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Simply Living

By Michele Meyer

As a child in Iceland, Erla Dögg Ingjaldsdóttir went to the beach to ply, not play. The blonde from Reykjavik would sift through the sand, eager to find and salvage metal debris she called “rusted shipwrecks.”

“I’d tell my family, ‘Can’t you see this as a candle holder?’ and my dad would say, ‘No way! You’re filling my garage with junk!’’ she recalls.

But one person’s trash is another’s treasure, or in this case, inspiration. And for Ingjaldsdóttir, Associate IIDA, AIA, all those years of reusing objects led to the creation of a witty, eco-friendly home that was named Best of Competition in IIDA’s 2007 Interior Design Competition. The award was announced June 11 at IIDA’s Too Cool Gala held during NeoCon in Chicago. “I’ve always had a passion for using what you have and finding a second life for everything,” says Ingjaldsdóttir, now 34. She put that passion to work on the Los Angeles domicile she and her husband, Architect Tryggvi Thorsteinsson, built for themselves in 2006. In many ways, the building serves as a 3-D calling card for the couple’s small design studio, Minarc, short for Minimalism in Architecture.

The couple’s drive enchanted the judges, as did the home’s sleekness, openness and sense of joy. “This isn’t green and sustainable to be trendy, but rather because that’s how these designers approach the world,” says David Oakey, Owner, Principal and textile designer at David Oakey Designs in LaGrange, Ga. “And the house doesn’t look earthy. The design and finishes are elegant.”

Oakey; jury facilitator Brian Thornton, IIDA, AIA, IIDA’s Vice President of Communications; and the other three judges — Kelly Bauer, FIIDA; D.B. Kim; and Richard Pollack, FIIDA, FAIA — were wowed by how the 2,200-square-foot house seems one with the land around it. “So often we try to be separate from nature,” Oakey says. “But if you close your eyes and think of a beautiful place to be, it’s not an artificial environment. You want to be outside. That’s why you’d feel comfortable and calm in this house.”

Among other ecological entries of restaurants, hotels, schools, hospitals and government buildings worldwide, some from highly prestigious firms, “there wasn’t another project as well balanced as this one,” says Kim, Vice President for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. “This was very humbly done. It didn’t shout, ‘Hey, look at me! I’m a high-tech building that can save the Earth!’”

The home doesn’t flaunt its cleverness. Wires from A/V equipment are hidden in walls; a staircase rail also serves as a bookshelf; and the master bed’s headboard doubles as a clothes bureau. Pebble stones on the master bedroom balcony warm in the sun to create soothing walking grounds.

Ingjaldsdóttir and Thorsteinsson’s pared-down, sustainable sensibility — along with their Icelandic backgrounds — drew the two together when they met almost a decade ago while working at another L.A. firm.

By 1999, they’d opened their own company specializing in minimalist houses in California, Africa and Iceland, and two years later, they married. “We work together, live together and spend all our time together,” Ingjaldsdóttir says.

As with everything the pair does, they can’t distinguish each other’s contributions. Says Thorsteinsson, 43, “We’re so close, we’re like one.” When they decided to build their own home, they knew they wanted to live as they designed: uncomplicatedly.

“Sometimes people forget how simple life can be,” Thorsteinsson says. “We try to create effortless design, which of course is extremely difficult.”

Adds his wife, “We let the materials be themselves. By not hiding behind paint, carpet, chemicals and tiles, you can see the flaws — and that’s the beauty of life.”

The house doesn’t take an intellectual approach to eco-living. The kitchen island is made of corian stone in the bold orange color of Iceland’s volcanic ashes. The stairs — covered in royal blue rubber used to coat hammer handles — resemble a waterfall and are reminiscent of Iceland’s chilly waters. Rich wood walls, warm polished concrete floors and the exterior cement paneling are made of 30 percent recycled fiber.

As vital to the home as the black kitchen cabinets made of recycled tires is the laughter of children — Alexandra, 12; Carmen, 4; and Andrea, 1. An open living, cooking and entertainment area on the first floor lets the family cocoon as kids do homework, mom cooks and dad catches the news. “Modern life goes by so fast,” Ingjaldsdóttir says. “This way, you can enjoy the few moments you have together.”

Outside life enters in the form of breezes blowing through screenless windows and doors. The sun beams through skylights and opaque glass to heat and brighten, resulting in lower electrical bills. Five-hundred-and-fifty square feet of outdoor patios and balconies include a wooden area on which a bed can be moved for open-air sleeping and an outdoor dining room. An outdoor staircase cascades shadows on a glass-topped pond below it, and the shadows change form depending on the time of day.

“Like nature, our house always is changing,” Ingjaldsdóttir says. “There’s constant flow, not just of us but of light and air through the house.”

The house is very much of Los Angeles, from its views of mountain vistas in one direction to views of trees and beach in another. Judges saw the building as a modern relative of Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

And they say this designing duo might one day join that pantheon of architects for the way they stacked concrete slab and wooden boxes so artfully and elegantly. “It’s spectacular, as if you’re looking at a Mondrian painting in a 3-D way,” Kim says. “The grids are layered but almost organic, like a hedge in a garden.”

Perhaps ironically, nature made the eco-friendly plans anything but easy to accomplish. “When we started construction in 2005, we had a 3-year-old and I was pregnant,”

Ingjaldsdóttir recalls. “It also was the year we had the most rain in Los Angeles ever. We had to pump out water three times while pouring concrete. We’d planned to stay in part of the house as we built, but it wasn’t possible because of the rain. We have good friends, fortunately.”

Kim says he wishes he could meet the playful couple. He admits their creations will influence his own work — and he hopes that of others. “I was immediately taken by the use of glass corners, recycled materials and punctuated spaces, like the view of nature from the staircase,” he says. “It’s obtainable, not showy. You can use it, touch it and feel it.”

The house enables the easy, flexible lifestyle many desire today, Kim says. “That makes it a trendsetter rather than a trend-follower.”


The winners of the 34th Annual Interior Design Competition, including Minarc, were featured at IIDA’s Too Cool Gala, held in Chicago during NeoCon. The other four winners are:

  • D’Aquino Monaco Inc., New York, for Silver Rain, a la prairie spa in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
  • Gensler, Chicago, for Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago
  • Giorgio Borruso Design, Marina Del Rey, Calif., for Fornarina London
  • Hironaka Ogawa & Associates, Suginamiku, Tokyo, Japan, for Kimukatsu, Ebisu, Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan