Return to the Womb


Hsu McCullough reshapes a subtle El Sereno home into an architectural sensation

A vintage antique front entry door sourced from Freeway Building Materials was restored by the homeowner. A zigzagged staircase draws influence from Saharan mud house dwellings and harbors a secret Harry Potter-style hideout for the homeowners son in yet another structural surprise. Photos by Dan Arnold.

“With the home being perched on the edge of a sloped lot overlooking an industrial area of railroad tracks and warehouses to the south, we were offered a unique opportunity to embrace the urban fabric and drew influences from the contemporary single family residences located in the dense surrounding metropolis as well as the rolling hills that surround El Sereno,” says Peggy Hsu, half of the visionary architect team behind Hsu McCullough about this unique home dubbed, The Wood Womb. The owners had previously purchased the home and dreamt of tailoring it more to their style and lifestyle. Hsu notes, “We reimagined the existing home, including a significant addition, with thick walls inspired by the California desert homes, while building around the owner’s [Birds of Paradise director and screenwriter Sarah Adina Smith, cinematographer Shaheen Seth, their newborn infant and Gozo their dog] routines and rituals and their particular fondness for permaculture.”

The main spaces extend to the food forest gardens in the front yard and outdoor dining courtyard created by the flourishing trees.
Photos by Dan Arnold.

“Our dream was to one day connect the house to the garden. Our friends Chris and Peggy (Hsu McCullough) developed various creative schemes using the proposed addition to bridge the existing house to the garden,” says Shaheen Seth. “The other goals were to upgrade existing floors, windows, electrical, HVAC and come up with a design which could work with the existing aesthetic.”

Exterior pocket doors from Fleetwood reveal the garden outside allowing the arched entry to shine. Photos by Dan Arnold.

Internal walls were removed in order to configure a more open floor plan that might inspire activities while maximizing light exposure throughout the home. The new ground floor layout connected the entry, living room, play space kitchen and dining areas all together and extend to the food forest gardens located in the front yard as well as the outdoor dining courtyard created by the flourishing trees. “Connecting the interior space to the garden are half-round arches—reminiscent of Gaudí’s flamboyant curves—that bring in a playful buoyancy that draws a slight influence from Marrakech’s Medina but dismisses proportionality and mechanicality in favor of organic, freehand shapes,” says Hsu.

“This new addition known as the “sunken room” is characterized by its vibrant coral and teal hues and leverages its recessed placement to create the sensation of submerging underwater, fittingly housing the owners’ aquariums and book collection,” says Hsu.
Photos by Dan Arnold.
The kitchen presents an amazing combination of wood, brass and salmon pink cabinets. Photos by Dan Arnold.

The long open kitchen that serves as a conduit from the dining room to the living room, presents a combination of materials that create both warmth and a desired wow effect. “The wood floor planks climb the wall of the kitchen and fold over the ceiling creating a “wood womb”,” says Hsu. “We outfitted the central space of the kitchen with a 14-foot-long brass island and brass backsplash that emits warm reflections which vary depending on the time of day while Salmon pink cabinetry contrasts against the dark wooden cladding of the walls and ceiling that transition into flooring.”

“One of the most difficult decisions we faced was how to finish the kitchen island. Something about the idea of picking a stone for the countertop made me depressed,” Sarah Adina Smith recalls. “Shaheen and I spent hours each night googling alternative materials. We’d shoot ideas over to Chris & Peggy and they would patiently give us their feedback each time and at all hours of the night. They could sense we were searching for something unusual, something irresponsible. One night, they tossed out the idea of using brass.”

A round porthole window, specifically placed for the enjoyment of Gozo the dog. Photos by Dan Arnold.
Photos by Dan Arnold.

Upstairs, the primary bedroom opens to an expansive rooftop terrace that was established after the new addition below, that further allows Seth and Smith to admire their surrounding gardens and a rare eastern skyline view of downtown L.A.  Hsu notes, “A signature touch that renders the home identifiable from a distance is the round porthole window we specifically placed for the enjoyment of Gozo the dog—that pierces the muted white of the exterior, providing a two-way peek into the everyday.”

Custom shelving nooks frame the bed in the primary bedroom. Photos by Dan Arnold.
Cole & Son wallpaper brass and colorful accents dress up the primary bedroom. Photos by Dan Arnold.
Off the primary bedroom, the terrace is furnished with a modular Rove Concepts sofa that faces a wooden swinging settee.  
Photos by Shaheen Seth.

“We’re still to this day in disbelief that we have our dream home,” says Seth. “The relationship between house and garden is now super strong. We now have a diverse herb garden just a few steps away from the cooktop.”