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Inside San Diego Artist Miki Iwasaki’s Modernist Home

In Ocean Beach, Iwasaki creates a minimalist masterpiece where art and play collide

By AnnaMaria Stephens

Designer and artist Miki Iwasaki

Designer and artist Miki Iwasaki with his 1963 Ford Econoline Falcon Station Bus. In addition to nationwide public art commissions, he runs Sunset Projects, a local design and fabrication collective. He fabricated metalwork throughout the home.

Tomoko Matsubayashi

San Diego artist Miki Iwasaki knew he wanted to move his family as close to the coast as possible. He and his wife, both surfers, had fond memories of growing up in beach towns. Their two young kids already seemed to share their love of the ocean, but beach visits meant a drive from their Sherman Heights home, a place they admit they’d already started to outgrow. Then an Ocean Beach property right by a favorite surf spot went on the market.

“It’s a block from where we got married at Sunset Cliffs,” says Iwasaki. “The area also has great schools. It checked a lot of boxes for us.”

Iwasaki, who studied architecture at Harvard, considered saving the original house, but it didn’t maximize the lot. On a street lined with towering, skinny palm trees—the kind synonymous with Southern California—he designed a cedar-clad modern replacement that feels right at home in the laid-back neighborhood.

Out front, the U-shaped house offers privacy from the street, while the inward-facing parts wrap around a large secluded courtyard, a design decision he says elevated the project. He credits his wife, Rachel Rabinor, a perinatal therapist, for the clever idea.

“With the big sliders, there’s a seamless transition between inside and out,” he says. “She wanted a space that connects living and dining to children playing.”

Miki Iwasaki and Son

Iwasaki and his son Jett hang out in the light-flooded dining room and living area, the home’s central artery

Tomoko Matsubayashi

Iwasaki worked with general contractor Andy Holmes of Holmes Construction. Though Holmes, who grew up in Point Loma, specializes in Craftsman homes, he understood Iwasaki’s aesthetic. “If you’re able to execute a home with all that historical detailing, you can do a modernist home,” says Iwasaki.

The simple design divides the home into public and private spaces. A back volume consists of ample storage (another must-have from Rabinor), while the front volume contains guest quarters. Most of the family activity takes place in the central part of the home, where light-flooded living and dining areas lead upstairs to spacious bedrooms and a Japanese-style main bathroom with a soaking tub. (Kids Jett, 11, and Aya, 7, have their own bathrooms but still prefer the splashing-allowed wet room and deep tub.)

Iwasaki’s nationwide public art projects include a well-known piece at SAN airport’s Terminal 1 (not far from the family’s home), and he also runs Sunset Projects, a local design and fabrication collective. He fabricated the metalwork around the home’s windows, some of the cabinetry, and a Harry Potter-esque secret space beneath the stairway. He also built the family’s dining table.

Mostly, though, he kept things as minimal as possible, eschewing details like baseboards and trim in favor of clean-lined simplicity. “I looked at it as more of a gallery-type organization,” says Iwasaki. “The furniture and artwork are more enhanced with the neutral environment.”

Miki Iwasaki Credenza

The credenza is a “vintage NYC dumpster find,” says Iwasaki.

Tomoko Matsubayashi

A collection of contemporary art, including work from longtime San Diego artist friends, adds eye-catching accents of color and texture to the home. Standouts include a striking metal wall sculpture by Chris Puzio and a monumental elephant-head sculpture by renowned artist and furniture designer Wendy Maruyama, a deeply respected mentor in the local design community. Iwasaki’s sculptural pieces can be found throughout the casual home.

From easy-clean concrete floors to an outdoor shower, just about every inch of the place is beach-life friendly. The family briefly considered adding a pool but quickly changed their minds. “It’s the same reason we didn’t want crow’s nest balconies on the house,” Iwasaki explains. “We have the ocean and cliffs. I want the kids to experience the real thing. If you want the ocean, go to the ocean. When you’re home, you’re home.”


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