Garden House

Location Atherton, California
Design Principal Jim Olson

The concept for the house began with the owners’ travels to Kyoto, Japan and their desire to build a new house at the site where they had lived for the past 30 years. Having been tremendously impressed by the Katsura Palace in Kyoto, the owners asked Olson to design a residence that captured the spirit of Katsura Palace and translate it to our time and culture.

I will never forget the experience of walking down the aisle between the monumental columns at Karnak. All alone, I felt like part of a sacred ceremony. I’ve tried to re-create that feeling in numerous projects through scale, cadence, and proportion.

Jim Olson Design Principal

The concept, at its heart, is the seamless integration of land, house, and art.  Connections to the landscape are paramount.  The design of the house is broken into three primary components that parallel the ideas of land, or “the garden” which includes the dining room, the entry, and a gallery capable of opening on all sides to the garden; house, or “the nest” which includes the family room, kitchen, and bedrooms; and art, or “the temple.”  The temple, or living room, is a surreal space that suspends reality and allows one’s attention to reflect on spiritual or immaterial things.  Subtly reflective wall panels and a curved and floating ceiling dissolve space and in effect, expand time.  Dominating the temple space is a giant steel horse, by artist Deborah Butterfield.

Perception of Space

Hiding corners, light sources, and structure expands the perception of space. An indirectly lit, domed ceiling creates an illusion of infinity and a neutral setting in which the owners' art collection becomes the focus.

Jim Olson Design Principal

With so much family history connected to the site, the decision to recycle the site rather than build somewhere else was a natural one.  The garden was left as undisturbed as possible and the idea of recycling and the environment carried over to materials and finish choices as well.  Materials such as wood columns and flooring are recycled from old factories.  Woods are left in their natural unpainted states.  Colors, when used, are serene, tending toward grey, tan and green.  The end result is a project sympathetic to nature and the surroundings and provides an inspiring yet peaceful refuge for living.



Design Principal

Jim Olson

Project Manager

Kirsten R. Murray



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Paul, Donna. “Shades of Kyoto.” Interior Design, Aug. 2003, cover, 168-175. Print.


Henderson, Justin. “Artists in residence.” Midwest Express, March 2001, 16-18. Print.

Vercelloni, Matteo, et al. New American Houses 2: Country, Sea and City Vol. 2. Milan: Edizioni L’Archivolto, 2001, 108-132. Book.


Henderson, Justin, and Nora Richter Greer. Design Secrets: Architectural Interiors. Minneapolis: Rockport Publishers, Dec. 2000, 6-13. Book.

Matthews, Stuart. “The art of nature.” Trends Vol. 15 No. 6, 2000, 32-43. Print.

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