Cliff May

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Built in 1949 as an experiment in modern living and blurred over time, an Oscar-winning cinematographer’s ranch house in LA has been brought into pin-sharp focus.  By Lucie Young

‘I haven’t been home for six weeks’, explains the cinematographer Bob Richardson, who has won Oscars for The Aviator and  JFK. He’s just come back from working on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Scorcese’s Shutter Island. ‘During a movie, you lose all ability to focus on your own interests. Your life is in service. After that you just want to disappear, switch off the phone and sleep and watch movies for a month.’ Richardson’s recovery room is his dark ‘womb-like’ bedroom, lined with American black walnut panelling and shielded by black out blinds, which allow him to sleep all day if necessary. When he is not in this self-imposed hibernation, however, what he enjoys most about his 1940s ranch house, is the quality of the light.

Richardson’s home is in the middle of Sullivan Canyon, a sleepy spot next to the Will Rogers State Park in Los Angeles. Driving up the dusty road to his house is like driving into a 1950s film set. There are corrals of horses to the left and right and the few houses along the road are homey looking ranch houses, low slung with gable roofs and abundant bougainvillea, oaks and sycamores growing out front. The area was owned and developed in the 1940s and 50s by Cliff May, one of California’s most successful architects. During his 50-year career, he built over 1,000 houses in California including homes for Shirley Maclaine and for Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli. May’s designs were also the basis for over 18,000 housing estate homes in the Western United States.

The architect’s speciality was the ranch house; a one story design with a warm romantic feel due largely to folksy touches like hand-carved Mexican doors, gabled roofs, and a strong connection to the outdoors. Before he died in 1989, May was quoted as saying that his goal was to ‘try to make it so that the outside flows into the inside, to carry the landscape through the house.’ But the eccentric May – self taught and often dressed like a cowboy – was also passionate about modern technology, and his homes were full of innovations. He installed the first domestic walk-in freezer, an early form of under floor heating, bidets and the first mixer taps.

Richardson’s house was built in 1949 as one of May’s own homes. May called it the Experimental House, and it was a test lab for some of his more outlandish ideas. The house featured 25 movable interior walls, each poised on concealed rubber wheels, so the space could be reconfigured on a whim. The central skylight had two glass panes that slid back at the touch of a button exposing a large part of the interior to the elements. Nylon sunshades that were operated by pulleys helped screen the interior from the intense sunlight.

When Richardson bought the house in 2004, he says it was ‘a bit like a college dorm’. The previous owner had permanently moored some of the rolling walls to create two bedrooms and a large living space, but the internal acoustics were a nightmare because the walls reach didn’t the ceiling. Richardson, who initially shared the space with his girlfriend and new baby daughter (he now lives alone) recalls. ‘You could be standing in the kitchen and hear what was going on in the bathroom’. Other irritations were that the skylight allowed in too much heat in summer and made the place cold in winter and the kitchen was just a narrow galley.

After two years of discomfort, Richardson called in Marmol Radziner and Associates, the Californian architectual firm which is renowned for its renovations of mid century masterpieces by Neutra, Lautner, Schindler and Frey. Ron Radziner was pleasantly surprised to be working on his first Cliff May project. ‘Until recently Cliff May houses were considered old fashioned and people thought he was less important than Neutra and Eames,’ he says. ‘But when you look at May’s houses, they are very modern in character and also very warm and they have a wonderful organic connection to the outside’. Since doing Richardson’s home, Radziner has been asked to work on three other May interiors.

Radziner’s first move was to open up the living, dining and kitchen areas into one big room. Overhead is the 23 x 10 ft skylight, which seems to extend the room up into the tree canopy above and brings a magical play of light and shadow into the space. ‘You are always trying to mould light in my work’ Richardson explains. ‘And what impressed me most with this house is that it is a little jewel box, filled with an incredible amount of light’. Even after dark, the myriad lights on the beams above give the impression of a constellation at night. The glass in the skylight was replaced with a high-tech insulated tempered glass with ultra violet filtering. Daylight still floods in, but the space is less like a greenhouse than it was before; cross ventilation from all the windows and doors ensure a gentle cooling breeze in summer. At the back of the house Radziner finessed the interiors, lining the master bedroom with walnut paneling and creating a larger second bedroom with foldaway Murphy beds for Richardson’s two older daughters when they visit.

According to Richardon, the subtle genius of Marmol Radziner’s design is that ‘they took all the lines in the house and sharpened them and streamlined the space.’ They also made the house seem more than ever a part of the landscape, building three additional terraces. ‘I am outside a lot when I am here,’ Richardson says, walking up the hill to pick tiny clementines overhanging one of the top terraces. Before arriving in Sullivan Canyon, he had a vast 11,000 sq ft house with 18 acres and a riding ring, but found it to be too much upkeep. Nowadays, when Richardson is not recovering in his bedroom, he is outside swinging in the hammock in the front yard. ‘There used to be a little corral out here’, he says pointing at a tree. Today, there is only the occasional sound of hooves coming slowly up the street.

© 2010



Home Truths

My house was designed by Cliff May. I had some familiarity with his work before I moved in, but certainly not to my current level.

The best thing about my home is the simplicity of line and unadorned elegance of the living space

The biggest investment was working with Marmol Radziner and Associates.

My favourite room is the bedroom for its cave-like atmosphere. The wood finishes provide warmth and a deeply meditative atmosphere

My favourite designer is Levi Strauss.

If I could pass on one interiors tip it would be listen to the heart.



© 2010