In This Idyllic Home, Every Room Has a View and Natural Source of Light
In a modern Paradise Valley residence, an atrium serves as the heart of the home.
By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Kevin Kaminski
A 55-foot-long atrium bisects Tara Lee O’Brien and Bryan Aschenbrand’s Paradise Valley house, running from the entry to the edge of the great room. Open to the sky and lushly planted with gardenias, jasmine, kumquats, ficus and lemon trees, the open-air space offers the trickle of a stone fountain and the rustling of leaves in the breeze. The area is the heart of the home, bringing in daylight and, when its sliding glass walls are opened, the scents and sounds of nature deep into the interior.
“We both grew up in New York,” says Tara, explaining the couple’s origin story. “We lived in small, dark apartments and looked at concrete. I always knew that my dream home would be all about nature.”
The path to the dream dwelling began when Tara and Bryan, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, moved to the Phoenix area more than 20 years ago. Though they lived in several homes—and had two sons, now football players and in college—none of their previous residences seemed “right.” Tara, an artist and author, began sketching her vision of a perfect habitat, which included plenty of natural illumination, views and access to the outdoors from virtually every room. Bryan was supportive of her plans. “I had a few things I wanted to see in this new home, but I deferred to most of the design ideas to Tara. She’s blessed with an artistic vision,” he says.
A few years ago, they were ready to build. To help transform dreams into concrete form, the couple turned to architect and builder Jerry Little and his wife, interior designer Angelica Little. “I was looking for someone who knew how to bring nature into a house. I brought them my chicken-scratch blueprint and my ideas,” Tara recalls, “and they made it a reality.”
With the Littles’ help, Bryan and Tara found a hillside lot with views of Camelback and Mummy Mountains. A three-level, 1960s house that had not been lived in for three decades occupied the 3/4-acre lot, making the decision to tear down rather than remodel an easy choice. “Tara was adamant about having a single-level house,” recalls Jerry, “so after the demolition, we had to prep the lot by cutting into the hillside a bit and using fill to raise the building site in order to get the new house, garage, casita and pool all on one level.”
Using the atrium as the organizing element, Jerry designed a 7,200-square-foot plan in a U around the open space, placing a guest room and Bryan’s office along one side, the bedroom wing on the other side, and the great room, dining area and kitchen at back, overlooking the pool and mountain vistas. Virtually every room opens onto a patio. In style, Jerry refers to the design as a “post-modern ranch,” with its long, lean lines, a strong roofline and deep overhangs. Per Tara’s request, Jerry points out, each room has a view and natural light, including the mud room. “That’s the advantage of being both the architect and the builder on a project like this,” he explains. “I can be on site and can lock in 2 feet one way or another to be dead on to the views and light.”
“I was looking for someone who knew how to bring nature into a house. I brought them my chicken-scratch blueprint and my ideas.”
—Tara Lee O’Brien, homeowner
Working closely with Tara, Angelica suggested finishes and furnishings that had both a calming, Zenlike appeal and could withstand the rough-and-tumble of family life when the couple’s sons and their friends are home from college. “We reused some of their older furnishings but added a lot of new pieces for this place,” says Angelica. “Even though we went with a lot of neutrals, we had a mix of materials that kept things interesting.” With pale, sandy hues, the backgrounds include porcelain tile as flooring and wall cladding, warmed by a slatted poplar ceiling. The kitchen, with its two generous islands, is sleek and serene with modern cabinetry done in a tactile, linenlike finish. In the dining room, a custom walnut table easily seats 10 and is illuminated by a selenite crystal chandelier. A stone-clad fireplace is the centerpiece of the great room, where a loungeworthy sectional and leather club chairs are contrasted by a classic coffee table designed by Isamu Noguchi. Throughout the interior, most of the paintings are by Tara, which she creates in a sun-dappled studio off the great room.
Completed just before the pandemic lockdowns began, the abode has worked perfectly for the couple and their sons. Bryan’s office offers relief from work stresses via views of Mummy Mountain and direct access to a putting green. Tara’s studio doubles as a meditation room and the kitchen serves as another creative outlet for her.
“I’m a scratch cook, but I don’t know how to cook for two,” she says of gastronomic approach. “There’s always enough for an army.” When in residence, the sons have their own wing, plus their own den for lounging and shooting pool with friends. On warm days, family and friends can be found in the pool casita, designed to withstand wet swimsuits and towels.
But it’s the atrium that is the magnet for the couple, who often sit at a small table in its midst. “Birds fly in here, and you can feel the breezes and the sunshine,” says Tara. “The rain cools it down and, at night, you can look up to see the stars. What more could you want?”
“Even though we went with a lot of neutrals, we had a mix of materials that kept things interesting.”
—Angelica Little, interior designer
Architect, builder and landscape designer: Jerry Little, AIA, SEAD Architects, Tempe, seadarchitects.com. Interior designer: Angelica Little, seadarchitects.com.
GREAT ROOM—Sectional: crateandbarrel.com. Leather chairs and ottomans: rh.com. Isamu Noguchi coffee table: dwr.com.
BACKYARD—Pool builder: Shasta Pools, Phoenix, shastapools.com. Outdoor furniture: Today’s Patio, Scottsdale, todayspatio.com.
DINING ROOM—Table: Bang Bang Designs, Phoenix, bangbangdesigns.com. Chairs: stoneinternational.it. Chandelier: rh.com. Artwork: Tara Lee O’Brien, Paradise Valley, taraleeobrien.com.
KITCHEN—Cabinetry: Burdette Cabinet Co., Inc., Mesa, burdettecabinets.com. Appliances: Ferguson, Scottsdale, ferguson.com. Bar stools: westelm.com.
MASTER BEDROOM—Bed: mgbwhome.com. Nightstands: westelm.com. Chairs: crateandbarrel.com. Lamps: dwr.com.
MASTER BATH—Cabinetry: burdettecabinets.com. Light fixture: rh.com.