Prepare to be appalled," a real estate agent told Steve Eilenberg before they entered a striking blufftop house designed by Wallace Cunningham in Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
Aperture House—named for its eight spiraling triangular roof planes that appear to open like a camera lens—is a pavilion of two white wings built into a hillside. On its perch above San Elijo Lagoon and the Pacific, the ten-year-old house had attracted a lot of attention but no offers during the year it was on the market. The visionary Cunningham meant for this unique place to make spirits soar, but after alterations by several misguided owners, it had fallen far from grace.
Vertical blinds choked all the windows, including the slim, triangular clerestory slots that separate the roof segments. Chunks of marble smothered the original wood floor, while mirrored tiles made entire walls shriek. Crown molding—a capital sin among modernists—was slapped over drywall.
Being radiologists, photographers, and art collectors, Eilenberg and his wife, Marie Tartar, could see past the cosmetic disaster to the distinguished "bones," and they rescued the house in 1997. "We filled twelve dumpsters … and replaced nearly every surface, including the metal roof," Tartar recalls.
Now, guests announce their arrival by ringing two huge Paolo Soleri bells that hang from towering bamboo. They enter onto a long white balcony that overlooks the living areas, which are filled with abstract and geometric art, a monumental Art Deco console table, and Mid-Century Modern classics. Noguchi paper lamps, an Eames lounge chair and ottoman, a Saarinen Womb Chair, a Hans Wegner dining table, and eight of his Wishbone Chairs are at home in this airy, gallery-like setting.
A huge composition of colorful glass medallions by Higgins Glass Studio hangs on a prominent wall. It alone can tolerate the western sun that floods the house despite the tinted glass. The Higgins commission, other artworks, pottery, and important furnishings came from David Skelley of Boomerang for Modern.
Very few rooms in the 3,500-square-foot house are rectangular. Instead, curved and angled walls and ceilings create sculptural spaces on 11 levels. Pirouetting ceilings peak at 28 feet in the main living area and 36 feet at the highest point: a meditation room.
"This house is so much like origami," Tartar says. "It’s a little bit of a mind twister to figure out how it was designed."
Cunningham says the triangular site spoke to him. "This is the house where I realized that there was an incredible power in shape."
The couple also hired Fu-Tung Cheng of Berkeley to remodel the kitchen, using his signature concrete countertops embedded with small surprises, from ancient ammonite fossils to computer parts. He added a "moon window," opening the kitchen to the living/dining area.
Eilenberg, who is also an artist and welder, has a knack for transforming industrial or scientific found objects into art. This aesthetic and his and Tartar’s shared interest in science and radiology expressed in their art collection combine to complement Aperture House. Indeed, their vision brings its sprawling wings and spiraling levels into sharp focus.