What is California Modernism? | EYRC Architects

What is California Modernism?

Written by Steven Ehrlich & Takashi Yanai

If we had to identify the strongest theme connecting all of EYRC’s residential design work, it would be this: California Modernism

What exactly does “California Modernism” mean when it’s applied to architecture and, more specifically, residential architecture? Here, we define California Modernism, explore its relationship to other design philosophies, and explore how it has impacted our work.

What is California Modernism?

California Modernism can be interpreted in various ways by different architects. For us, it is a unique spin on international modernism, which tailors its approach to the weather, climate, and materials which are unique to California.

All modernism tends to focus on simplicity and a connection to the outdoors. California modernism takes those tenets and connects them more closely to specific site in which a home or structure is situated. This means that each project is profoundly unique. Each home is specifically tailored to the landscape around it, forming a symbiotic relationship making them inseparable. Each home is a bespoke reflection of its occupants, designed specifically for them and their lifestyle.

Modern Home in California with Pool and Sunset

This particular philosophy influences design in a range of ways. Design choices like materials, colors, and individual elements must be constructed in a way that exists harmoniously with the landscape.

New California Modernism is our take on this notable aesthetic which consciously acknowledges the great diversity that California has come to embody, including cultures from all around the world.

Characteristics of California Modernism

In thinking about the defining characteristics of California modernism as an overarching style and design philosophy, there are certain considerations that immediately spring to mind.


Public spaces that feature elements of California modernism will more often than not have a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor spaces within the residence. This gives the illusion that walls are non-existent and blurs the boundaries of the home in a gorgeous way.


Often (though not always) California modernism is recognized when residences include interior courtyards. This is an elegant and classic way to bring nature into the home.


California modernism’s main goal is to blend architecture and nature into one. This is often done by tying the home to its surrounding landscape and nature with the use of framing views with the use of windows.


By placing a strong emphasis on the specific materials used to construct the home, architects allow the materials to speak for themselves and further celebrate the home’s natural surroundings.


California modernism pays special attention to craftsmanship and detail in the actual construction of a home

Homes that are designed and built in the style of California modernism will of course share many other characteristics. Those that are situated in a mountain landscape, for example, will often embrace a heavier material and color palette, for example, while those situated on the coast will often embrace more glass in order to create an "airy" experience. But at the heart, the bullets listed above are truly indicative of the style.


When we think about how California Modernism has influenced our design aesthetic and philosophy in general, we often think in terms of a blurring of dichotomies. By erasing the boundaries of exterior and interior living space; between light and dark; between nature and artifice; bringing the outside in is a core tenant of our residential, institutional, and commercial work.

California modernism characteristics are hard to miss throughout the various beach homes in Southern California as the core mission of this kind of design is to merge outdoor elements with domestic architecture. 

Bringing the Outside In also relates to how Japanese and North African architectural concepts and principles also heavily influence our approach, stemming from our own experiences. 

During his time in the Peace Corps stationed in North Africa, for example, Steven spent six years living in homes in which courtyards serve an important function as an outdoor room. This directly influenced his thinking around the ways in which the boundaries between outdoor and indoor spaces can be blurred.

Modern homes with courtyard

Similarly, Takashi was born in Japan but raised in California, empowering him to continue the cultural dialogue begun by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Rudolph Schindler, but incorporating his own Japanese roots into this approach. 

Modern California home with Japanese influence

In each of these cultures, the ideas of materiality and the ways in which a home’s material palette relate to its site are incredibly important—and form a key aspect of our unique approach to California Modernism. 

Sometimes this relationship is direct, as when we utilize a material in building a home which is sourced directly from the landscape. Other times it is more subtle, as achieved, for example, in the Spring Road residence, where we echo the color of the bark of trees on the site in the terracotta panels which form the exterior of the home. 

modern home with stunning view

A Uniquely Californian Modernism

While California Modernism may mean slightly different things to different architects and designers, the movement is embodied by a blurring of boundaries between the inside and outside, by a simple material palette, and a strong connection to the site in which a home is situated. For us, our approach is heavily influenced by North African and Japanese concepts—which are featured prominently in our designs. 

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Takashi Yanai

Written by Takashi Yanai

Takashi Yanai is a Partner at Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects and has been Residential Studio Director since 2004. Takashi is also currently leading EYRC’s San Francisco Studio. Prior to practice, Takashi was a design journalist and editor at GA Houses in Tokyo where his work and travels provided the seeds for his design philosophy. Today his work is rooted in its contemplative relationship to landscape and is a continuation of the California Modernist ethos infused with reinterpretations of traditional Japanese elements. In 2017 he was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in recognition of his residential work, which articulates how architecture can “connect man and nature through masterful siting and exceptional craft.” Takashi serves on the SFMOMA Photography Accessions as well as the Architecture+Design Accessions Committees and has also been appointed the Chair of the National AIA Committee on Design for 2021. His professional activities, travels and personal inspirations are well-documented and widely followed (57,000 followers) on his Instagram account @t_yanai. Takashi has a degree in Literature with distinction from the University of California at Berkeley and a Masters in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.