By Anthony Paletta
The celebrated Japanese architects Atelier Bow-Wow have only designed one home in the US. The firm, headed by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, is known in Japan for its inventive approach to domestic urban architecture, creating homes that make the most of restrictive plots. This three-bedroom house, built in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains for Mike Mills, the director of Thumbsucker, Beginners and 20th Century Women, therefore represented something of a departure for the practice when it was completed in 2008. It is now on the market for $3.3mn.
Mills was introduced to Tsukamoto and Kaijima through a mutual friend and was impressed by their “small, intricate and really innovative Tokyo homes”. The architects revel in working on narrow and irregular sites and their work typically breaks down room divisions, uses unconventional materials, and mixes a range of influences in harmonious ways. “There’s something about each of the homes that's a little mind-blowing.”
Mills might not have been short of space on this 60-acre property, a rural plot in California that was used for gold mining, but he wanted to preserve as much of the site as possible by creating a compact, environmentally conscious home.
The design evolved repeatedly, starting out with a triangular plan and settling gradually into its current form. “It's truly trippy, you kind of can’t figure out what the shape is,” Mills says. One aspect of the home resembles an old Western facade, the sort you might find on a general store or saloon; other elevations have far less conventional geometries. Sliding slatted doors resemble Japanese shoji doors and the house is topped by a slanting-then-flat roof which creates a full upper-storey loggia. It is a highly usable space — Mills says that guests will often stay in hammocks on this floor — as well as being functional in shielding the house from direct sun.
The house’s form was informed by a variety of site-specific factors. The main living room is lined by large windows looking north and south to maximise light — Mills cites Mexican architect Luis Barragán as an inspiration. Another angle was more scenographic; directing the house towards a view of a six-foot-high boulder. “We pointed the main hallway towards the rock. That shifted the geometry of the house, giving it this weird shape.”
Bow-Wow’s attention to the stylish and efficient use of space is evident inside where elements from the kitchen to the daybed are easily tucked away — Le Corbusier’s cabin designs were an influence. “They’re good at maximising every little aspect, saying: ‘If you have the daybed there, then you have this hallway with a bedroom and you can put bunk beds there’, Mills says.”
Mills wanted a simple material palette; interior walls are uniformly Homasote, a fibre wall board made from recycled paper, woods are local pine and cedar, exterior walls and floors are concrete. There are accents: galvanised metal baseboards provide, Mills says, a “reflective ping that contrasts with all of the matte surfaces.” There is also variety in the home’s large amount of recycled and local material; antique room doors, sinks and tubs shake up the aesthetic.
For Mills, the house has proven a boon for creativity. “You really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere; there’s this creative intensity.” He wrote most of his Oscar-nominated screenplay for 20th Century Women here and it was where his wife, Miranda July, wrote a large part of her novel The First Bad Man. ”I’ve done a lot of writing and hanging out with different collaborators there. [Musician] Feist has spent a lot of time there. It’s like a little writing retreat.”
“This was a project of love for many years,” he continues. “It’s as important as many of my films to me and the realisation of a dream, but what is equally meaningful to me is the property [itself]. It’s an old gold mine, there are creeks and rivers, there’s amazing trees. That’s what the house is all about — somewhere you can just be and sleep and go on a hike three times a day.”
Photography: Eric Lavey of Sotheby’s International Realty