Coastal Real Estate

The Art of Design

By OCinSite At-Large | June 28, 2011 11:55 AM

The Art of Design

Tropical modernism inspires local architect Carlton Graham.

By Somer Flaherty | Laguna Beach Magazine, June/July 2011

Architect Carlton Graham always loved design based on warm climates. The Laguna Beach resident, who went to high school in Hawaii, took art classes for many years to explore his passion for drawing and painting. But when he realized he wouldn’t be able to make a living doing it, he decided that architecture would be the perfect fusion of both art and business. He graduated from one of the top architecture programs in the nation at the University of Texas and then headed to Southern California. “Once I found Laguna, I left L.A. and began working with local architects like Mark Singer and Horst Noppenberger before starting my own practice,” Carlton says.

Laguna Beach Magazine: What do you love about being an architect in Laguna?
Carlton Graham: The opportunity to design homes that open up to our climate and blend with nature. There are not too many places in the country where you get both.

LBM: How do you work with clients to build their dream home?
CG: I start by spending time just getting to know them and how they live. Next, I like to see their current home to get more insight into who they are. Finally, we sit down and go through a process of looking at their scrapbook of pictures, ideas and their wish list. At that point, I have a good understanding of what they want and I begin to put pencil to paper. I start by sketching big ideas and concepts, and gradually the concepts get more detailed through client meetings. I try to focus on listening. My job is to try and interpret what they want.

LBM: Tell us about your own home—did you design it?
CG: I live in a relatively small home near Top of the World designed in the ’50s by an architect who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. By the time I bought the home, it was hard to see the potential behind years of neglect and bad renovations. I gutted the place down to the studs and completely renovated the house. I was careful not to enlarge the footprint and tried to stay true to the original concept. The house is very open with great light and lots of floor-to-ceiling windows. The house has wonderful views of the trees, mountains and ocean. It’s small and feels like a modern tree house.

Exterior Interior

LBM: What was the most interesting project you’ve worked on here?
CG: A large, custom oceanfront home in Irvine Cove. The project is on a double lot. This gave me an opportunity to break the building up into a series of smaller pavilions surrounded by private courtyards. Two of the buildings are covered with planted roofs. The project is very organic, more like something you would find in Big Sur.

LBM: If big space isn’t an option, how do you suggest a person maximizes it?
CG: Trust your architect and interior designer to maximize your space. I would say less really is more. It’s not about square footage. Clients always want a bigger house. However, if the floor plan is laid out well a 2,000-square-foot home can live much bigger. Focus on simplicity and quality materials.

LBM: What is one trend you are seeing in Laguna home design?
CG: The move to go green. It seems to be a hot topic that everyone is asking about. Solar power, paints and stains without harsh chemicals and the use of sustainable hardwoods.

LBM: Any favorite inspirations outside of Laguna?
CG: I am always inspired by Bali and tropical modernism. These buildings tend to use a lot of glass and typically have large sliding doors that open the interior to the elements. Courtyards, gardens and water features are also typical of the tropics. For the most part, the climate in Laguna is pretty mild so I tend to use some of the same concepts in my work.

LBM: Are there any dream projects you’d like to work on here?
CG: I have such great clients and projects right now. I am working on a new custom oceanfront house that is pretty much a dream. However, I have always wanted to redesign the Laguna Art Museum or do a ground-up boutique hotel on the beach.

LBM: What makes your business stand out?
CG: I have a small boutique firm and I only take on two to three projects a year. I keep my overhead low, which allows me to be very selective about the projects I take on. I am very hands-on and personally draw and oversee all my projects. Most architects have larger firms and things typically get delegated to a draftsman in the office. My work is highly detailed and I tend to use more raw and natural materials. For example, I don’t use much paint. I like wood to look like wood not plastic.

If you weren’t an architect you’d be a ...
CG: Photographer.

LBM: One word to describe Laguna style:
CG: Carefree.


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