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Character-Driven Designs by Polsky Perlstein Architects

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In the way that renowned American architect Michael Graves once expressed that his houses have anthropomorphic qualities—doors are mouths, windows represent eyes and noses, for example—Jared Polsky and Rich Perlstein, coprincipals of Larkspur design studio Polsky Perlstein Architects, also believe that their custom projects subtly take on human characteristics. Not necessarily of the anatomical nature, as Graves had observed, but more along the lines of distinct personality expressions. Arguably, it’s these nuances that make the difference between a house and a home.

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“As architects, we work hard to evoke our clients’ sensibilities,” says Polsky. Choosing an architectural style—modern, Mediterranean, craftsman, to name a few—is the first indication of a client’s aesthetic predisposition. From there, a signature palette of materials emerges—another ridge, so to speak, of this unique design fingerprint.
In Greenbrae, for example, Polsky and Perlstein designed a contemporary home for, says Polsky, “an adventurous couple who wanted something exciting and cutting edge.” As such, the interior is anchored by a floating central staircase—a “circulation spine”—with glass railings and seemingly gravity-defying risers to increase the thrill quotient as well as the visual clarity. Like most modern masterpieces, the interior is open and lofty and crisply edged, a look that might have been weighed down by a traditionally bulky flight. The streamlined effect is aided by the perks of the 21st century—credit state-of-the-art technology for making modern-day TVs super thin, for instance, eliminating the architects’ need to design cumbersome built-ins. »
Such a cool aesthetic in the Greenbrae home is tempered by an abundance of the beautifully grained Brazilian hardwood cumaru. “Wood does a really good job of making people feel comfortable and warm,” says Perlstein. That said, the architects warn against using too much wood, especially in cramped spaces that don’t have the benefit of significant glass expanses—the Greenbrae portals capture views of Mount Tamalpais.
While cumaru has the look of a clear redwood—a naturally warm tone—the architects also swear by the coziness that lighter woods, like white oak, can bestow. Recently, Polsky and Perlstein have noticed a trend away from darker woods like mahogany or walnut. “These things tend to cycle, much like fashion,” says Perlstein, who claims that oak, stylish 20 years ago, is now experiencing a resurgence.
In a Polsky-Perlstein home in Kent Woodlands, rustic planks of white oak provide an intimate farmhouse vibe. Achieving such lived-in texture in a brand new 10,000-square-foot manse is no mean feat. The owners, according to the architects, are “very sophisticated, but very casual—they’re jeans-and-T-shirt kind of people.” Once again—cue token idiom—the apple (in this case, the architecture) hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
Another way in which the architects attempted to diminish the scale of the Kent Woodlands home was by building alcoves. The one in the master bath, for instance, frames a freestanding tub and French doors. “There are people—myself included—who like the sense of being slightly separated from the larger space,” says Polsky. “Alcoves can serve all kinds of functions, from small home offices to more intimate seating areas to special places for tubs.”
Color, or the lack thereof, is also a strong indicator of a person’s individuality. At Kent Woodlands, a flight of stairs is embellished with a rainbow paint treatment—a delightful surprise in the Normandy-style home.
In a Mediterranean-inspired domicile in Kentfield, muscular plaster walls are imbued with earthy, muted shades of yellow, red, and green. “The homeowner is an artist and was willing to take risks with color,” says Polsky.
The leafy-green shading in the master bathroom plays off the view of the shrubbery and trees in the backyard, while in the great room, a honeyed hue is reminiscent of the Tuscan sun. The groin-vaulted ceiling in the foyer is tinted with a warm peachy tone. Here in this entry space, the architecture evokes a sense of the Old World.
But in the Old World, those walls might have been solid, heavy compositions of stone and mortar. In the modern-day earthquake-prone, safety-code-laden Bay Area, the illusion is accomplished with wood framing, drywall, and plaster. “The walls look weighty, and that’s the whole point,” says Perlstein. “They may not be solid in the traditional sense, but when it comes to an earthquake, this composition is actually stronger than stone.”
Conversely, the hand-hewn ceiling beams in the great room may summon romantic images of old Italian countryside villas inhabited by lovelorn Diane Lane types, but they lack the brawn to bear the weight of the ceiling. No matter. “They won’t warp,” assures Perlstein, “and they’ll always stay true.” Just like your favorite architects.

Wood does a really good job of making people feel comfortable and warm