A Minimalist House for Clutter-Free Living (Despite the Kids)

Nicole Heininger had long dreamed of designing a house in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where she could raise a family. So in 2017, when she and her husband, Taylor Heininger, began having children, they started hunting for a teardown close to the ocean.

“We were looking for a property where I could do something ground-up, both as a showcase for my design work as well as a space we could call our own, 100 percent,” said Ms. Heininger, 40, the founder of Est. Collective, an interior design firm.

She and Mr. Heininger, also 40, who works in finance, had remodeled a handful of homes in the area, but they felt they could create something better by starting from scratch. The real estate market was so competitive, though, that it took them a year to find a 0.09-acre lot with a two-bedroom bungalow on it, which they bought for $2.2 million in October 2018.

For the first year, they rented out the bungalow as Ms. Heininger began designing its replacement in collaboration with Anthony Laney, an architect and founding partner of Laney LA. But if any of Ms. Heininger’s acquaintances expected her to use the opportunity to run wild with decorative flourishes — or to borrow some of the more expressive details used by her former employers, including Roman and Williams and Kelly Wearstler — they were bound to be disappointed. Ms. Heininger remains a steadfast minimalist.

Her focus on simple, clutter-free living stems not only from her appreciation of the calming, refreshing atmosphere of such spaces, but also from grieving for her father.

“Almost 10 years ago, my father passed away, very tragically, from a mental health issue,” Ms. Heininger said. “I had to go to his house and clear out all of his belongings, which was a moment to reflect on things. He had worked so hard to acquire and accumulate all these belongings. And in a moment, they were essentially worthless.”

Since then, she has been wary of amassing an excess of anything — including clothing and furniture — and is focused on making sure that every item that comes into her home is necessary. But even in the absence of stuff, she hoped the house would exude character.

“I was trying to create something that had a bit of nostalgia, a bit of modernism and minimalism infused with Old World charm,” said Ms. Heininger, who cited older Spanish Colonial homes in Los Angeles and spare Belgian interiors as influences.

When she shared this vision with Mr. Laney, he was immediately excited. “We do a lot of custom homes, and it’s pretty common that our clients will have a desire for individual expression that is a bit louder,” he said. “But her aesthetic is just so calm and tranquil.”

Together, they created a 4,000-square-foot, two-story home formed by a series of connected boxes with a courtyard at the center. They minimized exterior ornamentation by coating these volumes in off-white stucco, but added a simple cornice and arched windows with divided lights along the second floor, in “a nod to a more classic approach to designing a house,” Mr. Laney said.

Inside, Ms. Heininger mixed large-scale, timeworn antiques and modern furniture with unfussy materials. The living room, which has a concrete floor, is centered on a weighty, 19th-century French limestone fireplace mantel that sits above a void: There is no fireplace, because building regulations wouldn’t allow for a wood-burning one and Ms. Heininger thought a gas fireplace would look out of place.

The kitchen has cabinets with slender, painted doors that stretch to the ceiling and open with hidden finger pulls instead of knobs. A large island topped by thick Arabescato Vagli marble separates the cooking area from the family room, where built-in cabinets conceal clutter. Both the family and dining rooms have sliding-glass walls that open to the courtyard, which was designed by Jones Landscapes.

A ribbon-shaped staircase curls up to the second level, where oak flooring offers a warmer feel underfoot in the home’s five bedrooms. In the primary bedroom, Ms. Heininger installed a low upholstered bed from Rove Concepts and used chunks of weathered timber cut from reclaimed pilings as night stands.

Because there is no trim to hide messy workmanship, all of the architectural details, including the reveals that separate the flush baseboards from drywall and the drapery tracks integrated into the ceilings, had to be perfect — which took time, patient contractors and deep pockets. In total, the house, which was built by Denton Developments, cost about $3.2 million, and was completed in April 2021 after about a year and a half of construction.

And what about the challenge of keeping such a spartan interior spotless with two young children — Grey, 5, and Elle, 3 — routinely tearing through it? The extensive hidden storage makes things relatively easy, Ms. Heininger said: “Everything gets put away at night. We have built-in storage everywhere, and places to hide things in all rooms.”

During the week, when all the toys are tucked away, “you would never know a child lives here,” she added.

But on the weekends, when the contents of the cabinets get dumped on the floor, it’s a different story: “You would absolutely think a bomb went off.”

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