Box over Malibu beach full of design surprises

Every room has a glass wall facing the Pacific.

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From the dinning room, whose aluminum table was designed by Charles Arnoldi, a view - past an aloe tree and cacti - of the Pacific. The 24-year-old home is above a favorite surfing beach.

LOS ANGELES - Turn off the road, pass through blank-faced gates, and the house rises at the end of a drive - an angular blank canvas silhouetted against the sky. Through an aperture in all that whiteness - actually a pair of mammoth glass doors, perfectly aligned at the home's front and back - sun dances on the Pacific Ocean, boats bob on the horizon and Santa Catalina Island comes into focus.

Only then does realization strike: You are at land's end.

That's the first surprise at the house of the Arnoldis, author Katie and artist Charles, who designed it after getting a bit of advice from an architect friend named Gehry.

"I approached the design as if I were making a sculpture. For me, architecture is the same process as making art: You create a problem for yourself that you have to solve," Charles Arnoldi, 61, says. "I'm visually oriented. The shape and scale of the house and of the rooms reflect my point of view. They're big, bold and straightforward."

Inside, every room has a glass wall facing the water.

The living room, 35 feet wide by 40 feet long, has an immense hearth and those sliding glass doors, 25 feet wide. Even with its 20-foot ceiling and concrete floor, the room feels cozy, the combined effect of the seductively plump red leather sofa and chairs that Charles designed and the paintings that animate both walls.

Round end tables, reminiscent of antiques, are actually Charles' contemporary steel creation. He designed almost every piece of furniture in the house, he says, with the exception of a Noguchi coffee table in the living room and the bentwood Thonet chairs around the Arnoldi-designed aluminum dining table, which has a small Calder sculpture in its center.

A large leaping fish made of milky glass scales sits on a pedestal. Is it a sculpture? No, it's a lamp by Frank Gehry, bulbs concealed inside.

Gehry's drawings and sculptures are all over the house, along with art by the Arnoldis' daughter, Natalie. The high school senior's works keep company with those of Richard Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns and Francesco Clemente, to name a few. (Charles' artwork is in the collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art, but it's rather scantily represented in his home.)

The stark simplicity of the house, built 24 years ago atop a cliff overlooking a prized surfing spot, might be called a beacon of architectural sanity in an increasingly glitzed-up area. The design's strength, Santa Monica artist and friend Peter Alexander says, is that it takes beautiful advantage of its site.

"Our house isn't fancy," says Katie Arnoldi, 49.

Artist Laddie John Dill, another friend of the Arnoldis', says, "I like that when you pull up, you can see right through it to that world-class view. But when you're inside, it feels very private. I like the way he's made the horizon line very much a part of the architecture itself."

Both the Arnoldi children grew up on the beach, surfing and snorkeling with their parents and friends. The history of their family is written on this cliff and in this house.

He was 34 and she was 21 when they met. He was already famous; she was an art history major who had studied his work in college.

"Chuck was traveling a lot in those days, for shows all over the world," says Katie, whose first novel, Chemical Pink, was a 2001 best seller. (Her second, The Wentworths, came out last month.) "I loved him, but I wasn't willing to follow him around unless we committed to making a future together." So when she turned 22, she proposed.

She remembers Charles sitting on the couch in his Venice studio, tears streaming down his cheeks. He said he needed to ask his best friends, Frank and Berta Gehry, what he should do. So Katie stayed put while Charles drove to the Gehrys', where he was advised to take the plunge.

"We've been married 26 years in June," Katie says, "and we often spend the anniversary with them."

Katie and her older brother shared a building permit for the land, which had been in the family for years. When the brother wanted to start construction, the newlywed Arnoldis decided to erect something, too.

"I was a bit confused about what to build," says Charles, who consulted Gehry. "Frank said: 'If you don't know what to do, just build a big box.' So I did."

Charles chuckles at the self-serving floor plan he came up with, which consisted of mostly work space for him and ignored the possibility of children. "It was a 4,800-square-foot one-bedroom, one-bath house," he says.

The huge living room has a kitchen and dining room off to one side, with stairs at opposite ends. One stairway leads up to the master suite, which overlooks the water and, through a massive swiveling window, the living room below. Another set of steps leads up to what had been a huge loft space Charles envisioned as a studio for himself.

"When our children needed bedrooms, bye-bye went Chuck's potential loft," Katie says. The upstairs was converted into two kids' rooms with a bath in between.

Today, Charles works six days a week at the Venice studio compound he has owned for years. Katie, who says the ocean view is too distracting, writes from a shared Santa Monica space.

After work, however, the family unwinds in Malibu at what is truly a beach house - casual, comfortable and impervious to anything the dogs and the kids (now 17 and 19) might track in. The home's original hand-troweled concrete floors - popular now, but less common when Charles first installed them - have never needed refinishing. The inch-thick pieces of black rubber on the stairs have endured.

The Arnoldis' artistic inspiration carried over into the garden, according to landscape designer Maureen Barnes. The area fronting the ocean used to have grass, but has been redesigned to resemble a minimalist sculpture installation, with a floor of pale gravel and cactuses arranged to look like they're blowing in the wind.

"They both knew exactly what they wanted," Barnes says. "Chuck had a full-blown vision of it in his head. I didn't really have to design a thing."

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