At 60,000-square feet, Chateau des Fleurs, a Loire-style estate in Bel Air completed in 2014, raised eyebrows and drew a fair amount of snark from sites like Curbed while it was being constructed. (One headline read, in part, “Chateau des Fleurs Will Eat Us All.”) Even in over-the-top L.A., the consensus was that a building that size could not look or feel attractive.
However, Studio William Hefner, the L.A.-based architectural firm behind the house, saw mastering — and masking — the large scale as a design challenge. Founder William Hefner mitigated the size of the structure and its impact by positioning it at the back of the three-acre property and using layers of landscaping and gardens between the house and its neighbors. Channeling classic French style, he balanced discipline and embellishment by designing a subdued stepped-front façade that shelters the terraces, wings and gardens in the rear of the house. The unadorned limestone exterior sets the tone for luxurious restraint while allowing the color, filigree, crystal and pattern inside to surprise and shine. “Despite the considerable scale, the goal of this house was to create a powerfully simple and elegant structure that would feel timeless and not imitative,” says Hefner.
Repeated research trips to France by Hefner and his team informed the architectural details and the interiors, which include 12 bedrooms (some outfitted with platinum molding, period fireplace mantels and framed paneling), five kitchens and five reception rooms, as well as the gardens, which evoke Versailles.
Although the full-service firm oversaw everything — soupe to écrous — the furnished interiors are not included in the striking book documenting the project and published last year by Pointed Leaf Press, leaving one to imagine what’s on the other side of those wrought-iron balconies. (For fun, we asked Hefner to “furnish” some of the château’s rooms using pieces found on 1stdibs. You can see the results in The Study.)
Massive châteaus are not necessarily the firm’s specialty. Indeed, its portfolio includes Spanish colonial, French contemporary, Cape Cod, Georgian and ranch-style houses, as well as mid-century-inspired and modern glass buildings. “We’re excited about something that’s different,” says Hefner. “We’re afraid if we had a ‘style,’ we’d get bored.”
Among the firm’s recently completed projects is a Trousdale Estates residence that riffs on California Case Study houses but expands the typically low-ceilinged, modest-size design to encompass nearly 7,000 square feet and ceilings up to 12.5 feet high. Hefner kept the trademark expansive use of glass and open floor plan but updated the materials, adding white terrazzo floors and Calacatta marble. “The idea was to create an environment for a large art collection and a mega view,” he says.
Then there’s his own weekend home in Montecito, completed last year. “It’s a modern take on vernacular architecture, built mostly out of Santa Barbara sandstone,” Hefner says. That material was not in the original design, but, the architect says, he “embraced and incorporated” it after it was found during site grading. Hefner shares the home with his wife, interior designer Kazuko Hoshino, who heads up the studio’s interior design division, and their nine-year-old son. (They also own a French provincial house in L.A.’s Hancock Park.)
The couple are warm and relaxed, even amid the dauntingly detailed renderings and models that fill the office. They met when Hefner was working on a residence in Seoul, Korea. The Japanese-born Hoshino consulted on the fabric for the home’s custom furniture. It wasn’t until a few years into their marriage, however, that they pondered another union.
“We decided we would try to work together, but we gave ourselves permission to stop if it wasn’t working,” says Hefner. They never needed the out. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they’re decidedly aligned on design. “We have very similar aesthetics,” explains Hoshino. “It’s become a little joke in the office. He’ll pick a finish or fabric, and someone will say, ‘That’s what she chose, too.’ ”
Nevertheless, there’s a dichotomy that serves their designs well: While Hoshino favors smooth, cool surfaces like marble, Hefner usually goes for something more textural. The pair leads a team of close to 40 architects and interior/landscape designers working on commercial and residential projects around the world, as well as close to home, in Los Angeles. Are they ever daunted by taking on all the elements at once? On the contrary. “A room doesn’t stop on one side of the glass,” says Hefner. “To us, architecture, interiors and outside all work with one another to create an experience — a feeling.”
They say their holistic approach feeds their learning process. They’re also eager to be educated by their clients. A few years ago, for instance, they completed a French Mediterranean–style home in the San Fernando Valley for actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. “He is on another level with green building,” says Hefner. “We met new people doing these and vetted tons of eco-friendly products and materials for the project. We learned a lot, even though I think we did a reasonable job at sustainable design before.”
“To us, architecture, interiors and outside all work with one another to create an experience — a feeling.”
Their approach is much the same whether the structure is mid-century modern or Mediterranean. “Underneath all the projects are the basic things that matter, like the comfort of a client,” says Hoshino. “We want to make everything feel natural and timeless.”
Hefner adds that working in such seemingly conflicting styles truly enhances how they design in each. “Our traditional work has made the contemporary projects better, and vice versa.” he explains. “There’s a bit more detail and richness in the modern work. And our traditional spaces lean more simple and tailored — a direct influence from the contemporary.”
Perhaps this is a result of living and working in Los Angeles, where a Neutra house and an Italianate villa often share a property line. “California is a super-important part of what we do,” Hefner says. “The mixture of design found here and the variety of the light infuse everything. We spend a lot of time on the interaction of the inside and outside. We’re designing them together.”
Influences come from beyond the Golden State, too. “Paris is amazing and always inspires,” says Hoshino. Hefner agrees, adding, “We really love Stockholm and Bali, and we get back to Japan a few times a year. We’re creatively recharged by travel.”
This isn’t surprising when you consider the firm’s commitment to design with a cultural history. “No matter the style, our quest is to be classic and never trendy,” says Hefner, summing up the tone of their 30 years of work. “To do that, you have to approach each project with a lot of authenticity and research. Find out the appropriate details and materials so that it will have longevity.”