By Becky Harris, Houzz

This project gave Southern California interior designer Charmean Neithart a chance to spread her design wings while putting down roots. “I was tired of putting money into other peoples’ property and having to move,” Neithart says. So instead, she decided to buy a building in downtown South Pasadena, California. It houses her offices and meets her extensive storage needs downstairs while generating rental income upstairs.

How Frank Lloyd Wright Influenced Japanese Architecture

The building came with a cherry on top — a gorgeous penthouse inspired by traditional Japanese houses with a modern twist, designed a few years back by architect Anthony George. Neithart had the freedom to decorate the apartment for an executive who wanted her to enhance the modern Japanese look, something she hadn’t explored much in her work before but was excited to do, as she had lived in Japan herself. The result is a serene space full of beautiful textures and textiles, where you’d never guess you were sleeping atop an industrial building in a busy commercial area.

Japanese Modern

Photos by Erika Bierman

Houzz at a Glance
Who lives here: A young executive
Location: South Pasadena, California
Size: 1,700 square feet (157.9 square meters); one bedroom, 1½ bathrooms
Designer: Charmean Neithart

When designing the architecture for the master suite addition to the penthouse for a couple, years before Neithart bought the building, architect Anthony George used steel and glass to juxtapose the heavy concrete of the rest of the building below. “The 11-foot ceilings, 8-foot overhangs, continuous ribbons of transom glass, wood ceilings and broad wood decks derive their inspiration from traditional Japanese houses, but with an obvious modern twist,” George says. An extensive ipe deck outside the top floor of the building provides a serene outdoor space above the street.

“The architecture of the penthouse dictated the Japanese modern interiors,” says Neithart, who has contributed articles to Houzz. “The location is in a live-work zone and is great for this young executive — close to great restaurants and coffeehouses and a two-minute walk from the train station.”

Japanese Modern


Now that you have an idea of the exterior architecture that inspired the design, let’s begin the indoor tour. This photo was taken from the first step or two into the home, which opens into the living room. Neithart wanted to set the Asian tone right from the get-go. (The sofa table is an altar table from China.)

Because the space felt a little cold, she refaced the corner fireplace’s surround with a mix of teak and petrified-wood tile. She also took out the fake logs and replaced them with round stones, which have a more Japanese look. The antique Japanese fans are eBay finds that she had mounted in shadow boxes.

Japanese Modern


Neithart placed the TV on a low tansu chest and stretched an antique gold-leafed screen behind it.

Shades of tan and brown on the upholstery, rug and coffee table warm the room. An antique Moroccan rug adds some spice to the floor. Original Hans Wegner chairs round out a seating arrangement composed of custom chairs and a sofa designed by Neithart.

Japanese Modern


The original kitchen was still there and was designed by Studio Becker by Troy Adams. “It would have been a ridiculous waste to rip out this kitchen and start over. It’s awesome,” Neithart says. Instead, she gave it just a few tweaks, including new custom stools, crafted by local artisan Rahil Taj; new wallpaper and paint; and makeovers for the sitting nook, on the left side, and pantry, on the right.

The makeover for the kitchen’s small sitting nook included a new grass cloth wall covering. The artwork is from a vintage Japanese panel.

Another wall covering adds an Asian botanical look to the wall that extends above and past the nook.

An antique Asian ancestral portrait brings color and personality to the wall.

Japanese Modern


The designer took one look at the existing pocket doors on the pantry and knew they were keepers that fit in beautifully with her theme — the insets are bamboo reeds set between two panels of acrylic. “This was one of the main items that let me know I had to go Japanese,” she says. “It was a real bonanza to already have these doors here.” In spite of that, she decided to create a pantry that would inspire her tenant to keep the pantry doors open.

“I have a bit of a pantry fetish — I love to make a pantry pretty and fancy enough to warrant leaving the doors open,” she says. She used a grass cloth wallcovering and added a carved panel, found on eBay, to the wall. The teak box beneath it is a custom cover for the router, made by Taj.

Japanese Modern


The penthouse is split-level; the stairs lead up to the master suite. “Before, the bedroom was too open to the rest of the space,” Neithart says. She added the carved wooden screen for privacy. An antique wooden wheel on the low table creates a focal point.

There was about 5 feet of space on either side of the stairs that she made the most of by adding a special cantilevered desk on one side and a daybed on the other. But perhaps the most notable piece is the faux terra-cotta soldier guarding the staircase.

“I love to look for unique pieces,” the designer says. “He was actually a movie prop, painted to look old.” By the way, the movie the soldier appeared in was The Mummy.

Taj was inspired by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, and “his peculiar transformation of exterior structures into dimensional skins and creating experiences with the interplay of space and light,” he says. The piece is made of 220 individual maple slats, affixed to steel panels and supported by its angular frame. “The facade is comprised of constituent lines, which together drive the audience’s awareness to the piece as a connected whole,” he says.

The framed pieces are Samurai armbands, also found on eBay. “I am a huge eBay shopper!” Neithart says.

Across the staircase is a daybed for lounging while enjoying the view out the windows. Neithart scours the globe for interesting and beautiful textiles to use on her projects. She custom-designed a bolster pillow using an intricate obi, or kimono sash. The small side table is a drum.

Japanese Modern


Neithart added the headboard wall for privacy from the windows. It’s nestled in a recess, with a super textural stone-like wallcovering behind it.

All of the bedding is custom, as is the headboard itself, which is plush velvet with an obi down the center. Another obi lies across the foot of the bed. The carving above the headboard was salvaged from a demolished building.

Taj crafted the wall-mounted nightstands, which are just large enough for a book, glasses and a bottle of water. While there wasn’t room for free-standing nightstands, Neithart layered in a petite tree-slab stool to bring in a warm organic touch.

Japanese Modern


Niethart gutted the master bedroom but kept the plumbing in the same places. She added new luxurious finishes that complement the modern Japanese vibe. The shower surround is Jurassic Brown marble. “It’s such a pretty marble — it has these gorgeous fossils in it,” she says.

Pebbled floors feel wonderful beneath the feet and add another interesting texture.

Because of architect George’s glass pavilion, a walk down the hallway feels like you’re out on the deck.

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