A Beginning at the End

Camp // Mandy Kahn // February/March 2010
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Cheyenne Ellis
Kara Thoms
The house’s exposed wood beams...
Thoms and Montee (and dogs...
Antlers and geode rocks lend...
Much of the couple’s furniture...
With sensational views overlooking...

The trek up to the Los Angeles home shared by model Kara Thoms and her surgeon boyfriend Matt Montee isn’t for the faint of heart. Halfway up a steep incline, a visitor passes a sign that reads end: county maintained road. The potholes, ruts and hairpin turns that follow are enough to send a squeamish driver crawling back to the paved lanes of the nearby pacific coast highway.

But the adventurous will certainly be rewarded. Nestled high on a Topanga hillside, with jaw-dropping views in three directions, this tranquil retreat is a paradise for water babies: colorful surfboards are stretched along exposed beams in the living room, a pool and hot tub decorate a sprawling outdoor area and sea air drifts up lazily from the nearby Pacific. Towels dry casually on an inside railing, reminding visitors that some of the world’s great beaches are just a stone’s throw away.

The couple’s search for their canyon rental was exceedingly brief. “We didn’t need to look at another place. This was it,” explains Montee, an orthopedic surgeon who has taken leaves of absence to tour manage for musicians Jack Johnson and Brett Dennen. When the couple met a year ago, Thoms was living down in Hollywood in what he refers to as the “matrix.” But after nearly a decade each of city-dwelling, the pair was anxious to live near the sea. “We both surf,” says Thoms, a New Zealand native who has modeled for Gap and appeared on the covers of Health and Shape magazines.  

She collected the shells that are scattered throughout the property during her travels back to her home country, as well as Indonesia and Fiji. “You’re so close to nature up here,” she adds.

In terms of decor, the couple was very much on the same page as well. “We have very similar taste,” explains Montee, which is why he loves the sharp eye for interior design that Thoms brought to decorating the space. Thoms scoured flea markets for the eclectic pieces of secondhand furniture found throughout the hilltop hideaway—and even distressed some of the wood pieces herself. Splashes of turquoise and mounted antlers bring in notes of the Southwest, blending effortlessly with a set of retro-futuristic dining chairs. Skateboards, surfboards and bongo drums are incorporated as design elements. Natural patina and signs of rust embrace the deteriorating effects of sea air, and antique crocheted lace adds a sense of history.

In fact, the house shoulders a lot of history already—it was built in 1934 by one of Topanga’s founding families, while its recent remodel incorporates a diverse assortment of local recycled materials, including stone that crumbled in the Northridge earthquake, broken concrete from old Santa Monica sidewalks, and 27 truckloads of rocks used in the LA showing of photographer Gregory Colbert’s “Ashes and Snow” art installation in 2006.

Back in the thirties, the house hosted barn dances for as many as two hundred guests. Today, Thoms and Montee use the outdoor seating and wraparound decks to stage mini concerts for folk musician friends.

“Montee was living in a yurt when I met him,” Thoms says with a laugh. Just prior he had lived in a 20th-floor apartment in New York City. Thoms herself has called New Zealand, New York and Hollywood home, but this Topanga nest seems like a perfect match for their relaxed, coastal sensibility. “I love sitting by the pool and watching the little bats drink water,” Thoms says. And for Montee, proximity to the beach is a must. “I get in the ocean just about every day,” he says. “I need that fix.

It’s a good addiction to have.”

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Originally published in February/March 2010

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