A Los Angeles film producer and his family build an unexpected dream home on a parcel of paradise in the Santa Barbara foothills.
In Toro Canyon, an L-shaped slice of prime real estate in Santa Barbara, no one is stunned when they see an occasional mountain lion or bear ambling about in the rolling hills. But a boxy, modern board-form concrete house, sited in the center of 150 acres of untouched wilderness? Now that turns a few heads.
The homeowners, film producer John Lesher and his wife, Christina Liao (a former film executive herself), embarked on a years-long saga to build on this untouched land that was not unlike the process of getting a movie made.
“It took more than four years just to get the permits from the county,” says Liao, “We had to install the septic system, the cistern. We built a road. It was a commitment.”
One of the most surprising details about the property is that it was designed by Barbara Bestor, a Los Angeles architect known for building smart, progressive homes and retail spaces in the artsy neighborhoods on the east side of L.A., including Silverlake, Los Feliz and Beachwood Canyon. She’s the executive director of the Julius Shulman Institute at SCI-Arc, and her book Bohemian Modern: Living in Silver Lake (Harper Design) is a coffee table staple in hipster households from Echo Park to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Despite her credentials, she isn’t an obvious choice for this kind of property, but she had known Lesher and Liao for nearly three decades, and the friends were eager to work together. The Lesher family lives in a traditional 1930s Georgian Colonial in town, and the decision to build a more streamlined modern vacation home was very deliberate. For Bestor, it was an opportunity to spread her wings. She found inspiration from unlikely and disparate sources, including the rugged landscape of Marfa, Texas, and the traditional layout of the California missions.
“I’ve almost always worked in an urban setting, so this was the first time I could manipulate the passage, the entrance to the home, how you see it from the road. I could think about how you see it from afar, how you view that piece of coastline,” she says. “Then you don’t see that crazy view until you’re at the front door, standing inside the courtyard.”
If the exterior of the home appears to be boxy and Brutalist, made of solid concrete tinted a reddish brown to match the surrounding soil, once visitors reach the courtyard, the heaviness disappears. Retractable glass doors open to reveal a “wooden jewel box,” Bestor says of cedar-lined walls and ceilings. The 40-foot outdoor space at the center of the home is its focal point, which provides not only shelter from the powerful coastal winds but also a communal space to host friends, family and Lesher’s colleagues.
“Barbara is a mom, and she knows how a family uses a space,” says Liao. “She has an innate sense of where things should go. There’s a big, open space where we can all be together with friends, and then the bedrooms and the guesthouse are very cozy, so you can kind of retreat to your own corners.”
Bestor worked with landscape designers Isabelle Greene and Sally Paul to blend the home into its surrounding landscape in a seamless, low-maintenance way that also complied with strict fire codes. She also recruited The Archers, the interior design team of Richard Petit and Stephen Hunt, to help outfit the home with an unpretentious mix of organic-feeling modern pieces, bold textiles and punctuation marks of color, like a vibrant yellow door and a glossy emerald-green bed. It’s almost under-furnished, designed to let the architecture, the extreme privacy of the setting and the stunning views take center stage.
“We didn’t want it to be overdecorated, like a vintage chair showroom, and The Archers understood that,” says Liao.
Now that production has wrapped, Liao says that the family enjoys watching the weather roll in from the coast, the fog burn off into a sunny afternoon. They’ll gather around the fireplace and put a pot of soup on the stove. But the real benefit of getting away from it all?
“It’s the parking,” she says. “We can spend an entire weekend without ever having to valet park.”
Written by Christine Lennon
Photographed by Laure Joliet