In this Portola Valley home, unexpected arrangements and wide-ranging art are on full view.
Homeowners and designers often prattle on about creating interiors that are warm and inviting, where visitors can settle in with ease and loll around. But that wasn’t exactly the priority when Nicole Vidalakis conceived her Portola Valley residence.
Take the room that greets you inside the 7,800-square-foot modern masterpiece by Swatt | Miers Architects. The living room is absent of the usual cushy sofas and arm-chairs. There’s no thick-pile rug underfoot, no throw pillows to rest on, or draperies to “soften” the space.
“I like that you come in and you have to think about what’s happening,” Vidalakis explains. “I didn’t want it to necessarily look super comfortable.” If visitors are intrigued by her decor choices, mission accomplished.“You might stop and say, ‘What is that? Why is that?’” she continues. “I like the familiar and the accessible with the unfamiliar and the surprising.”
Hence, Vidalakis has filled the double height venue with a mix of sculptural furniture and art that she finds “aesthetically pleasing,” she says. “For me, my living room is really for looks.” The gently curving Astral bench by Thos. Moser is composed of walnut matchsticks, while the pink powdercoated Richard Schultz wing chair offers the room’s other seating option. On the former sits a gleaming mannequin — one of two in the room. Both aluminum figures were procured from a thrift store and had previously graced the sales floor at the long-ago-shuttered I. Magnin department store. In the corner is a 127-inch-tall sculpture that Vidalakis purchased on eBay (signed “Kahn 1980”). “If you don’t bring your eye up,” she says, standing in front of the piece that towers above her, “you might as well not have a high ceiling.”
On one of the home’s few expanses of drywall — a majority of its envelope is made of glass — some of Vidalakis’ earliest art acquisitions are on display: a limited-edition series of six 29-by-29-inch screenprints by Donald Baechler depicting colorful faces. “I had these unframed and carried them around with me for over 20 years, from place to place to place, because I never had the right spot for them,” she recalls.
Vidalakis was raised in Utah, the only daughter in a brood of four. After earning an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke and a master’s in English from New York University, as well as working for a number of years in Manhattan, she arrived on the Stanford campus in the late ’90s. Her father is an alumnus of the Graduate School of Business, and her brothers all earned various degrees at the university, too. Vidalakis completed her Ph.D. in psychology and currently operates a concierge practice that focuses on only a couple of clients.
It turns out, Vidalakis may also have an unplanned, burgeoning side gig— as an interior designer. Her dwelling has been previously published, including in the 2017 book The American House: 100 Contemporary Homes, which has prompted friends to request her help with their design projects. “I think people just say, ‘Oh, I like this house,’” she observes. “People don’t think, ‘Why am I doing this? What is this going to say about me?’ I’m really interested in how people’s environments affect their mood and their quality of life.”
Her own house is the culmination of several years of collaboration with Emeryville-based architect Robert Swatt. After purchasing the four-acre property in 2008, Vidalakis initially planned to update the existing 1954 ranch house.“I was hoping to renovate it slowly and keep the character of it,” she says, “but there was so much damage to the house that I had multiple architects come in and say, ‘You’re never going to be able to salvage it.’”
Over the span of four years, Vidalakis and Swatt conjured a home ideally suited for her and 8-year-old daughter Philomena. The three-level abode is sited on a sloped lot, along with a separate 800-square-foot structure. Contemporary materials (glass and concrete) are balanced with stone (the flooring is vein-cut travertine from Mexico) and a variety of woods (the paneling is walnut; the ceilings, vertical side panels of the staircase and exterior of the house feature mahogany; the stairs are California Claro walnut).
An avid cook, Vidalakis wanted the Caesar stone and walnut kitchen oriented to take advantage of the view toward San Francisco. The same thinking dictated the placement of the 84-foot pool. A cobalt-blue sunshade, comprising a poured-in-place plaster column with a circular rubber top, is both practical and decorative. It’s joined in the landscape by three bronze sculptures by Robert Holmes.
As you ascend the stairs from the ground floor, a large-scale Guy Anderson painting signals your arrival at the master suite, where a custom bed is upholstered in a Missoni pattern and flanked by vintage 1980s Murano glass chandeliers. The wall behind the bed is adorned with a trio of Fernando Botero works and two graffiti paintings by an artist who goes by the tag “Blanco.” Vidalakis’ admiration for the late designer Michael Taylor, who epitomized California style, is evident, as most of the room’s furnishings are his design —among them, a sofa and a pair of lounge chairs.
Inside and out, the home is the manifestation of Vidalakis’ singular vision. She likens her design approach to “how collage artists or really good chefs work,” she says. “You take ingredients that anybody can find, but then you combine them in a particular way where it can only be you that made this dinner or this piece of art. This house can only be me.”