Designing A Modern Mid-Century Mansion In Fort Lauderdale
Architect Alberto J. Comas still remembers one of the earliest conversations he shared with his client Gil de Ferran, the French-born, Brazilian-grown race car driver whose meritorious victories include winning the British F3 championship, two consecutive IndyCar titles and the legendary Indy 500.
“Gil is a very smart fellow, and he's also very particular,” Comas says. “When he first came to me he said, ‘I'd like my house to be designed just like we design an IndyCar.'”
At the time, de Ferran, who now serves as McLaren Racing's sporting director, was residing in a palm-dotted neighborhood near Las Olas Boulevard with his British wife, Angela, and their two young children. They had purchased a canal-fronting plot less than a mile away in Las Olas Isles.
While driving around in search of his family's first home in South Florida, de Ferran was charmed by Fort Lauderdale's “village-y feel” and appreciated its close proximity to not one, but two, international airports (a must-have for the couple's travel-intensive lifestyle). After six years of living overseas in the UK and two years in Indianapolis, the motorsport veteran felt like he was finally home.
Nearly 20 years later, he was ready to uproot again. This time, though, to a masterpiece of his own making. “I'd always had this dream in the back of my mind that I wanted to build my own home,” de Ferran says. “It had been maturing for several years… and I got to a point where I was like, ‘Let's do it!'”
While he already had an architect in mind, his realtor pressed him to call Comas who'd built her home and had a reputation for designing custom residences that garnered second glances.
At their initial client-designer meeting, Comas and de Ferran connected instantly. Being an IndyCar loyalist may have scored points for the Puerto Rican architect, or it was his predilection for a particular German car manufacturer. “I'm a Porsche owner, so I‘m a fan of fast cars,” he says.
According to Comas, de Ferran, a self-described “engineer and designer wannabe,” was deeply entrenched in every aspect of the home's design and often shared his ideas and sketches.
Comas remembers, “He would call me from the track if something had come to mind or would show up [to meetings] with thumbnails of things he'd thought of at night.”
The 10,000-square-foot structure—which features social and service areas on the first floor, bedrooms and an office on the second, and a mixed-use game room on the third—took nearly a year to design and permit, and more than three years to build.
Austere rectilinearity and an adroit portrayal of organic architecture qualify as two of the home's finest features. The midcentury marvel is rooted in nature and sustainability, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.
Modeled in concrete, the façade features a compelling configuration of horizontal thrusts, cantilevered overhangs and jutting rooflines. It is accented with smooth white stucco and telluric elements like mahogany and ipe wood, and vertical columns of vein-cut limestone.
Reflecting ponds were set near the front door to create an illusionary protraction of the pool and water features at the rear of the home.
Outdoor materials were pulled indoors and highlighted in provocative ways to accomplish additional cohesion with the external architecture. For example, vein-cut limestone walls leading to the front entrance bring texture, while mahogany supplies extra warmth and perpetuates the organic aesthetic through varying elements, like case goods and built-ins designed by Equilibrium Interior Design Inc.
Initially hired to design the millwork for the home, de Ferran later enlisted the renowned Fort Lauderdale-based firm to spearhead its overall design narrative as well.
Equilibrium's Voytek Faber began with picking a palette of ivory, whites, off -whites and browns, and used materials repetitiously—vein-cut limestone, ipe and mahogany—to create a soothing, almost meditative, atmosphere.
Like Comas, Faber wove in many of Fallingwater's prevailing attributes, including cantilevered surfaces and inverted L-shapes.
In the kitchen, where the family often congregates for relaxed meals and de Ferran indulges in another of his favorite pastimes—yes, cooking—Faber embraced a “sleek-is-more” sensibility.
Above an island with double sinks and a gas cooktop, a cantilevered stainless steel hood with LED lights evokes an upside-down catwalk.
Opposite the island, a morning bar with refrigerator drawers stocked with juices and healthy snacks boasts a tower that houses a coffee machine and other appliances.
In lieu of traditional cabinetry, walls of vertical, glossy white, acrylic panels conceal a full-size refrigerator, freezer and wine fridge. Additional panels provide access to a pantry, laundry room and a guest bedroom and bath. Another leads to a powder room with a dramatic hardwood feature wall and a matching vanity and shelf that appear to defy gravity beneath an elongated, backlit mirror.
On the southern end, sliding glass doors frame the tropical topography and water views beyond. One set opens to the pool and a tanning deck, the other to a covered gazebo with commanding vistas of the Seminole Canal.
If the kitchen is the home's heart, then the great room is its backbone. To bring the capacious, open-concept plan down to a more intimate scale, Faber divided the space into three vignettes that mingle ease with the couple's fondness for relaxed entertaining with friends, family and out-of-town guests.
A suspended ceiling supplies drama and demarcation above a semi-formal dining area anchored by a perpendicular glass table that stands ready for a Dionysian feast.
Nearby, an elegant-yet-informal living room furnished with luxurious, low-profile pieces, like matching leather-upholstered sofas and ebony side chairs sourced from Artefacto, makes an ideal setting for an afternoon siesta or après dinner aperitifs.
A pint-sized bar detailed with cantilevered, vanilla onyx slabs that glow when illuminated holds court in a corner alcove. Various design decisions were made in order to make the little bar feel larger.
“There are no hanging light pendants, and the horizontal wooden slats and onyx counter keep the area open and uncluttered,” Faber says. “The upper cabinets are tucked away and a mirrored backsplash offers the illusion of more space.”
Art and decorative touches were deliberately selected and kept to a minimum so as to not distract from the wow-worthy views. A pair of de Ferran's racing trophies grace a side table, and a Marlene Rose electric blue ammonite oh cast glass sculpture stands sentry.
Four-paneled mahogany glass sliders open directly to a section of lap pool hugging the edifice's eastern wall and another to an airy, covered patio with a Brazilian ipe ceiling that offers year-round functionality.
With no shortage of natural light during the day, Comas lined the ceiling with cove lights to irradiate the space after sundown. Comas remembers, “Gil would often say, ‘I want to see the lighting but I don't want to see its source.'” Every room bears some type of indirect lighting with table lamps only present in some of the bedrooms.
The sculptural, three-story staircase is another visual showstopper. Comas conceded the structure, albeit spectacular, was one of his greater design challenges. “It looks simple, but it was very complex to build,” Comas says.
After numerous iterations, a meticulous system of steel rods and wooden treads was achieved. Three dozen, 30-foot rods, stretching uninterrupted from the ground level to the third floor, support the stairs and double as handrails. “You'll see this [technique] at Fallingwater,” he says. “The stairs are supported in a similar way.”
In the upstairs master bedroom, a floating bed with a towering headboard tufted in dark chocolate suede sets the scene for sweet dreams.
Equilibrium designed the bespoke built-in with hanging cylindrical pendant lights and matching side tables that appear to levitate above a glossy, viscose and wool carpet.
Art and textiles in crisp shades of blue, green and turquoise, and a trio of Lucy Peveto paintings from New River Fine Art Gallery on Las Olas, break up the earthy tones and bounce the eye around the room.
Through a pair of louvered doors, the master bath, accented with river stones and large marble tiles, puts a luxurious spin on self-pampering. A deep soaking tub perfect for two reminds that cleanliness is next to godliness.
Inside the steam shower, electrochromic glass or “smart windows” tint electronically at the touch of a button. To keep the vanity and countertops clutter-free, vertical wooden towers were added to hide electrical outlets and provide extra storage.
Elevated above swaying palm trees and lush vegetation, the third-floor, media-game room feels akin to treehouse living. The man cave-inspired space, and one of de Ferran's favorite spots, boasts a Flexform sectional, a pool table and a hidden bar. Equipped with a Murphy bed and a bathroom with a steam shower, it also serves as a bonus room for visiting guests. The outdoor balcony provides a comfortable perch for sunrise and sunset watching.
Inimitable in its own way, the home has served as an inspiration for other homeowners around the neighborhood. “I think Gil's house was probably the first of a wave of modern architecture we've seen in Las Olas Isles,” Comas says. “It seems like every time another house went up, it looked exactly like theirs.”
If it's true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then de Ferran and his crack design team have their own talents to toast.