James Magni and Paul McClean Collaborate on a Modern Residence that Makes the Most of Its Breathtaking Setting
The designer and architect team up to create a Northern California lakeside retreat that highlights the owner’s indoor and outdoor art collection
For nearly a quarter-century, a wildlife photographer and her ceramist husband had been living in a secluded five-and-half-acre retreat near Folsom Lake, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about a half-hour northeast of Sacramento, California. After her kids from a previous marriage were grown and out of the house, the empty nesters decided it was time to build a new refuge to feed their creative pursuits and enhance their connection to nature.
They purchased a prime waterfront plot on the opposite side of the lake and began dreaming. “So many of the homes in this area are Mediterranean or Spanish-style architecture with tile roofs, but I fell in love with the idea of a warm, modern home,” says the wife, who started by going online to research architects and peruse real estate listings for inspiration. When she landed on a listing for a light-filled Laguna Beach residence dubbed Seacliff, designed by Irish-born Paul McClean, she went to the McClean Design website and immediately called out to her husband, “Oh, my God, I found our architect.”
McClean’s firm is synonymous with crisp glass-and-steel modern homes dotting the hills of Los Angeles, typically defined by bold, rectilinear volumes with deep overhangs and always an emphasis on views and a seamless indoor-outdoor flow. The architect says he was intrigued by the clients’ desire for their new lakeside home to feel warm and earthy, to have a “spiritual aspect” to the design.
“It’s really about the connection to the lake,” says McClean. “When you walk around the property, it almost has the feel of the Cyclades.” The focus, he explains, was on creating an elevated “spatial quality” that is grounded in the landscape.
“Our objective was to come in with a layer of warmth and luxury in materials and bring down the scale a bit to human proportions”James Magni
To start, he created a tripartite plan for the 8,000-square-foot home, placing the entertaining areas in the middle, with the primary bedroom suite and a gym on one side and a guest wing on the other. Throughout, expanses of glass and high ceilings enhance the sense of light and airiness, complemented by an array of sumptuous materials—tongue-and-groove cedar ceilings, split-face limestone walls, silver travertine countertops, bleached-oak floors.
For the interior finishes, furnishings, and art, the homeowners turned to James Magni of Magni Kalman Design. “Paul’s spaces are very tall and grand and very view-oriented,” says Magni. “Our objective was to come in with a layer of warmth and luxury in materials and bring down the scale a bit to human proportions.”
In the sprawling great room, he anchored one end with a patinated-steel fireplace surround and a muscular shelving unit that displays a collection of the husband’s ceramic vessels. Magni divided the space into a couple of seating areas, one highlighted by a pair of Warren Platner armchairs covered in teal mohair. The other features four Jiun Ho barrel-back swivel chairs around a cocktail table from the Magni Home Collection, with the room’s pièce de résistance, an iridescent cloudlike sculpture by Tomás Saraceno, suspended dramatically above.
The designer worked closely with the homeowners on displaying their expanding art collection, which includes large paintings by Callum Innes, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, and Annie Lapin, as well as a specially commissioned diptych in reverse-painted glass by Cassandria Blackmore. There are also outdoor works by Jeppe Hein and Jose Dávila, whose sculpture of concrete blocks and blue-painted stones echoes the rocks that give Boulder Beach, where the couple watches sunsets, its name.
The Dávila piece stands beside the 80-foot-long swimming pool, designed with a gracefully undulating infinity edge. “Water is a huge component of our work. These pools bounce the light into the house and you get these beautiful reflections,” explains McClean. “We want to have the feeling and sound of water all around you.”
In collaboration with landscape architect Ed Haag, the architect also created a waterfall within a private garden outside the primary bath, as well as the swimming pool and another water feature that extends from the entryway around to the back of the guest wing. That’s where Magni sited the Hein sculpture, whose mirrored surfaces provide reflections of the surrounding architecture and landscape that shift depending on your vantage point.
Sensorial tranquility was a major point of emphasis, not least in the shaded outdoor kitchen and modest ceramics studio behind the house, where the husband spends much of his time. For her part, the wife says she loves the great room. “That’s where I live, and the Saraceno sculpture puts off this amazing reflection of light all over the room that changes throughout the year.” But her favorite retreat is the couple’s bedroom. “There are two sliders that open up all the way—the walls disappear,” she says. “The unobstructed views are magical.”
For the couple, Folsom Lake has the kind of spiritual enchantment that Henry David Thoreau attributed to Walden Pond, which he famously compared to “the earth’s eye,” looking into which, he wrote, “the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2023 Fall Issue under the headline “Full Immersion.” Subscribe to the magazine.