Purity of Design Provides a Poetic Setting for Modern and Contemporary Works in a Historic Berkeley Home
When Bruce Gilbert first came across an Ernest Coxhead-designed Mediterranean in Berkeley—the last house designed by the famed architect—his wife, Susan Becher, was traveling. A public-relations maven with notable clients in the design and architecture fields, Becher was en route to Milan. But once Gilbert emailed her photographs of the 1930 residence, she encouraged him to submit an offer though she had never set foot inside. The couple (who have two sons—David, a Los Angeles–based artist, and Marc, an editorial producer for CNBC in New York) moved in on Memorial Day, 2012.
Becher fell in love with the 1,300-square-foot house. While she and Gilbert maintained the architectural integrity of the property, they made chic aesthetic changes like ebonizing the wood floors; painting the doors and window trim throughout a handsome charcoal gray; and refreshing the previously dingy walls with coats of fresh white paint. The pair also made updates to the foundation, basement and fireplace.
“I think it’s really special,” says Becher of the abode. “It’s poetic. It’s simple. Yet there are some grand features—like the large-scale fireplace, high ceiling and beautiful garden views.” The backyard, which Gilbert enjoys tending to, boasts a substantial rosemary hedge, citrus trees, wild grasses, lavender bushes and a newly planted succulent garden.
No doubt Coxhead’s sublime design appealed to the aesthete in Becher: A native of Orange County, she did graduate work in ceramics and textiles at San Francisco State University, spent time traveling in Europe and lived in London for a period before returning to Southern California, where she opened a Beverly Hills location of the renowned store Design Research. Now, Becher counts interior designer Jamie Drake, luxe Italian brand Fortuny, and chic British furniture design company Ochre as clients. “It’s what I love and have a natural interest in,” she says of the industries that they inhabit, adding: “I wouldn’t want to represent corn flakes or electronic equipment!” Since many of her clients are in New York, she and Gilbert now split their time between both coasts.
The home features works by modern and contemporary masters, including pieces by Donald Sultan, Brice Marden and Robert Mangold. The couple purchases art during their travels, too. There’s the Howard Hodgkin print they picked up in London and a Jerome Didier abstract painting from Paris, both of which are currently displayed in the living room. In the study hangs a photographic work, The Flea Circus, by their son David, who has exhibited in solo and group shows worldwide. He also gifted them a study in gray by friend Christine Frerichs, which rests atop the fireplace mantel.
Their furnishings include works of art as well, such as an original Alvar Aalto bar cart, pair of stools and two armchairs, the latter re-covered in a blue linen by textile designer Gretchen Bellinger (another client of Becher’s). Their sculptural forms, alongside Noguchi’s Akari table lamp and Hans Wegner’s Wishbone chair, give the interior a modern touch. But not everything in the home comes with a designer pedigree; its design-savvy inhabitants recognize a great piece regardless of its high or low origins. For example, a metal stool in the office was rescued from the street, stripped and polished; and a ladderback chair situated just outside the kitchen was procured at a yard sale in Bridgehampton for $15.
“When I come back here,” says Becher, “I like to take naps on the chaise. I’ll look up at the blue skies and often think to myself, ‘this is just perfect.’”
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of San Francisco & Gardens with the headline: Serene Retreat.