angeles architect: the garage. He placed it at the rear of the property, and set the living room on top. Above that were an office and a guest bedroom.

On the front part of the lot, toward the street, he designed an equally tall box. To contrast with the coziness of the rooms in back, Shortridge wanted the front of the house to be airy and open. He pulled the house back from the street, creating a walled-in courtyard with outdoor teak sofas and a built-in barbecue. The backdrop for a fire pit is a 6-foot rusting steel plate. "I used it to give a sense of containment to this end of the house," the architect said.

One other gesture proved key: Shortridge elevated the courtyard. From an alley on the side of the house, a gate opens to steps leading up to the courtyard, now level with the kitchen. When glass doors slide back into the pocket wall, the boundary between inside and outside disappears.

The raised courtyard allowed Shortridge to reduce the number of stairs needed to get from the kitchen to the dining area at the center of the house, as well as the living room at the rear. The rooms feel like distinct spaces, but from the front barbecue you can still see all the way to the gracious living room in back.

Sitting in that living room, you are at a pivot in the zigzag: While one set of steps leads down to the dining area and kitchen, another set invites you up the sumptuous master bedroom.

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If all this sounds like a jigsaw puzzle, that's because it is. Trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shortridge talks of architectural "moves" and "masses" as though this were everyday language. Some of these moves seem obvious. An exposed steel beam, painted red-orange, stands between the kitchen and dining room. For Shortridge, it's all about alignment, marking an invisible line that runs through the middle of the house, from the fireplace in the living room to the center of the fire pit out front. Similarly, an 8-foot-wide blue accent wall rises up the northern side of the house, starting in the kitchen and continuing up through the bedroom level to a skylight in the roof.

Melfi wanted to soften some of these kinds of architectural statements, balancing adventurous design with sophisticated finishes that felt more personal and comfortable.

"I wanted to take it from its raw state and make it more adult, add more gravitas," he said.

Melfi's wish list added nearly 18 months to the construction schedule and resulted in a level of luxury that would have been missing had Shortridge sold his architectural experiment purely as a spec house. The producer wanted the glass doors that open to the front courtyard to run all the way from the floor to the ceiling. ("In contrast to my life in New York, this house is now constantly in light," he said.)

Melfi also wanted the second bedroom and adjacent bathroom to function as a guest suite, so he asked Shortridge to add a pocket door just beyond both rooms. "I thought it should be like a hotel," Melfi said, "where guests can disappear entirely."

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