Janna Levenstein tells first-time visitors they can't miss her Los Angeles house. It's the only modern one on the street: a bright, sleek, indoor-outdoor living space, a tree-cloistered mini-greenbelt where every room opens onto nature.
"My house was the ugliest, I think - a maze of small, dark, ugly rooms," she says of the original 1950s design.
The transformation is impressive - particularly when one learns how she achieved it.
A voice-over actor, Levenstein hired a draftsman for about $60 an hour to draw the old house, which she purchased two years ago. Then she used tracing paper over that illustration to figure out how she wanted to reconfigure the house. She faxed that sketch back to the draftsman, who entered it into his computer-aided design program.
Next, she hired a University of California, Los Angeles, architecture student to tutor her in Google's free SketchUp software, which lets users play with their house plans in 3-D. Levenstein spent hours at the computer, imagining umpteen variations on how to reshape not just the rooms, but also the exterior walls and windows.
The result is a house divided: two units instead of one. That was the goal - a flexible, urban plan that takes advantage of the way the property is zoned. She uses the two-bedroom, 21/2-bath unit at the back of the property as her home. The one-bedroom front unit serves as a guest house and office.
"I was single. I didn't need 2,200 square feet of space," says Levenstein, who called on a structural engineer to make sure her plans were sound. "It seemed smart to create two apartments, one to live in and one I could rent out or use for work."
The second unit has been there for a stream of visiting family and friends, as well as for parties, she says. "Food is prepared in front, and guests can leave their jackets there."
Levenstein, 37, was an arts major who had just graduated from Bennington College in Vermont when she arrived in L.A. 13 years ago. Her first stint at remodeling was a house in Laurel Canyon in the San Fernando Valley, where she lived for six years while pursuing her career.
"I was so happy working on that house," she says, "and I sold it for a profit when I was ready to move out."
Then she moved to a bachelor apartment, "content to rejoice in my first-ever healthy bank account," she says. But she soon bought another house, fixed it up and sold it.
Flipping became a passion. One remodel above Sunset Plaza in Los Angeles turned out so well, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects included the house in its spring tour - an honor for someone with no formal training in design.
With an artist's instincts and a no-fear philosophy, Levenstein seizes possibility where others might shrink from danger. She has no trouble hacking away at walls, replacing virtual drywall with insets of virtual glass, and reconfiguring rooms until a house comes alive.
And that is what happened at Levenstein's house-turned-duplex, down the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"I went nuts doing the inside," she says. The home's modern look comes mainly from the immense amount of glass she installed - walls, windows and doors framed in brushed aluminum that look custom-made.
"That would be way too expensive for my budget," she says, so she bought doors and windows designed for offices and retail stores.
Her bathroom windows are commercial mini-doors that open outward toward trees. The master bath is Carrara marble, purchased for a "really low price" from a tile shop that was going out of business. To make it look less ordinary - "and more Zen" - Levenstein had the stone scored in a rectangular pattern by the installation crew.
Two small rooms were combined to form a large new master bedroom, where gauzy curtains hang from a hospital curtain track recessed into the ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling glass looks out on the backyard, which Levenstein says has become "part of the carpet of my room."
Corner glass brightens the open-plan kitchen, living room and dining area. A Levenstein-designed dining table - glass on a stainless-steel base - was influenced by Le Corbusier, she says. The table and its steel stools were made at a now-defunct metal-fabricating shop.
The high-gloss stool tops match the gleaming kitchen-cabinet doors, all coated in "BMW white" paint. Levenstein had the doors made of medium-density fiberboard and installed on cabinets from Ikea.
On the house's pocket doors and two Fisher & Paykel dish drawers in the kitchen, the recessed handles are plain aluminum channels purchased at a hardware store for less than $2 per foot and cut to fit, she says.
"Traditional door hardware is some of the priciest stuff around," she explains. "It would have cost many hundreds of dollars, and I don't think it could look any better than this."
Her kitchen counter and deep integrated sink are sculpted of taupe polyurethane resin.
Floors throughout the house are the original oak, which she sanded and then had stained dark brown.
When she carved out the lower half of an interior living room wall to install an EcoSmart ethanol fireplace, she realized that the opening created a visual tie to the bedroom and lawn beyond. So she surrounded the fireplace with a wide, built-in teakwood bench, a conversation spot for guests who can look through to the outdoors.
The house is ringed with a living fence of trees. Where a concrete driveway once ran along one side, there is now grass - a drivable lawn made of honeycomb concrete blocks through which the green stuff grows.
She furnished the house with sofas from Modernica, chairs from Vioski, and burnished wood platform beds from Modern Ethnic. Now, she's engaged to be married, which would seem to make the home complete. Except . . .
"My fiance," she says, "hates anything modern."