Preserving Color, Restoring Balance

Home designer Andreas Larsson recently restored architect Jean Killion’s personal residence in Pasadena. In conversation with our co-founder Jack Byron, Larsson describes the ethos of his design firm, HabHouse, and illustrates his process of restoring a historic home.

Interview by Jack Byron and Stephanie Manaster
Photography by Johan Hesselgren and Cameron Carothers

Andreas Larsson, photographed by Johan Hesselgren

You have a diverse professional background - you trained as a carpenter, then moved to photography, and now you restore mid-century houses. Could you tell us a bit about that journey?

I grew up in a small town in Europe. My parents didn’t come from a creative background - we didn't have the access to museums, or the understanding that you can make a living in a creative field. So, to them, getting a real job would mean becoming an engineer like all my friends. I started going to carpentry school because I think I wanted to be creative in some way, and that's what was available.

So I studied as a carpenter and worked as a carpenter for a while, and realized pretty quickly that I needed more. I quit and took a year off, traveled to the United States, and came in contact with a family that was involved in the photography industry. I was young at the time; twenty years old. I went back home and started applying to art school, and I realized that I wanted to take pictures. I wanted to create something, and to be creative.

After I moved to Los Angeles, I asked my father-in-law if he would be interested in diving into a flip. We bought a modest house in Highland Park and we basically worked on it ourselves. In that process I realized that all these tools I’ve collected along the journey - the creativeness that photography brought me, the carpentry skill and knowledge - all these tools to work with as a creative person apply to a lot of different things, and I really fell in love with the process. Obviously I'm not a trained architect or designer, but in photography you use a sense of space and light and composition, and you re-use them when you start working on a house.

Larsson worked with interior designers to decorate the Killion residence using furniture that matches the home's period and aesthetic, such as the Noguchi pendant lamp in the dining area.

The exterior of the Straub house after Larsson's detailed redesign.

Color helps you blur the lines between the inside and the outside of the property.

It would be nice to hear you describe your aesthetic in your own words - I know you’re strongly influenced by Scandinavian design.

I mean, everybody has their bags of influences and things that they draw on. I lived in Chicago for ten years and at that point I was fairly aware of architecture and design - you're surrounded by it in that environment as well [as in Los Angeles]. There's these Mies van der Rohe and Sullivan houses, buildings that are just breathtaking, and you get inspired by that. You draw from those things seeing them every day. Also, I lived fairly close to Oak Park, which is basically the Mecca of Frank Lloyd Wright.

But I think the core of my aesthetic is still drawing a lot from back home. I grew up fairly close to a town called Värnamo, which is where Bruno Mathsson, the architect and furniture designer, had his shop. As a kid I think we had quite a few pieces of furniture from there because it was convenient - it was right down the street and that's where you went and bought your furniture. When you're a kid you don't think about those things, but they do inspire you. They do put a stamp on how you view things or how you express yourself.

Recently I've been back again to Bruno Mathsson's home, and it again ignites and sparks these things and reminds you of how you design your space and what you draw on. I think that’s probably where I come from.

The entryway to the Straub house showcases the mixed materials that are featured throughout the home - brick, wood, stone, and glass.

I'm going to ask you a question about color, because I think your use of color is very carefully considered. When you work with color, do you research what might have been original or is it more your own interpretation of what feels right?

I think it's a little bit of both. I want to understand where the architects are coming from. Calvin Straub’s teachings and his color philosophy are very important to his designs and they go hand in hand. I think you have to try to understand that first before you start putting your own preferences and ideas on what you think the house should be. I think there is a fine balance to things.

A lot of these photographs were taken in black and white and everybody assumed that modern architecture is black and white. But that's not the case at all. It's actually the opposite. It's a lot of bold colors, and there's a reason for those colors a lot of the time, especially when you're dealing with a Neutra house or a Calvin Straub house where the color helps you blur the lines between the inside and the outside of the property.

With the Calvin Straub house that we did, it was pretty clear to me where his thinking was, and that's why we picked the green. I actually knocked on the door of another Straub house, and I said, "Can I talk to you about the color of your house? Because I think this is spot on what I'm reading in Calvin Straub's notes." [The owner] had all these notes, and she had the colors, and she was really helpful in this process to develop the Calvin straw green color that we've been using.

The test of these colors, especially on the exterior version, is that they need to pass the squint test. So you stand down the hill and you look up to the house, and you should have a hard time defining where the house ends and where the house starts. It should melt into the environment. And you can do that with browns and greens and a splash of yellow or a splash of orange, depending a little bit on what the landscape looks like.

I think it's important to understand the color. And also, personally, I like color. I think color is fun, expressive. It's important to mood and all these different things. It's a design. I think it's an expression of a lot. I'm a big fan of a white wall, but I think tying that in with some color here and there, the right colors, is a formula for great success in a house.

I don't believe in turning houses into museums...I think the design space is to be lived in and enjoyed.

Larsson redesigned the back garden of the Straub house to complement the architect's original plans.

How do you approach the balance of preservation and modernization?

I spent a lot of time soul searching on this and reading a lot about this; what these guys back in the day thought about these things. Craig Ellwood, especially, had a philosophy about this. If a house doesn't function anymore, it's no longer a house in a sense. It has to provide the basic needs of a house. It exists to be what it intended to be and what they wanted to design for. [Rudolph] Schindler also had a very similar philosophy. For example, he really wanted The Schindler House on Kings Road to be demolished because he didn't see Kings Road as having the same functions and language that it did when he built it. It became very developed down in West Hollywood and there were high rises, and it stopped being what he designed it to be. He basically said if it doesn't function anymore, it's time for it to become something completely different.

Take the Killion residence here. When you first walk into this house, you have a feeling - whatever it is, there's something happening to you. You feel something when you walk through, because it’s something you have never seen before or experienced before in a house. So that's really what's important here, right? Because she obviously had this in mind. She felt this way when she walked in this space. She designed it this way. So that is the most important thing.

It's a tough balance. I believe that the space needs to function. I don't believe in turning houses into museums. I don't think any of these architects were interested in that. I think the design space is to be lived in and enjoyed and to have a function. And when it stops doing that, then it’s not a house anymore.

Wood paneling accents the light-filled living area of the Killion residence.

You mentioned Jean Killion, the architect of this house. Can you tell me a bit about her and how you became aware of her?

It took some digging around. Our mutual friend Andrew Romano told me about this space. He called me up and said, "I got this text about this estate sale and there's some really bad photos of it, but it looks really special. Why don't you swing by? I think you'll love it." I walked in, and this house was in really bad shape, but I still had that feeling. I walked in and I was just blown away.

I think it has a lot of characteristics of a Buff, Straub and Hensman design, for example. She probably had Calvin Straub as a professor because she graduated from the University of Southern California. So there's probably some elements of his teachings here. There's also some Harwell Hamilton elements - he's also a Neutra alumni. So there's these elements that I've seen before, that I was familiar with, but there was a difference because there was a softness to the design. There was a different scale also, a little smaller scale. It just felt different. So I felt immediately connected with this house and I felt, “I need to fight for this. I need to buy this house and I need to restore this house.”

That's how it started. Right away I found a folder with some vintage photos and Polaroids. There was a photograph from when they were pouring the foundation, and there was a woman at the job site who was most likely Jean [Killion]. We hired a historian and he got some really good information - he referenced some books that I was able to find her in, and also mentioned that she worked at the Neutra Alexander office at the time when this house was built.

So it just took a lot of digging to try to find this person. She did have her own practice, and neighbors have now told me that she designed a couple more houses on the street. I still haven't found [much more information], but I have probably a feeling that I eventually will when things are opening up a little bit and I can sit down and go through archives and search for certain things. I really hope that she has designed something else on her own because she deserves the recognition for this house, and I hope there's more.

Huge windows replace sections of the exterior walls of the Killion residence to showcase the natural beauty of the surroundings.

I'm really proud of [The Killion Residence] and how it turned out. I hope she would be proud that it has a life again and that people are going to start enjoying it again, as it should be.

What has been your most rewarding project to date? Is it possible to pick one project?

I think they're all very different. It's not that I have done a million projects or anything, but the Straub that I mentioned earlier was really rewarding because it was a little bit of a treasure chest find. It's located here in the Arroyo Seco area of Pasadena, and I used to bring my dog here and walk down this area quite a bit. I lived a little bit up the street, and I drove down here and always just walked around in this area because it's beautiful. It's quiet. And it was this Frankenstein house of post and beam mid-century architecture combined with... I don't know really. A pitched roof. There were some Greek columns involved. It was this really Frankenstein situation with this house, but it looked like something.

For some reason I'd never gone down to the Pasadena city office and really just looked at the permits and stuff. When it came up for sale I thought, "Heck, I'm just going to go down and take a peek. What can I lose?" And right there, on the permit, was Calvin Straub and his wife. After doing a little bit more research, I drove out to the University of Arizona where his archive is. I dove into his archives and figured out that they designed [this house] for themselves. And so I was able to restore this house, bringing it to Pasadena Architectural Society's attention.

But the Killion residence is also extremely exciting. It sheds light on the amazing architect who built this house during a time when it was probably incredibly hard to work in this field as a woman. So, yeah, I'm really proud of this house and how it turned out. I hope she would be proud that it has a life again and that people are going to start enjoying it again, as it should be.

The kitchen in the Killion residence was renovated in a contemporary aesthetic to contrast with the mid-century home and highlight the recent renovations.

Lastly, what's next for HabHouse?

I think we have our hands in a couple of different things. We do these architectural restorations, which I have, obviously, a burning passion for, and they become a bit of a passion project. And sometimes they work out financially and sometimes they don't, so you have to have other things going on as a company to be able to do these projects. We're trying to enter ourselves into new construction, ground up construction, and then eventually take a leap forward into larger development situations, but we're not quite there yet.

I think it's an interesting time to be part of the housing industry here. I think the idea of housing in Los Angeles and how people see housing is going to change tremendously in the next ten years. I think we have to create a new American dream here in how we view housing solutions. We have to be more lenient in the building process because people need homes. Having a freestanding house and a nice flat backyard is not going to be the future of housing in Los Angeles. It's available for a few people, of course, and that's always something that people are going to want - but the way we view housing for families of today is going to have to change.

Straub house, kitchen.

Straub house, living area.