slider top

Florida Fun House

Billy Diamond and Tony Baratta paint resort life in primary colors.

When I was fourteen I went on a day trip from summer camp to watch Seiji Ozawa conduct a rehearsal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Halfway through, he stopped the music and turned to us. “There are some ways in which conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra is no work at all,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder at the members of the orchestra and said, “Play the piece.” Then he talked to us while they performed in a fashion that was, to my inexpert ears, identical to the way they had played when every eye had been focused on Ozawa’s baton. “A really good orchestra,” he said, “beyond a certain point, hardly needs a conductor at all.” Then he pointed to the conductor of my summer camp’s orchestra: “That man has a difficult job.”

I have the utmost esteem for designers who can bring forth the full glory of a glorious chateau or make a Fifth Avenue prewar apartment look as splendid as its original inhabitant’s aspirations. But what Billy Diamond and Tony Baratta have done with this South Florida house on a golf course is in some sense more astonishing than either of these. The house is, in essence, as dinky and suburban and unremarkable as any you could find in this country – and it is nonetheless elegant, sporty, gracious in scale and proportion, and more fun than the dancing cow at a May Day festival. It’s a summer camp orchestra and not the Boston Symphony, but it’s on key from the opening note. The golf house is like a combination of the house on Bewitched and a Matisse painting of Nice. It’s a triumph over the pretentions of American suburban grandeur that has not given way to pretensions of any other kind.

“I just looked at the house one day,” the owner recalled, “and said, ‘This doesn’t say happy to me.’” Diamond and Baratta have done a job that says happy at every corner. They have designed a house for laughter, a house in which people could hardly do other than enjoy one another, a house in which problems and sorrows seem to slide into irrelevance.

The structure was built in the early eighties as part of a community developed around two golf courses. “You know,” the owner said, as we looked at the “before” pictures, “I lived in this house for seven years and I never noticed how unattractive it was. As a matter of fact, I loved it. I just had no idea what kind of possibilities were buried here.” Billy Diamond did not need seven years: “I walked in and I couldn’t believe what it looked like. You wouldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable.” The rest of the community is in a style that might be described as Florida Bombast, which involves imposing madly outscale dramatic features on essentially poky houses. Sloping shed roofs, faux crystal chandeliers, tinted mirrors, and oddly positioned floodlighting are also hallmarks of the style. It is the only style I have ever encountered that can make you feel dwarfed and claustrophobic at the same time.

Diamond and Baratta started off with the word “clarify.” They rearranged the bones of the house to give the rooms balance and proportion; they got rid of the fuss and clutter and chaos. They enlarged the living room to make it a perfect square, then built a subtle pyramid ceiling which gives the space about as much drama as it can take. They added two guest rooms with baths and a family room/kitchen that looks like an upbeat revision of an old yachting fantasy. They turned the swimming pool ninety degrees and gave it a tile border in Yale blue and white.

They played games in the guest rooms: a pair of freestanding closets in one are copies of nineteenth-century cabanas, one decorated with a moon, the other with a star; beyond their rustling contents you might well find a lion and a witch. The master bedroom, meanwhile, has an adult quality of carefree romance.

Diamond and Baratta replaced all the windows with sliding glass doors so that you can go outside from any room. They kept the glazing in scale with the house; the rooms have splendid views, but you know when you are inside and when you are outside. Set in a community that was artificial in its conception and realization, the house plays with artifice. Antiques are covered in modern fabrics, while new pieces refer to the past. The designers created furniture for the family room which recalls boat furnishings of the 1920s, but they also installed a brass sink in an enormous cupboard from a Victorian pantry, had it painted white, and filled its shelves with the owner’s collection of Fiesta ware. Tall things are short, short things are tall; the house has an air of caprice about it.

The owners are warm, curious, and full of the joy of life. They are also people of substance – there is nothing trivial or foolish about their exuberance. Diamond and Baratta have interpreted them well because the house, for all its whimsy, is full of thought. There is a reason for everything. The house functions for a middle-aged couple watching TV together, for a visit from the grandchildren, for a little party for neighbors, and for a splashy dinner for twenty. It’s a good house for the good life that is lived in it.

At one point the designers painted the exterior in the same primary colors they used to such splendid effect inside. When neighbors complained, the owners agreed to return to quieter tones. “You have to understand,” the owner said, “I’m living in a very beige community here.” And she shrugged in the nonchalant way that a rainbow might shrug off a sky full of clouds.