Before Joachim Rønning’s film Kon Tiki was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar before directing the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, even before he married activist Amanda Hearst, the native Norwegian had his eye on a completely different career path. “I was in my late teens when I first encountered John Lautner’s work in an illustrated book, and it completely fascinated me,” says Rønning. “In fact, I was so taken with his designs that before I got film fever, I was thinking about becoming an architect.” It would be a few more decades before Rønning and his wife would stumble upon Lautner’s work again, but this one It was supposed to be buying a house designed by the influential architect.
In 1961, John Lautner designed the West Hollywood home for interior designer and concert pianist Marco Wolff. For Lautner, who had apprenticed to Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s, home was an opportunity to flex his creative muscles. What began as an arduous, almost vertical lot led to perhaps the pinnacle of mid-century modern residential architecture on the West Coast. With this home, Lautner drew on the primal state of nature and challenged his audience to turn their preconceived ideas of domesticity on their head. It was a bold statement of how people once lived – among the trees, the rocks, high on a hill – and the architect put his thumbprint on it.
The four-story home is nestled on 9,785 square meters of land in a leafy enclave of West Hollywood. Approaching it from the road is not unlike approaching a rock face – it is an encounter with something that was there before you and will be there long after you are gone. When building a house, Lautner had a philosophy he called grammar that contributed to the overall idea of how the space should look. And once the architect formulated that philosophy, he was relentless in its implementation. “For me as a filmmaker, I get so much inspiration from someone like Lautner,” says Rønning. “Because when I look at this house, even in the smallest detail, I see that there were no compromises. He really fought for his vision.”
After moving into the home, Wolff added a guest house (also designed by Lautner) a decade later before eventually selling the apartment. What followed was a series of owners adding little elegance. Until Rønning and Hearst Rønning bought the property, when the stylish duo asked architect and interior designer Clive Wilkinson to help restore their new home to its former glory. “It’s the design of the house that’s the real star,” says Hearst Rønning, co-founder of sustainable fashion retailer Maison-De-Mode and co-founder of Well/Beings, a non-profit dedicated to animal welfare and conservation. “So our goal was to complement Lautner’s mid-century architecture with furniture and art from the same period.” That meant adorning the walls with works by Robert Motherwell and Josef Albers, and matching furniture in the form of a coffee table designed by Harvey Probber and add armchairs designed by Jorge Zalszupin.
For Hearst Rønning, the great-granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, moving into the 3,410-square-foot (including guest cottage) home marked an exciting new chapter in her life. “I grew up living in New York apartments my whole life, so it was a big adjustment for me,” she says, then laughs. But for Rønning, the new home was a reminder of his roots. “Coming from Scandinavia, it’s like I’ve had the mid-century aesthetic in my blood since I was a kid. It was ubiquitous. Not necessarily the expensive Eames or Breuers, but still I unknowingly got so much inspiration in architecture and design from that era.”
Rønning wasn’t the only one infatuated with the design of this era. “From the beginning, I had no desire to put any form of signature or imprint on this house,” says Wilkinson. After getting the necessary permits from the city’s historical commission, the South African-born talent was keen to keep the bones of the house intact. “I saw it as my job to clarify Lautner’s original design. I had no ego in it because it wasn’t about me, it was about making a phenomenal piece of work into what it was supposed to be.” But that also included bringing in LA-based contractor MODAA Construction to design some additions , without compromising the architectural integrity of the home. An additional bedroom has been created (over an old utility room), as well as a small wine cellar and home gym.
However, out of respect for the original design, Rønning and Hearst Rønning did not go any further with their additions. “Every day we wake up in the house and it inspires us in ways we can’t quite pinpoint,” says Rønning. “It’s in the little things: how light hits the wall at certain times, or how we see an angle [of the wall] for the first time. It’s not dissimilar to staring at a Rothko, for example – you just get absorbed in the Force. It just shows Lautner’s genius.”