Trying to Think

Photo by Tenaya HillsIt's hard to get ideas from Sunset magazine's first-ever Orange County Idea House, with all that bright new paint, river rock and PVC clapboard siding poking you in the eye. The significance of what you've just seen doesn't strike until you're trundled away on the shuttle; it may not even sink in later. Which is fine; this is a shiny, happy house for shiny, happy people. And that's fine. It's a nice house.

But somewhere around the time you pass the craft room, with its open layout, blond wood accents and gaping storage zones, it should hit you: this isn't the architectural statement of an Orange County Museum of Art tour house. It isn't even the primped-out poshness of a Philharmonic Society fund-raiser mansion. Once you get past Sunset's curt nod to Craftsman masters Greene and Greene, this could just as well be your house—with a basement, several thousand dollars worth of audio and video equipment, no pet dander, and quiet.

You may get ideas here, but they'll be all but memories—thoughts that crossed your mind after reading Dwell: “We could build a teahouse in the back yard.”Or Sunset: “I like chicken.” Or in the aisle of Home Expo: “Furry rugs feel good.” This is no House of Tomorrow—12-sided, mostly glass, built in 1933 for the Chicago World's Fair—with a first-floor garage/airplane hangar. It isn't even Disneyland's sturdy 1957 orb-like Monsanto House of the Future—mostly plastic, which seemed to float off the ground on a pylon.

Almost everything here you've seen before somewhere, from the seeded glass doors in the kitchen to the oculus in the library room. And that's bad; it's a kind of design death. It means that for all of design's rock-star popularity, most home designers aren't taking risks. Or else we're not seeing them here. What we are seeing is already reflected in our homes. And like this one, they aren't design laboratories now, and maybe they never were. What they are is retreats, and we are retreating to them.

Just as you would with the Idea House, which is in an ideal escape: atop a hill in the gated community of Covenant Hills, the sixth and last of Ladera Ranch's villages.

It's comfortable above all: 7,500 square feet of relaxed “California style” living in large, open rooms. Furniture is big, but not huge, from places like Nautica and Tommy Bahama. Conveniences are many: computerized central air; durable curtains and throw pillows in non-fade Sunbrella fabrics (actually, a great idea); ample storage space; and a homework room that's not unlike a very large closet off the living room. With DSL. Parents, our guide says, aren't sending kids away to do homework anymore. They can do it right here; there's enough room, and French-style doors you can close if they accidentally kick up the volume on Counter-Strike while researching that report on troop casualties in modern warfare.

From the round driveway—which means you never have to fish for reverse again—this house was designed to resemble a Craftsman on steroids. With much fanfare, it recycles key Craftsman elements like exposed eaves and stylish attic vents, hardwood floors, built-in cabinetry and interior moldings with a rethought floor plan and modern technology.

The kitchen is where the technology lives: with a coordinated cook, this stove could feed a platoon. The refrigerator is cloaked behind cabinet doors that match their brethren. And two drawer-style dishwashers, stacked, ensure your dishes will never spend a single night in any cabinet—instead ping-ponging back and forth, drawer to drawer, dirty to clean. To dirty.

This house goes the extra mile so you don't have to. Punch the keypad before you even set down your purse, the groceries, the car seat and your 2-year-old, and it will automatically run you a hot bath upstairs. Best of all, it's made from environmentally conscious materials: no baby harp seal rug, no real hardwood floors, and no mahogany or oaken moldings.

“Everything here is MDF. You really can't tell,” our guide said brightly, gesturing at a sunny white-and-yellow wall (color palettes are updated too). Made of sawdust and glue, neither of which is threatened, MDF is the son of what they called “particleboard” in the '70s. And you really can't tell. Built-ins look rare and prosperous; floors look strong and stern the way hardwood should; moldings speed your eye over vast rooms; and it all makes you happy knowing you've got the look for less—and without destroying a forest somewhere. It goes on like this: home theater, game room designed beautifully by Quiksilver—with framed surf memorabilia, a Polynesian-style wet bar and vintage rubber boat bumpers shaped like mermaids on the walls—in a basement, which frankly we could all use.

This whole place is useful; the only way to make it more so would be to build it of hardened Vegemite, or another edible substance, so that unused rooms could be served up in hard times. (Sadly, this would not be to code.) But it's not inspirational, just mildly provoking, like the sorta-cool couple up the street—the ones with the ski boat and the bulldog—who have the skylight in their bathroom and the time-share in Maui. There are no flights of fancy here; only a grim, green nostalgia with all the bells and whistles. Which, culturally, is pretty much where we're at.


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