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Honoring heritage through design: Los Altos residents imbue their home with history, color

Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music and intellect, sits in a special niche in the living room of a special home that Rashmi Sinha and Vikram Sahai built in Los Altos.

The life-sized carved teak figure, with a beautiful face and serene smile, glows against a burnished gold background. It is among the personal treasures the couple collected in their native India.

The choice of Saraswati is apropos because the couple and their daughters – Arushi, 10, and Shefali, 8 – are musicians and avid readers. Sinha plays the harmonium; Sahai, the drums; and the girls, the piano.

What makes the house special is that they designed it with their children – and lifestyle – in mind. And it celebrates their heritage.

When they were house hunting a few years ago, they discovered a commonality: huge master suites and small children’s bedrooms.

“As adults, we don’t need all that space,” Sinha said. “The kids’ rooms should be bigger.”

Although they didn’t find a house they liked, they did find a Los Altos property they loved because of the family-friendly neighborhood, schools, nearby parks and shopping.

Sahai said, “This is it.”

And, just like that, they bought the property and contracted with architect Roger Kohler of Palo Alto and interior designer Gina Viscusi Elson of Los Altos for designs and Plemons Construction of Palo Alto to build it.

The classic Mediterranean exterior of the two-story house belies the interior, with the exception of the wrought-iron railings on the staircases leading upstairs and down to the basement.

“We wanted the house to be a blend of old and modern,” Sinha said. “We appreciate history and ancient cultures, and we like the freshness of modern.”

Creamy beige marble floors in the entry hall, dining room and living room make a perfect foil for the vibrant colors of the furnishings as well as being childproof and eco-friendly.

“The light reflects off the marble and brings more cheerfulness into the house,” Sinha said.

In the entry hall is a lanternlike Venetian blown-glass chandelier with a silk tassel hanging from the base.

“I’d seen a fixture just like it in a magazine and looked and looked,” she said. “Then one day we walked into a showroom in Venice and there it was.”

The dining room flows into the kitchen and great room. Taken as a whole, these three areas compose the heart of family activity.

The travertine dining room table – a work of art – is used daily for art projects and homework. Spills wipe up easily, as they do from the leather dining chairs. The dining room walls are a rich, earthy brown.

“Mineral dust mixed with the paint added sheen and texture to the walls,” said Viscusi Elson, who took her cue for the color scheme from a painting the couple purchased in Santa Fe.

An arresting painting of a Rajasthani (Sinha’s birthplace) woman dictated the living room color scheme. The comfortable room is resplendent in muted tones of gold, orange and turquoise.

“Nothing matches, but everything works together,” said Sinha of the furnishings.

“There is an eclectic elegance to the house, with artistic touches that reflect the family’s heritage,” Viscusi Elson said. “Heirlooms have been turned into art and are displayed proudly.”

The trio of dining room, kitchen and great room is where the family hangs out while meals are being prepared, homework is being done or television and/or movies are being watched. The modern scoop-back sofa in the great room is large and deep enough to accommodate the entire family.

“It’s the family favorite. We can all snuggle together and read or watch TV,” Sinha said.

It was the one piece of furniture Sahai lobbied for.

Sinha designed the wall facing the sofa. There is a fireplace to the left (a cozy corner in winter), a big-screen TV in the center and a bookcase to the right, where they display artifacts and family mementos.

Off the right corner of the room is a raised alcove just for the girls – a place for their books, games and art supplies.

In the state-of-the-art kitchen, everyone can participate in family activities. The earth-toned granite central island is two-tiered with a table-height curved seating area at one end.

“No bar stools – I wanted the ease of getting in and out,” Sinha said.

She actually measured how much space each person required for reading, writing and eating before deciding on the depth of the counter.

The Shakerlike cabinetry is cherry and the flooring dark-brown engineered Tiete Chestnut, which complements the dining room.

“I wanted something warm but simple,” Sinha said.

The house is radiant heated, which dictated the choice of flooring. Solar panels provide the energy.

“It’s our only source of heating,” Sahai said.

Upstairs, the master suite is not overwhelming, and the girls have large bedrooms. There’s also a guest bedroom and bath downstairs.

The pièce de résistance is the basement, which is not your typical basement.

“To truly celebrate their heritage, it was designed to hold multiple families for Indian dancing and indoor gatherings,” Viscusi Elson said.

It serves as a home theater with a retractable screen and acoustical curtains that separate the screening area from the rest of the room. A cushy wraparound green leather sofa with orange muffinlike footstools invites one to sit down. The minibar is topped with variegated green marble (Sinha loves stone). In addition, there is an office the couple share.

“There’s a playfulness in style and color throughout the house, but built-ins and furniture are solid and grounded,” Viscusi Elson said. “The vibrant colors are perfectly balanced with natural elements and finishes.”

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