Labour of love: Hunt House, Malibu

The exterior of a modernist house overlooking the sea.

Take a video tour of Diane Bald and Michael Budman’s beach house in Malibu. Designed by Craig Ellwood in 1957, find out how the landmark property was restored

By Siska Lyssens   Top image: Hunt House (Richard Powers)   Monday 11 May, 2020   Long read

A mature man in 1970s styling standing in front of an abstract artwork.

Craig Ellwood, the architect who designed Hunt House (Getty)

A modernist interior.

Original Arborite counters in the kitchen (Richard Powers)

Halfway down Malibu Road, a small but perfectly formed architectural jewel had been hiding in plain sight for years. The modernist beach house, built in 1957, and designed by revered modernist architect Craig Ellwood, is both intensely private and outward-looking. Screened off from the street by a minimalist façade, it looks out on the Pacific Ocean.

Named Hunt House after its original owners, Dr Hunt and his wife Elizabeth, this weekend home is paradigmatic of California modernism. ‘It’s the perfect example of seminal post-war design. An elegantly Miesian box expressed in a wafer-thin form,’ explains Barton Jahncke who collaborated on the project. Complete with outdoor terraces that maximize indoor-outdoor living, Hunt House epitomizes Ellwood’s elegantly simple interpretation of California-style modernist formalism. 

Architect and Soho House member, Diane Bald, was awe-struck when she discovered the house’s magnificent simplicity while driving down the street one Saturday, looking for a nice little beach house to rent with her husband, Michael Budman. ‘We saw a sign on the side of the road: “house for rent or for sale”,’ she recalls. The sign made mention of Ellwood. We said, ‘we have to check this out.’

The house’s caretaker showed them around. ‘I was just whispering behind my husband’s back: ‘we have to have this house,’ says Diane. ‘I was taken by its simplistic beauty in its raw state. It was sheer perfection for what we were looking for in a small, authentic beach house. I immediately fell in love.’ Upon deciding to rent the house, Diane remarked on the missing furniture, which the caretaker had kept, fastidiously, in storage. ‘We put back all the original furniture,’ she enthuses. George Nelson coconut chairs, an original Eames couch, a Craig Ellwood dining table with Eames bikini chairs, and an original designed headboard by Craig Ellwood. It was fantastic.’

Diane and her family were living in Hunt House for four years, when the caretaker decided to sell it, very quickly, from under their noses. A developer with plans to tear it down and build a spec house acquired it. 

‘We weren’t ready to buy at that point,’ says Diane, remembering her frustration. ‘I’m an architect and I knew when I saw this house that I was supposed to be its steward and make sure it was never torn down.’
The exterior of a modernist house and its garden.
a modernist dining room.
Two chairs on a terrace overlooking the sea.
Clockwise from top left: the landscape garden below the entrance to Hunt House; a Craig Ellwood dining table and Eames bikini chairs; the view from the deck (all courtesy @hunthouse_malibu)
Said developer, anticipating permit delays, allowed them to stay put, which they did for another four years. Incredibly, he gave up. ‘He says to me, “you know what Diane? You’re the rightful owner of this house, I will never be able to build what I want.”’

Eight years had already passed and the house started to look lackluster. ‘A house has a certain lifespan,’ Diane muses. ‘You could just tell, suddenly everything was looking old. I was worried about the structural integrity of the stairs and deck.’

Over the years, Diane contemplated what needed to be done to get Hunt House back into shape. ‘It’s a small house, 1,400 sq ft, and every time I imagined how I would redesign it, I would always come back to the conclusion that the only thing you could really do to this house was restore it.’

The team Diane was able to compose for the restoration of her Ellwood home includes two Ellwood connoisseurs: the aforementioned Barton Jahncke, an architectural designer and historical restoration specialist who’s worked on four Ellwood houses before, and Jim Tyler, an award-winning architect who was lead designer for Ellwood in the 1960s and 1970s. Overseeing the project, and the eyes and ears for the family, was Diane’s brother-in-law, Jim Budman, who sealed the deal and brokered the team. All were galvanised by Diane, says Jim: ‘Diane was the light that brought Hunt House back to its past and into the future.’
The exterior of a modernist house.
Thanks to the wider team’s exacting standards, Diane could restore Hunt House in extraordinary detail – from the three original sets of Crane faucets, to the wood paneling salvaged and reused by the carpenter, Tim Brooks, who had previous experience with three other Ellwood houses, and contractor Ramiro Nateras who had previous experience on two others. 

‘We were very careful to leave the patina and the worn-in feeling on all the brass knobs, light fixtures and wood paneling. So, [the house] is a beautiful marriage of new and authentic,’ says Diane. ‘The team really understood how to do all the proper detailing and capture the design aesthetic for an Ellwood house.’

Diane worked with Monogram on the kitchen, and with Farrow & Ball on the vintage paint colors that made the house sing again. The sliding doors and jalousie windows were refitted with period-correct frame sizes and even the roof went back to its pebbled state. Bar the cork floor – which replaced the original shag carpet – and the garage, Hunt House has been completely restored. ‘Everything was built to comply with Title 24 environmental standards, while retaining the structure’s streamlined look. We are proud that the house has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.’

Hunt House makes it very clear: whether you call him the Californian Mies van der Rohe, or the Cary Grant of architecture – these two epithets are equally true of Craig Ellwood, a charismatic engineer who championed a new way of living through his modernist vision. ‘Everything is so well designed and integrated into the structure that it becomes a beautiful, unified whole,’ says Diane. ‘Whenever I walk into the house it just takes my breath away.’

Follow @hunthouse_malibu for more updates.
Video by Alex Budman
The exterior of a modernist house by the sea.
Hunt House, built in 1957 (@hunthouse_malibu)
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