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Luxurious minimalism meets a California home that could be carved from stone

In southern California, Noa Santos, founder of architecture and design studio NAINOA, and his team have completed a project that we might describe as the apotheosis of architecture

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By Piet Smedy | April 5, 2022 | Architecture

In southern California, Noa Santos, founder of architecture and design studio NAINOA, and his team have completed a project that, if we were the sort of publication that traded in sweeping, grandiose statements, we might describe as ‘the apotheosis of architecture’. Looking at those cathedral-like volumes, the raw, textured materials, you can almost feel just by looking at them, the luxurious minimalism – all design plays that are nothing short of divinely inspired.

‘I think you mentioned there is this kind of monastic quality to the house itself, where the focus is very much on these singular, larger volumes,’ says Noa, connecting with me from New York over Zoom. ‘It gives, I think, the person living in the home a kind of calming feeling because those simple volumes are not just easy on the eye, but they are easy to navigate.’

In a word, ‘easy’ feels like just the right one for this home; it is not demanding anything from you but rather facilitates a kind of trouble-free state of being. Part of this is undoubtedly Noa’s brand of luxe minimalism that has been deftly applied to every touchpoint of this project, from the aforementioned volumes and how they interconnect to the materials and textures and the dialogue between the build, furniture, and fixtures.

Photography courtesy of Nainoa

‘I think people associate minimalism with the absence of everything, but I think our definition is more of a contemporary take. For us, it is about making grand statements, but just fewer of them and using materials to connect to the humanity of the space,’ says Noa. For him, there is a fine line between a spartan gallery space and a home space that has warmth and establishes a personal link between the environment and the person living in it.

The materiality of the spaces – that is, the natural materials used throughout – is something Noa keeps coming back to, and for good reason. ‘We typically pick what we call the holy trinity of materials that ground the entire project,’ he explains. In this home, that would be the oak, travertine and stone, which are then carried into every room, both in terms of the architecture and the interior design. ‘Much of the materials we use are either intrinsically highly textured, so the right light fixture going to light that material the right way and make a huge difference to its depth.’ And if a material is not naturally textured, the team work to add it, ergo the profusion of ribbing and fluting, which again works to add that additional layer of interest and depth.

Photography courtesy of Nainoa

This holistic simplicity is also present in the home’s generous 1 500-square-metre floor plan, with spaces revealing themselves along three arms that run off of a central foyer. The first houses the communal spaces – living, dining and kitchen areas, and functions, ostensibly, as the family wing – the second is the guest wing – with bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as rooms for the children – and finally, the third holds the master bed and bath. Interestingly, as you move through the home, the ceiling heights shift quite dramatically, depending on which room you are in. In public spaces, such as the grand hall, the walls can reach over 7.5 metres in height and, conversely, shrink down to create cocooning private spaces in the bedrooms. Similarly, capacious spaces are grounded through the double-volume window treatments, which not only open up to the view but allow in air and light, the latter which could even be considered the fourth material in the house’s holy trinity, given the amount of shadowplay that is employed as a kind of dappled decor effect on the walls. ‘It is a big house, no doubt, but for the clients, family is a big part of it for them, and they want the houses to evolve as their family evolves,’ says Noa.

Photography courtesy of Nainoa

As such, despite its outward appearance, there is nothing precious about this home – right down to the cream upholstery. ‘When we meet clients with kids, they will often talk about it as if this requires some kind of sacrifice in terms of design, you know, like they cannot have a certain fabric or finish,’ says Noa. ‘But designing for a growing family is a great “constraint”, as it elicits really interesting conversations around lifestyle. With smart storage and performance materials, everything is possible.’

Digging deeper is a big part of Noa’s design approach. It is how he comes to not only understand his clients’ needs but also how the architecture and interiors can be engineered to make these a daily reality. He references the kitchen as a prime example of this process: ‘Many people say, “I want to focus on the kitchen, as it is the primary space”, and that is not a novel concept in the home. We want to know what utilitarian purpose it serves, how it brings you joy and how the design can augment that.’ In this particular case, the homeowner wanted a spa-like kitchen, one where cooking was more of a meditative activity rather than a gruelling chore, and the light-filled, airy space, with appliances hidden from view, was designed as such.

Photography courtesy of Nainoa

With Noa, nothing is ever done for the sake of being done – there are strata to his creativity, layers of influence and points of reference, tightly packed to form the rock-solid aesthetic that he creates on every project and, particularly, on this one. ‘I think probably the most standout quality about the home is the juxtaposition between the heaviness of the space – I feel monastic really is the right word for it – and the lightness of it, which we achieved by carving these volumes into the thick walls and by hiking the ceilings,’ he says. ‘Because it is easy to make a glass house feel light, but here we have achieved the same thing, but with stone.’

Photography courtesy of Nainoa