alancing style with practicality and comfort is an ongoing juggling act for design pros. Make an interior too splendid and a house risks becoming unlivable, more museum than residence. Veer too far in the other direction and it risks losing a distinctive point of view. For a home in the rolling hills of Shady Canyon, California, designer Denise Morrison carefully navigated that fine line. “They wanted something beautiful, but they also wanted it to be comfortable and not particularly fancy,” she says of her clients, a young family, adding, “They wanted all the rooms to be used, and they needed things that were functional.”
Fortunately for the clients, the house itself, by architect Cecil Carney and general contractor Jonathan Whitener, possessed the exact requirements that the clients had sought for nearly five years: The open main floor faced a yard; it had guest bedrooms near the master, and it was on a cul-de-sac. The pie-shaped site, notes Carney, necessitated a home linear in plan, which, he says, “allows for every major room to have a view of the yard and access to it.” In other areas, says Whitener, careful planning granted better use of common space, such as liberating the theater from its typical basement placement. “It sits on top of the garage and doesn’t disturb anyone,” he says.
It was up to Morrison to fulfill the clients’ needs for the interiors. The designer–whose work meshed with the owners’ penchant “for a soft, contemporary look and feel,” says the wife–first and foremost considered their active lifestyle, drawing from personal experience. “I’ve raised four boys,” she says. “Nothing can be too precious.” Secondly, the generously proportioned rooms with high ceilings required appropriately scaled pieces. “The furniture had to be chunky and have weight, or it would look silly,” Morrison points out. And, finally, to highlight the home’s stunning locale, she worked with natural textures to add subtle interest: linens, wool, wood, and leather.
To that end, she anchored the rooms with substantial furniture featuring bold, geometric lines, including some pieces from her own collection, House of Morrison. “They are what I think of as quintessentially California, things I think represent my own style,” she says of her designs. In the living area, for example, a deep, tailored sofa of hers faces a pair of equally distinctive chairs that are supported by a pair of square frames. Nearby, twin cabinets with painted and inlaid doors play off the shape of the triangular ottomans while a subtly patterned rug pulls it all together.
Weighty pieces continue throughout but are always tempered by softer materials, such as a trestle-base table with a rustic finish in the breakfast area that joins gray dining chairs with channel-stitched leather seats; a console inlaid with leather in the family room that backs onto another chunky sofa; and a trio of large-scale, patterned artworks made of plant fibers in the dining room. The minimalist platform bed in the master bedroom is dressed in luxurious Belgian linens and stands atop a contemporary rug in gray, taupe, ivory and blue–quieter iterations of the colors found elsewhere in the house.
The living room’s overall palette was actually driven by a painting Morrison selected to have above the fireplace. Created by South Carolina-based artist Dorothy Shain, the landscape depicts Southern California in lime, turquoise and paler shades. (“It’s her idea of Southern California,” says the designer. “Her interpretation of color is very different.”) The designer also considered the wife’s love of purple–and honored the husband’s request to use it sparingly. “We’ll add it tastefully,” she assured him. Morrison wove the hue in via accessories in the library, living area and master bathroom, where they deliver just the dynamic dose to invigorate the neutrals and blue that predominate.
While the architecture and furnishings read as contemporary, the house wouldn’t feel like a home without a sense of history, says Morrison. So she added touches of the old, like a fabulous Oushak rug, as well as layering in various objects. The open kitchen shelving, for instance, is accessorized with plants and the occasional leaning framed artwork. “Instead of making them just utilitarian, you can make them pretty, as well,” says the designer. It’s a principle she applied throughout the house: Everything is beautiful but nothing is untouchable. “All the pieces are comfortable,” says Morrison. “You could just melt into the sofas and chairs.” And for a young family, that was exactly the intent.
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