My Fair Modern

The house designed by architect Jean Fair is modern, marvelous and, in every detail, mindful. Slotted into a slope on a street-to-street lot on fashionable Belvedere Island, it offers views that are big and bold from its large windows and custom rolling glass doors. Nearly every room on both floors looks out onto the bay, with the dramatic sweep of the Golden Gate Bridge off to one side and the neatly gridded streets of San Francisco in the distance.

How can an interior compete with so compelling a view? Only when every corner turned reveals something just as interesting. To achieve that, Fair used a design concept that emphasizes scale and the repetition of materials, colors and shape.

“Everything [in the house] has a right or a 30-degree angle,” she points out. “There are no rounded edges at all and, whenever possible, I used horizontal rectangles or a rectangle in general.” And every line, whether structural or incorporated for design, is slender.

Extensive cantilevering, a construction technique that relies on hidden support rather than visible columns or poles, gives the roof eaves, stair treads, fireplace benches and upper deck the ethereal appearance of floating. “Someone once told me the house looks like it’s going to take off,” Fair says. [The cantilevering] “ makes the house feel that light.”

The floor plan is equally open. Only two walls enclose the living and dining rooms, kitchen and family room, all adjacent to each other. “I wanted even the rooms less utilized, like the dining room and living room, to be visually part of the house.”

Fair thinks of it all as borrowed space. “You’re aware of the volume,” she points out. “You don’t have to be sitting on the deck to feel like you’re enjoying the view. You can be in any part of the house and the view is available to you from almost anywhere.”

That’s helped in large part by a generous use of glass in the oversize windows, the uninterrupted deck railing and even the one-piece countertop in the powder room. The sense of volume is increased by the insistence on a seamless appearance.

Jeff Jungsten of Caletti Construction, the Mill Valley firm that built the house, praises Fair for her willingness to allow the contractors to use creativity within her “brilliant” design. He was also impressed with the seamless look she created for the walls. “That paneling assembly is one of the special features of the home,” he says. “It has no visible fasteners on the woodwork. It’s like a big puzzle with lots of interlocking pieces that looks like one panel with reveals.”

But then, he says, that’s only one surprise. “There is so much more to this house than what you see from the street. It unfolds even more as you go through it and out to the garden. It’s a really well-designed space.”

For some, the element of surprise comes from an unexpected sense of warmth, uncommon to a modern-style home, and the luxurious feeling of open and plentiful space.

Capitalizing on the volume involved turning down the visual clutter and hiding the mechanical underpinnings of day-to-day life. A wet bar is just a sleek countertop until a hidden sink is uncovered and a faucet unfolds from a wall cabinet. Books rest behind paneled cabinetry in the living room, office equipment and cables hide in office cabinets, blow-dryers reside in vanity drawers equipped with electrical outlets and even hampers are disguised as dressing room chairs. “Everything is customized to conceal,” Fair says. “I’m not fond of looking at appliances. In the
kitchen, the refrigerator is integral to the cabinets and so is the dishwasher. I don’t want to see buttons or controls.” She also hid the freezer, coffee unit, recycling center and trash compactor.

Fair drew upon the view for her color palette: “San Francisco Bay offers a range of colors that I tried to utilize. They are constantly changing depending on the time or day. It can be violet one moment and rosy the next.”

For the infinity-edge pool, she chose a cool topaz blue tone that closely mirrors the water of the bay. She selected a gray-green slate for the house’s roof in order to complement the surrounding trees and chose copper gutters and downspouts and a fawn-colored stucco to mimic the color of bark.

Inside, she relied again on natural materials in natural tones. A rich quarter-sawn American cherry trimmed in zinc was used for flooring; plain maple and quarter-sawn maple, finished in a fruitwood stain, were picked for the paneling and cabinetry.

The same South Bay quartz of the outdoor walkways, walls and planters was brought in to build the fireplaces in both family rooms. Crafted in an ashlar pattern of random squares and rectangles, they were finished in dragged mortar style to resemble dry-stacking.

Fair continued the inside-outside theme with twin galleries, a terrazzo stone floor and an alder soffit. They run the length of either side of the kitchen, dining and upstairs family room and extend beyond the borders of the house. On the bay side, the terrazzo-and-alder combination extends past the glass doors and windows to form the upper deck and accentuates Fair’s “borrowed” view.

Jungsten is pleased by how well the deck turned out. “That’s a big no-no for contractors,” he says. “It’s hard to waterproof the terrazzo, especially with that exposure, and it was challenging to create a flush look and still have a drainage plane. There’s a complicated assembly underneath that terrazzo, but it worked and it’s beautiful.”

For furnishings, Fair chose some designer pieces, an Eames table, a Barcelona chair and Z chairs, but for the most part she designed the furnishings to the exact scale and shape she envisioned.

Two staircases lead to the private quarters, which consist of a pair of bedrooms and adjoining baths, family and media rooms, an office and master suite. For privacy and minimal disturbance, the master bedroom was designed to be separate from the bath, dressing room and access-ways.

From this floor, as from above, there is a view onto the gardens, which are soft and lush in contrast with the strict lines of the house. A terraced garden winds down the hill with swaths of lawn and borders of hydrangeas, roses and rhododendrons. A moon garden of white-flowering plants is in front and an intimate garden lies just outside the office.

It’s no simple achievement to create a home and garden that contrast so sharply but complement each other so well. Neither is it easy to build a house that plays with the view but can also stand on its own. For Fair, it was all a matter of paying attention. “For good design, you have to be mindful with every decision,” she says. “It makes a big difference when [you’re] thinking through things.”