An L.A. Story

The Beyer residence in Malibu is a masterpiece of modern architecture on the craggy shoreline of Los Angeles’ most glamorous beach town. It took eight years to complete, ran way over budget, and the architect was eventually fired. Nevertheless, the owner reportedly bragged about his John Lautner-built home, furnished by interior decorator, Michael Taylor, for many years after its completion. 

Taylor was first to be hired on the project. The San Francisco-based designer made a name for himself using elements drawn from nature: giant boulders, tree stumps, wicker, sun-bleached woods and ceiling-high houseplants indigenous to California. Nearly everything was in muted shades of white, including the over-sized sofas and geometric pillows he designed. Breaking up the casual backdrop was the occasional antique vase or rococo mirror collected on his travels to Europe and Asia. Never too many though; Taylor preferred the simplicity of an unfussy room.

His real legacy was creating light and airy spaces that invite the outdoors in – a style known as the “The California Look.”

It was the California Look that Stanley Beyer, the former head of Pennsylvania Life Insurance, and his wife Lee, wanted for their new oceanfront property. Situated on a secluded stretch of beach known as Lachuza Point, the site was surrounded by rock pool formations and unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean. The only thing missing was an architect to make their dream come true.

Taylor recommended John Lautner, a local architect who once apprenticed for Frank Lloyd Wright. Known for his ultra-modern structures that blend into the landscape, Lautner shared Taylor’s interest in “bringing the outside in.” Some of Southern California’s most famous midcentury houses were his designs, including the ‘Chemosphere’ in the Hollywood Hills and the futuristic bachelor pad in James Bond: Diamonds are Forever. 

The term “space age architecture” made Lautner cringe. He didn’t believe in having a signature style imposed on the land with no regard to its environment. Nature dictated his designs, not the other way around. Foreshadowing the sustainable building movement, Lautner and his new collaborator were on to something.

“We feel like his design makes our house part of the landscape,” remarked Mrs. Beyer, after bringing Lautner on to the project. The 12,000-square-foot, wave-like structure was oriented toward the ocean. A giant wall of glass framed the view. Its concrete exterior mirrored the contours of the tidal formations below. Lautner’s design was naturally suited to withstand coastal winds and required little maintenance.

Taylor and Lautner placed colossal granite boulders, weighing 3 to21 tons each,  all around the house. Moving them from the riverbed in Central California, where they were sourced ,took several months and was extremely expensive. Of the 125 they transported, only the best 20 made it in the house. Below them, a floor of poured concrete and polished slate glistened like the ripples of the ocean.

The strange irony is that delays in construction were the result of new environmental laws passed in 1976, one year after the project started. This landmark legislation served to protect and preserve California’s coastline. Overdevelopment was eroding the state’s beaches and putting natural resources at risk. The organic modernism espoused by Lautner and Taylor now seemed at odds with nature itself. 

“Bringing the outside in” was not either man’s original idea; it was actually Lautner’s mentor, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who popularized the concept. But that doesn’t matter in LA. Taylor and Lautner offered fresh, optimistic visions of design that celebrated California living. 

If there was a new, more natural way to live, this is the town where spending eight years and a million dollars would be considered worth it.