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Dwell on Design features Hermosa architect Dean Nota

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by Kelly Dawson

Dean Nota was two years into the aerospace engineering program at Cal Poly Pomona when he realized he was preparing for the wrong profession.

“My father, in a total coincidence, had the contract to do the steel work on a building that was to house the campus’ new architecture program,” he said.

So, as was typical on his school vacations, he joined his dad’s construction crew to help out on the site. One day, when Nota was covered in dirt and sweat, deep inside a hole, he looked up and saw a man wearing a tie and holding plans.

“I sort of jokingly said, ‘Who is that guy? I want his job.’ He was the architect. I decided I would try to take a class from that department, and in order to do that, I had to change my major.”

Looking back, Nota said, the change in majors and how he shaped his career evolved from interests he had all along. He had begun working at his dads building sites when he was 12, the year he took middle school drafting and woodshop classes.

Nota was a founding student and member of the first graduating class at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, better known as SCI-Arc, which developed from the program on Cal Poly Pomona’s campus. After receiving his degree in 1976, he worked with SCI-Arc founder Ray Kappe for a decade. He preferred small-scale projects because he enjoyed close interaction with clients. When he moved to the South Bay in 1977, and struck out on his own, he saw an opportunity in designing modern homes that explored the potential of the area’s small lots.

The wisdom of Nota’s chance career change was evident last month when three of his beach cities homes were selected for the prestigious Dwell on Design Tour, an extension of the annual Dwell on Design convention. (The two other homes on the tour were designed Robert Sweet, who previously worked under Nota.) This was the first year Dwell on Design showcased homes in the South Bay.

“For a modern architect, there are two things about the beach that strongly motivate me to design the way that I do. The lot sizes that we have, with these high vertical proportions of two and three-story houses that are tightly packed, pose challenges related to how you deal with that when making a home,” Nota said. “You’re limited in space, and your access to light and view. A lot of what my work is about is finding design strategies for the light and view.”

Nota’s three residences on the Dwell on Design tour exhibited a “less is more theme,” but differed in details specific to each family.

The 1,400-square-foot Madans-Rymers Manhattan Beach home, a remodeled bungalow, features a steel butterfly roof that opens the conjoining kitchen, living, and dining areas to large swaths of light. Red cedar offsets the steel as an unexpected outdoor accent and the surrounding open spaces can be seen inside from floor-to-ceiling windows.

“It’s my wife and I, and we just wanted something that was comfortable and met our needs,” said homeowner Andy Madans, a general contractor who has worked with Nota for the past 15 years. Although it looked like a party during the tour, Madans said that when he actually throws one, he likes the fact that he can be in the kitchen and still be with his guests.

The 3,400-square-foot Yu residence, on the Hermosa Beach Strand, is a three-story home that revolves around ocean, viewed beyond its expansive windows. But since it’s the home of a couple with grown children, it has more porcelain tiles than the family-oriented concrete of the Olivares residence. That 3,290-square-foot home is a two-story structure with an enclosed, sunlit courtyard.

“I don’t like talking about style. I like talking about ‘How do you want to live in this space? What is it that’s important to you?’” Nota said. “What I always say to people is that my work grows out of this modern tradition, but it’s really a synthesis of what I find at the site and what you want to build, and what your ideas are.”

Still, the three tour homes make it clear there is a Nota aesthetic.

Slivers of windows wrapped around fluid walls, concrete floors stood under steel guardrails and glass tiles glistened in pristine showers It’s a modern sensibility of clean lines and unconventional pairings that come together in homes that feel removed and calm.

Maureen Erbe, curator of home tours for Palm Springs Modernism Week, said of the Olivares 3,200 square foot home wrapped around a courtyard, in the Manhattan Beach tree section, “The space feels large, light, and private, although it’s surrounded by homes. It feels like an estate home, but it’s not, it’s on a small lot.” B

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