Opened House

Less is more at a Camarillo Heights home where simplicity and rugged beauty merge.

By Andrea Kitay—Photography by Gaszton Gal

A mid-century glass house surrounded by hills affords little privacy. Solution? Buy the hills. (Land was cheap in the ‘50s.)


here is, arguably, a palpable change in our collective attitudes today since a decades-long spiral into consumerism grabbed the nation and hung on like some bad virus. But for a fortunate few, often boomers who grew up hearing stories of the Great Depression at their parents’ knees, restraint is a way of life. For Camarillo residents Dan Phillips and his ceramic artist wife Gayle Bentley Swanson, less was always more.

So it was only natural that the couple, who now share five children and seven grandchildren in their blended family, would make something of the modest Fickett-designed home in Camarillo Heights that Phillips’ parents left him.

Dan Phillips and Gayle Bentley Swanson.

Swanson was immediately drawn to the house. “When Dan’s parents left him this place, we saw the simplicity of the Fickett design and the rugged beauty of the land. “With a little tree trimming we can even see St. Mary Magdalene’s church lit up at night through the kitchen window,” Gayle explains in her quiet voice as she shows me the view down the valley and into Camarillo.

And while the home today has kept its decidedly mid-century look, a few architectural elements were removed to allow for more windows and light or solve a structural issue. The result is an even more uncluttered look than the original. Oversized front windows, originally tucked behind a wall built of alternately missing cement blocks designed to let in filtered light yet allow for privacy, are now fully exposed after construction workers simply removed the wall. The roof’s horizontal, slightly vaulted line is now broken midway, and oversized glass doors with operable clerestory windows above make the breadth of the front almost entirely exposed. To reduce maintenance, previously wood fascia boards and eaves are wrapped in the same stucco that now covers the home.

A formal outdoor seating area with koi pond and waterfall connects to the living room.

One of the biggest transformations is the kitchen, which was originally in the back of the house. Moved to the front and combined with a family room, it now accommodates a more traditional 21st century open kitchen lifestyle. Levi Mize mahogany kitchen cabinets continue the clean lines and prevent clutter, with garages terminating at the granite counter to store appliances such as a coffee mill, teapot, and toaster oven.

The open entryway showcases an antique Italian chest and paintings collected on the couple’s travels.

Although the property is on seven acres, the house and gardens comprise just a small portion, with the rest being left natural. Barrancas and hillsides loaded with prickly pear and other native shrubs surround the house. Meandering paths are formed from repurposed concrete and small walls delineate outdoor seating areas. On the property’s west side, beyond what is the most formal area, the path splits, offering a separate route to both the chicken coop Phillips built and Swanson’s block-wall studio. Here, pale cornflower yellow walls support shelves crammed with jars of glazes, bits of partially finished pieces, and an assortment of tools. This is a working studio, a place of reflection and creativity for Swanson. Near the door, a potter’s wheel beckons, light pouring onto it through the door we’ve left open behind us. Just outside, Nick the white rescue rooster roams under the shelter of trees, crowing now and then to remind us who’s in charge.

Floor-to-ceiling windows (left) blur the line between indoors and out. In the foreground, one of several adobe geological sculptures created jointly by Dan and Gayle.

“My work is a constant, and a very Zen companion. Color, rather than content, defines my work, and so even when I’m not in the studio I’m thinking of colors to put together,” Gayle tells me. She compares her color scheme to watercolors running into each other and colliding to create unusual blends, which give a depth to her pieces—from serious sculptures to whimsical jewelry.

The home’s interior colors are subdued, with Gayles’ calming artwork here and there. Sculptures are placed on shelves in an extra bedroom, pieces propped against walls. By the living room fireplace, a large salt-fired pot with bright turquoise glaze covering half of the outside is a standout, its raw, natural look in sharp contrast to its glaze. A fruit bowl in the kitchen has nine shades of crackled turquoise, greens, and blue that in typical Gayle style all run into one another. A matte gold trim with an Egyptian design is imprinted into the edges.

The art studio (right) stands alone, between pines and a blooming jacaranda. An outdoor coffee table provides a fitting display for Gayle’s ceramic sculptures.

From interior restructuring to exterior seating areas built by Dan and landscaping designed by Swanson, who is also a Certified Master Gardener, the duo succeeded in one of the most difficult aspects of a successful remodel: continuity.

“We give each other energy and excitement,” says Swanson. With the remodel over, they are back at it, Gayle working on art projects—her pieces have a permanent home at the Ventura County Potters’ Guild Gallery in Harbor Village—and Phillips spending his days as a kayaking guide in the Channel Islands. By way of explanation for the success of the remodel, Swanson tells me, “We kept Fickett’s original theme, remembering that what you do to the inside you have to do to the outside.” I think Fickett would approve.


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