Written by Holly Bieler | Photographed by Erich Chen
Malibu is a city of design nerds. A drive down almost any street in this small city provides a veritable master class in modern California architecture at its highest level, from Carbon Beach Richard Meiers to Broad Beach’s glassy Ed Niles behemoths. Of the 7,200 homes which fall within the city’s jurisdiction, no less than 215 can lay claim to an Architectural Digest feature. And if you’re looking to buy designer home decor you will find more places to do so in this city than you will cartons of milk.
And yet, even here, Scott Gillen stands out. The founder of UNVARNISHED, the Malibu design and bespoke home Design/Building firm behind some of the most jaw-dropping homes built in Malibu in recent years, Gillen takes design-wonkiness to a new level. He is the kind of design-obsessive who waxes poetic about the most aesthetically pleasing angle at which an ajar door can rest.
“Do you let it fall back a little bit, or does it open at a 90-degree angle?” Gillen says, his eyes engaged and sparkling. “For me, it shouldn’t fall back a little bit. That’s lazy. People don’t realize that at the right distance, doorstops are made to have the door open at 90 degrees. [A door] should be built so that when it’s open, it’s at a perfect 90 degrees.”
Lest you imagine Gillen’s a normal guy who just happens to be deeply obsessed with door angles: he is not. He is, in fact, as deeply obsessed with many other things that are contemplated by the general public just as seldom.
Staircase rises, for example, (“They should be 6 ¼ inches maximum. 6 3/8—that would be crazy.”), or which finishing process will yield the most beautiful yet organic grooves from raw teak (“We never sand, always scrape.”), or how to make the process of drawing a shower less physically-taxing (“I don’t make you reach in to turn the water on because then you arch your back. And you shouldn’t have to arch your back.”)
Everything, Gillen obsesses over, down to the hundreds of small tiles that line his bathrooms. Pausing at the entranceway of one of his homes’ master bathrooms on a recent tour, Gillen walks us through how each is produced: first custom-hued, then custom-designed with his tile maker, and then hand-fired out of clay, never porcelain, because clay looks more refined.
If this is starting to sound a little crazy—how special can a white tile be?—what’s more crazy is that Scott Gillen’s white tiles actually are. In the harsh Malibu sun the bathroom’s tile floor refracts a spectacular light throughout the space, dazzling but soft, in keeping with the organic feel of the home. They’re perfect.
“Not perfect,” Gillen corrects. “We have them handmade. They’re specifically not perfect.”
“I think the magic of the house is that it doesn’t feel forced,” says Gillen of The New Castle. “If something stands out, then I’ve missed the boat. It just feels good when you walk in.”
That every tile in Gillen’s properties receives this level of painstaking thought and investment, one might glean that UNVARNISHED’s homes measure about 100 square feet. They do not. Gillen’s homes, and most notably his latest, The New Castle, a spectacular 15,500 square foot stunner perched high above Malibu Creek that boasts five bedrooms, a 450-bottle wine cellar, humidor, and a record-breaking $85 million price tag, are about as ambitious and stunning as homes get. And that’s Gillen’s trademark— every inch of his properties display an obsessive dedication to perfect aesthetic, functionality and an almost extinct level of old-world craftsmanship. If you’ve recently built or renovated a home, you’ll know that finding someone who ticks all these boxes is basically unattainable. Finding someone that can tick all those boxes at 15,500 square feet? Well, that’s impossible. Unless you’re working with Scott Gillen.
Gillen knows this. Walking through The New Castle one recent afternoon, Gillen’s pride in his work is palpable. He designs for himself, he says, homes that he would want to live in. As a result, each of his properties are deeply personal. A home built by UNVARNISHED is a window not just into the purest form of Scott’s unique design or his deep capabilities as a builder, but what gets him excited, what makes him tick. For instance: the synthesis of aesthetic and function at the highest level, a remnant of his years-ago career as a top commercial director. Or his obsession with hand craftsmanship, a deep-seated disdain for cutting corners, that goes back to his childhood.
“I liked when building was building,” he said. “Like Frank Lloyd Wright. I wasn’t even born then, but I’ve always liked true craft, and there are very few true craftsmen these days. Really good carpenters, really good painters, are a dying breed.”
That his building team is populated by these kinds of people almost exclusively makes all the difference, he says.
As Scott walks the property he exuberantly launches into a laundry list of intricate details with the same fever as a kid showing you their latest toy: the teak bathtub that was hand-sanded for many weeks, the fourteen different shades of white paint he mixed to achieve the color for his walls, the customized system by which Gillen installs all the insulation in his home, a process which produces an airtight quality to his homes, a palpable density which I can only describe as expensive. Expensive air. Achieving the perfect air density might sound ridiculous to some builders. To Gillen, it’s a necessity at this level.
“The insulation gives the home a richer, more solid, sound proof feel.”
This meticulous attention to detail extends, of course, to Gillen’s larger design considerations as well. Huge as his great rooms, which in The Castle is over 6,000 square feet, Gillen’s design ensures that two people at either end can easily hold a conversation, while someone just above them in the master bedroom can enjoy a book in complete silence. And how the Malibu sky’s brilliant light seems to travel with you as you go about your day—luminous in the great room and kitchen as you enjoy your morning coffee, then brilliant and golden yet never straining your eyes as you eat dinner—that’s not an accident.
“Life is about ergonomics” Gillen says. His designs have been meticulously choreographed to compliment the rhythms of daily existence—amplifying the good parts while methodically simplifying the arduous ones.
Not that you would know this. Exquisite as the details of Gillen’s homes are, they’re not meant to jump out at you. Instead each element, tiny and large, from the bathroom’s hand-crafted tiles to the overall flow of space, is treated as a part of a whole, the culmination of which is an incredibly good feeling-that everything makes sense, that everything is where it should be-when you walk in the door.
“I think the magic of the house is that it doesn’t feel forced,” Gillen says of The New Castle. “This house was extremely complex to build, and proportions are a massively important piece of the puzzle. If something stands out, then I’ve missed the boat. It just feels good when you walk in.”
And how does one go about learning to build extremely complex, 15,500 square foot homes that somehow feel preternaturally homey?
Do not ask Scott Gillen. If there are countless topics on the intricacies of building about which he can soliloquize uninterrupted for a half hour, how exactly he learned to do any of them is not one. Ask him how he’s building these homes never having gone to architecture school, never having worked on a construction site before his first project, never, for that matter, having cracked open an architecture book, and Gillen looks about as flummoxed as anyone.
“It comes very easy to me and I just do it,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky to be where I am today and have found an incredible team of craftsmen to work with me at UNVARNISHED. Many who’ve been here since the beginning of my first home on Abbot Kinney.”
“I liked when building was building,” Gillen says. “Like Frank Lloyd Wright. I wasn’t even born then, but I’ve always liked true craft, and there are very few true craftsmen these days. Really good carpenters, really good painters, are a dying breed.”
However, if common sense informs much of Gillen’s aesthetic sensibility, it’s clear that his life experiences, notably his long and diverse career path before he started building in 2003, have been just as integral in his evolution as a designer. His projects display an array of talents and experiences, of highs and lows, the kind of confidence and tenacity of someone who’s spent their entire life making seemingly unattainable dreams come true.
Born in Laguna Beach, growing up in Sherman Oaks, many of Gillen’s early years were dedicated to an enduring fascination with cars. At a young age Gillen had already taught himself complex repairs, and by 17 he had landed a part time gig as a tire buster at Supershocks, a Van Nuys Blvd. hot rod shop frequented by some of L.A.’s biggest power brokers. While working there Gillen caught the eye of Paul Picard, a famed Hollywood producer who was immediately impressed by the teenage Gillen’s advanced facility with cars. If the car-obsessed Gillen hadn’t considered a career in entertainment before, when Picard offered him a job as a technical advisor on his newest show, Cruisin, a half-hour drama about speed racing and cruising on Van Nuys Blvd., Gillen jumped at the chance. A few weeks later Gillen was on staff, checking dialogue and all plot points involving cars for accuracy.
While Gillen loved his new job, his enthusiasm was short-lived: only a few episodes in, rumors began to swirl that Cruising was already headed for cancellation. With his plum new gig on the chopping block and his prior one at Supershocks already filled, Gillen began to mull his next move when he got a call from Picard that the show would indeed be cancelled.
“So,” Picard asked him. “What do you want to do?”
As the producer on a slate of successful shows, Picard was in a position to place Gillen on a new set immediately, in virtually any role he desired, he said. Gillen didn’t hesitate before he answered.
“I said, ‘I want to be a stunt man,’” Gillen recalled. “And Picard said, ‘Great. How about Dukes of Hazard?”
By the next Monday Gillen found himself on-set with Catherine Bach ,Tom Wopat and John Schneider performing Dukes of Hazards’ array of trademark stunts behind the wheel of the world-famous General Lee with an aptitude that was soon earning him a name in the industry. Gillen would work on Dukes of Hazards for four years before setting off on other projects, working as a stunt driver on films and TV shows such as Hooper, The Blues Brothers, The Fall Guy and Enos, during the ensuing six years.
However during filming Gillen injured himself, and his doctor sidelined him from stunts for 6 months as he healed. In the interim Gillen began picking up odd jobs on set, mounting cameras or configuring rigs, eventually taking up second unit work for a director friend. One day on the set of a commercial, as Gillen and the producer paused to review a couple of Gillen’s takes.
“He looked at me and said, ‘This is really good,’” Gillen recalls. “So we did a spec reel, and even though everyone said you can’t just become a Director, I did it anyway.”
Almost immediately Gillen began booking commercials, his comfort and experience with cars and burgeoning reputation for an exacting eye and beautifully composed shots winning him work with some of the biggest car companies.
By 2000, Gillen was at the top of his game. A highly successful director of automobile commercials, Gillen’s schedule was packed with back-to-back projects for some of the industry’s most high-profile clients, from Audi and Toyota to Nascar and Mercedes. In 2001, Gillen purchased an old artist’s loft in Venice’s up-and-coming Abbot Kinney neighborhood. However everything came to a screeching halt just a year later in 2002, when a contractual dispute suddenly left him unable to work for a year. Only recently gazing upon a jam packed calendar, almost overnight Gillen found himself with the next 365 calendar days completely wide open.
If he didn’t have the slightest idea what he wanted to do with that time, there was one thing that he knew he had to do: renovate his new loft. The property was beautiful and light-filled but a textbook fixer-upper, with cold floors and an industrial bungalow feel. When he bought the property Gillen had entertained fantasies of transforming it into a truly unique old-meets-new space, envisioned a one-of-a-kind property unlike anything he’d seen on the market. Until then his vision had been just that, a fantasy. Now, though, Gillen suddenly found himself with more free time on his hands than he ever had. And so, he got to work designing a spectacular loft.
Gillen decided early on that he would oversee the design and construction of his remodel entirely by himself. Soon he was engrossed in the study of his new craft, researching building materials like he used to brand guidelines, obsessing over room placement like he once had over plot points. Almost immediately he recognized the overlap between his profession and new obsession.
“Proportion is so important [in both film and design],” he said “It’s either great or it’s dramatically wrong. [In film] you’re walking with me and we’re flowing through a shot and you’re watching the story evolve. If it’s too cutty, too frenetic, you can’t track the story. You want a seamless transition. The same is true for a home-I want you to walk through the house seamlessly. I want you to see what you see when I want you to see it...the story will evolve.”
Now the end of 2003 and the year-long dispute resolved, Gillen deep into renovations, had fallen in love with design and building, he says, the way it flexed his muscles as a creator in entirely new ways.
“When you get a storyboard for a commercial, it’s just a board,” he said. “It’ll have six or ten shots in it, and as a director it’s your job to take that and to evolve that board into a story that has a beginning, middle and end. You’re always striving to tell the complete story. I think with the houses, I try to build a blank box, and then as I build it I let it evolve by itself so it becomes its own animal.”
By 2004 the Abbot Kinney project was completed, and Gillen was over the moon about the final result. His finished loft was unlike anything that had been built in L.A., featured an elegant contemporary studio layout increasingly in-vogue for the area, but with a dramatic architectural twist: smack in the middle, Gillen had suspended a historic 1928 bungalow as the second floor, So in essence the old bungalow was the new master bedroom.
“It was pretty cool,” Gillen said.
There was only one problem. During those unworkable 365 days of 2003, which had once loomed so empty and objective-less, had actually turned out to be some pretty eventful ones for Gillen, who during that time met, proposed to and married his wife Teri. Now Teri was pregnant, and the Venice bachelor pad, with its levitating 1928 bungalow, wasn’t exactly what either had in mind as a place to raise a child.
The Gillen’s decided to list the property, picking up and moving back to Malibu, where Scott had previously resided for almost fifteen years.
Listed at 1 p.m., the house had sold by 2 p.m., at the time fetching the highest price for a home in Abbot Kinney’s history. It was then that Gillen realized his newfound passion for design could also be a lucrative one.
“I was pretty shocked. It was one of those rare ah-ha moments you have in life that literally changes your course” Gillen said.
Bolstered by the sale, as the Gillen’s settled into their new Malibu home on Beckledge Terrace and he began transitioning his efforts and time from directing to building, and as owner, designer and builder was soon working on projects from Malibu to Venice, Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. Establishing UNVARNISHED in 2005 from the Cross Creek office where his company is still headquartered to this day, Gillen’s aesthetic and meticulous designs had soon gained him a reputation throughout the city. One thing Malibu residents especially appreciated was his distinctly local eye. Gillen, now a thirty-year resident of Malibu, soon became known for homes that served as perfect complements to the city’s beauty; from his eye for rare, organic materials to his trademark exposed beams and great rooms and open-air layouts, where his directors’ intuition for framing and light were on full display.
“I love it here,” Gillen says of his hometown. “I very rarely leave the ‘bu. In the city it’s like a pressure cooker. Here, it’s a different world.”
By 2015 Gillen’s name had earned a considerable amount of local cache, having built homes across the city for big names like Matthew Perry to David Duchovny. Never fulfilled, however, it was in this year Gillen decided to embark on his most daunting project to date, a house so ambitious it would go on to earn him headlines around the world.
This home would serve as something of a reinvention for both UNVARNISHED and for Malibu, set to sit in the footstep of oil heiress Lily Lawrence’s famous Cross Creek mansion, the Castle Kashan. Fashioned after a 17th century style Scottish castle but made almost entirely of wood (and paper mache), the manor’s imposing faux-stone walls had sat like an abandoned film set in the hills above Malibu Creek for decades.
If opinion had long been divided in Malibu over whether Castle Kashan was a gaudy eyesore or a delightful local novelty, the debate ended when it burnt to the ground during a 2007 fire and was ready to be reincarnated.
The lot would sit vacant for nearly a decade when Gillen finally purchased it in 2015, spending the next three years erecting his Magnum Opus, which he calls The New Castle. When he finally listed it in 2018, the home was one of the most luxurious ever to hit the Malibu market. It was also the most expensive, listed at a record-breaking $85 million.
“I’m always striving to set my bar so high that I will never reach it.” Gillen said. “For me it’s about evolving and building lasting architecturally significant homes that will add to this beautiful city for generations.” I want to look back and say “I did that.”
So what’s the next rung on Scott Gillen’s ladder after the record-breaking New Castle? Turns out he’s already hard at work on it, has been, for a year now.
While putting finishing touches on The New Castle, Gillen made headlines when he paid $50 million for a 24-acre parcel of land on the Bluffs, the highest amount ever paid for land in Los Angeles.
Gillen says he had long had his eye on the property, eventually closing on the deal in 2017. Today he’s already hard at work on his next project, The Case. You can already see the foundation poured in place when driving down PCH. The Case is a 24-acre luxury guard gated development that will feature 5 homes ranging from 10,500-square-feet to 12,500-square feet, and lot sizes from 2.45 to 5.78 acres, slated for completion by 2020.
This newest project represents a continuation of Gillen’s luxury sensibility, if, once again, a complete reinvention of his talents.
Known primarily for his timeless sophisticated beach aesthetic, with The Case, named after Case Study Houses, Gillen is venturing into unknown territory, designing each home with an intentional and conscience reference to a mid-century modern aesthetic.
And while Gillen concedes his record-breaking initial investment in the land for the project was a “gross amount of money” and a foray into mid-century design presents a big departure from what he’s done in the past, his experience has taught him that it would be a bigger gamble not to.
“You know as a director you are constantly reinventing yourself,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re done. As a builder and designer I feel it’s the same creative challenge just a different medium.
There’s also the fact that no matter the style, a Scott Gillen home is always a Scott Gillen home. If The Case homes present a bit of a design departure for Gillen—his style inspiration is in part Palm Springs in the 1960s, he says— his eye and inherent sensibilities will still guide the way, as they have for nearly two decades. Details will still be exquisite, materials will be rare and world-class, his trademark great rooms will feature stunning ocean and coastline views, yet remain intimate.
“You’ll see a lot of the features of The New Castle and my other homes, but I’m making The Case very, very specific,” Gillen says. “It’s driven architecturally, versus my past projects, which were good architecture, but not necessarily driven to be architectural. It will be very different.”
If he doesn’t sound the least bit worried about this latest gambit, it’s because he’s not. Experience has taught Gillen to believe in certain things; the strength of the Malibu market, his ability to build structures that seem unfeasible on paper, and his eye.
“People want to experience this life,” he says one day at the New Castle, reclining in a modern leather club chair abutting its central glass wall, taking in the awe-inspiring view of the Pacific.
Eventually his gaze turns back to the great room.
“Also— I’ve got great fucking taste.” MM