Portnoy's Restraint

Originally published in California Home and Design, July/August 2010. By Joanne Furio. Photographs by Jim Bastardo.

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Like many natives of the East Coast, Sharon Portnoy had fantasies about California living based on images of postwar homes by the likes of Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and Gregory Ain. With their simple geometric forms and sliding doors offering indoor-outdoor living, such houses represented the epitome of life in California—a palm-lined paradise where the sun was always shining because, of course, it never rained. “Granted, that is more of an L.A. aesthetic,” says Portnoy. “But to me, that was California.”

A native of Baltimore and a Yale-trained architect, Portnoy and her husband, Mark Danzig, had lived in New York City before his work brought them and their two sons to Marin County 10 years ago. Until recently they were living in an unremarkable Mill Valley home that had grown too small—Sharon was just returning to work after raising two young boys, Leo, now 12, and Benjamin, 10, and needed a home office. When the opportunity arose to purchasea neighboring property and tear down the existing 1920s bungalow and build anew, there was no doubt in Portnoy’s mind about what the new house should look like: “I wanted to embrace that romantic ideal of California with indoor-outdoor living in one continuous space,” she says. “I wasn’t going to build the kind of house you could find back East.”

The problem with any fantasy is that it is not reality. Unlike Los Angeles, Mill Valley has a climate with many days bracketed by fog, and the area’s hillsides—prized for their picturesque panoramas of the Bay and nearby Mt. Tamalpais—would challenge any architectural endeavor based on the horizontal. “This house was an attempt to solve the conflict between the house I wanted and the land I had,” says Portnoy, who designed her way out of the dilemma by employing the Renaissance concept of the piano nobile, or “noble floor.”

“The idea is that all of the service functions of the household happen at the ground level,” she explains. “So you leave all that quotidian stuff down below, and then go up to this elevated place where there are views of the landscape and where the real family living takes place.”

Despite the topographical constraints of the half-acre lot, which was steeply sloped and wider than it was deep,Portnoy built a long, 3,000-square-foot home that spills to the outdoors. The garage, rec room, laundry room and Portnoy’s office occupy the entrance level, while the kitchen, living room and dining area are one floor up, and three bedrooms are on a third level. Once the logistics of the design were in place, Portnoy played with some of the hallmarks of postwar design, including a flat roof, ribbon windows and cutaway walls, all while keeping an eye on the bottom line. “Everything in this house was done with value in mind,” says
Portnoy, who has an uncanny ability to know when to splurge and when to scrimp. Many of her finds, such as the KWC fixtures in the kitchen and Hansgrohe fixtures in the bathroom,were found while comparison shopping online.

Portnoy had originally envisioned Douglas fir for the exterior, but instead chose inexpensive painted pine. The deep khaki shade of paint was brightened up with Mondrian-like blocks of color, a modernist detail she admired on the exterior of the Eames House in Pacific Palisades. “I love color,” Portnoy explains. “And I am all about paint, because paint is cheap and you can change it easily.” Inside, more splashes of color—orange on the inside of cabinets, one wall of teal and one of orange in each of the boy’s rooms—enliven the otherwise all-white interiors.

Another point of departure from the typical midcentury house—where kitchens were modest compared to today’s standards—is the expansive 18-by-24-foot kitchen, which contains the majority of the home’s bespoke details. The custom cabinets and island are crafted from rift-sawn white oak and topped with white CaesarStone, while affordable white subway tile set vertically serves as a backsplash.

In the interest of consistency, Portnoy continued the rift-sawn oak cabinetry into the bathrooms. “The built-ins are really part of the architecture and should be consistent, especially in an open, relatively small house,” she says. “That is what really helps to unify the spaces.”

A modernist penchant for built-ins contributes to the super-sleek look Portnoy favors; there are only a few pieces of actual furniture. “I hate clutter,” she says. Instead of sofas, Portnoy lined two walls of the living room with banquettes with drawers added underneath for storing toys and games. The few freestanding pieces include an assortment of seminal modernist and contemporary furnishings accumulated during the couple’s days in New York: Frank Gehry’s Hat Trick chairs and their bentwood forerunners, Alvar Aalto stools in the kitchen, Le Corbusier’s cube chairs, an Eames leather lounger and Angela Adams rugs in the living room and den.

Decorative touches on the walls take the form of graphic art (Danzig works as a creative director), such as framed vintage travel posters and Coney Island postcards. Portnoy scored inexpensive yet design-worthy vases at Target and Ikea, one of her favorite haunts. An Ikea wall sculpture even holds the most coveted spot in the living room: over the hearth. “We talk about putting real art there, but this works so well,” Portnoy observes.

Portnoy’s idea of a casual California home translates to its upkeep as well. “This house is not low maintenance—it’s no maintenance,” she says. Drought-tolerant plants and a drip irrigation system comprise the gardens, the lawn is artificial turf that needs no water and the composite deck on the back of the house will never need painting.

Even though Portnoy has made her California fantasy come true, she is coming to terms with a reality she discovered after moving into the new house in the fall. “Supposedly you don’t need screens on windows or doors in Mill Valley,” she says, shooing away an errant fly. “That is a myth.”