Revival of the Fittest
For Madeleine Brand and Joe DeMarie, life is cozy in a Modernist masterpiece
STORY BY // Roberta Cruger
PHOTOGRAPHS BY // Melissa Valladares
When writer-producer Joe DeMarie and public radio host Madeleine Brand returned to Brand's native Los Angeles with their first child in 2004, the couple wanted to find a house with an urban feel to it. Their goal was to embrace a California-style indoor-outdoor life while still continuing what Brand calls the “neighborly way of living” they'd grown fond of during a two-year stint in Brooklyn. After an exhaustive search they found the Bubeshko Apartments in Silver Lake, built in 1938 by the iconic Modernist architect Rudolph Schindler and considered among his most important works. Luby Bubeshko had owned and lived in the building for 66 years, occupying one of its six apartments. The couple decided to use a pair of the apartments as a two-story unit and rent the others after DeMarie completed a renovation.
From the street, distinctive ram's head sculptures on the front balcony walls-made by the renowned sculptor Gordon Newell-set the stucco structure apart. In the back, however, Brand and DeMarie found that a tangle of cyclone fence, a giant work shed and overgrown elephant jade plants filled the yard. They called in landscape designer and horticulturist Thaya DuBois, who transformed the space with native plants, succulents, cacti, drought-tolerant grasses and replanted century plants, for a wild, natural look-not a manicured garden. The terraces spread open behind the homes with vantage points for mountain views, room for a badminton court and bamboo “walls” for privacy.
“Thaya created ‘rooms' that echo Schindler's vision of a seamless transition between the indoors and outdoors-which the weather allows here,” Brand says, adding, “the patio feels like another room in the house.”
Brand also points out “surprises” in the garden: A kid-size bamboo grove forms a “green curtain of nature” where their nine-year-old son plays with the neighbors' boy. “And at night it's magical when it's lit by garden lights for our parties,” DeMarie says.
Inside the open plan living/dining room, light rushes in from floor-to-ceiling windows. Schindler's sliding glass doors, like Japanese Shoji screens, foreshadowed trends of the 1950s and ‘60s by decades. The wood-paneled ceiling extends beyond the door with beams that draw you outside and add volume to the compact house. Other signature Schindler design details include built-in furniture, shelving and cabinetry to extend a sense of space, indirect and direct light panels, and wide-grain quality plywood-beautiful but affordable at the time for Schindler's bohemian, reasonably well-off but not uber-rich clients.
A Danish modern table that belonged to Brand's mom fits among the mid-century furnishings, well-suited to the Modernist space. Interior walls of Douglas fir paneling are stained in interlocking hues, which Joe painstakingly matched to the original design, trying different waxes and finishes. He rubbed the walls with acetone through layers of paint. “We saw the history of each room, from the 1990s to the ‘70s, until we reached the original colors,” he says. “The neutral palette of greens and light yellows is intended to mimic nature,” Brand explains.
A frequent baker, Brand enjoys working in the kitchen while chatting with Zoe, 11, and Nicky, 9, as they hunker down in the kid-friendly built-in benches. Transforming a galley-style kitchen into an L-shaped room, Joe punched out a wall to the former pantry and utility room to make more space for the appliances. The laundry then moved downstairs near the bedrooms. A sky blue recycled countertop matches the original light blue ceramic tiles around the sink. Meticulous about replicating Schindler's work, DeMarie built a corner cabinet in the same simple, yet clever design.
“It was a story of the brains and the brawn,” DeMarie recalls of his year-long effort to renovate the buildings and honor Schindler's original design. “I've got the scars to show for it.” Though structurally sound, years of rent¬als and odd upgrading had to be addressed. As the contractor, he hired as architects Brand's cousin, Chava Danielson, and Eric Haas, her husband/partner with the firm DSH. Their efforts won the L.A. Conservancy Award for Preservation and got the building registered as a landmark.
Living within a work of art has its drawbacks. “I'm reminded when I attempt to hang a picture on the wall,” Brand says with a laugh, “Joe warns me, ‘Don't touch the wood!'” One painting, suitably on wood, made it onto the paneling. “We don't want to be precious,” DeMarie says. “It's our home-not a museum. There are dings in the shelves and the walls aren't institutional white.”
On the first floor off the living room, the couple shares an office with small corner desks that Joe crafted in a Schindler-inspired design. With limited storage in built-in cupboards and closets, the layout suits their less-is-more lifestyle. “This home isn't a good choice for a Costco shopper,” Brand says. “As a journalist, I've moved a lot and had to shed my skin a few times. I donate our used books to the library. It shows how little we really need.”
DeMarie speaks with awe about the innova¬tive architect's aesthetic. “As a sculptor, it's as if Schindler excavated the building out of the hillside and carved out the interior space.” On the terraced façade, scarlet trumpet vines drape down a wall from a planter, one of Schindler's original plans that had never been realized, but that Brand and DeMarie brought to life. Another dream includes the architect's vision for a third building on the adjacent lot, which they hope to build in the future from Schindler's blueprints and plans, entrusted to them by Luby Bubeshko.
Even after living in the space for several years, Joe says, he sometimes feels startled when he looks around. “Sometimes I just stand here and pinch myself,” he says.