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A House of Couture
Carolyne Zinko | Photo: Cesar Rubio | October 2, 2018
For Ungaro owner Asim Abdullah, this classical manse is one-of-a-kind retreat.
When people shop online today, they don’t give it a second thought. But Asim Abdullah did, more than two decades ago—as the head of a Palo Alto consortium that promoted the development of software for financial transactions on the internet.
It was a boon for businesses everywhere, including the apparel industry, projected to hit $481 billion in e-commerce this year. It was good for Asim as well. The Stanford-trained engineer and venture capitalist went on to become the majority owner of the French fashion house of Emanuel Ungaro, which—like tech investing, has proven to be a high-stakes challenge.
But no one goes full tilt, full time.
When he and his family need a sanctuary, Asim, his wife, Dr. Isha Abdullah, a kidney specialist, and their two sons find it in their Atherton home. There, instead of the glass-and-steel minimalism so abundant in Silicon Valley office parks, he opted to build a residence that’s a chip off the atelier at 2 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.
The 25,000-square-foot Italianate villa, designed by Sandy Walker of Walker Moody Architects in San Francisco, has enough room for a runway show. Filled with French antiques, Pakistani art and custom furnishings, the one-of-a-kind mansion’s interior designer, David Kensington, has his own description for it—“a house of couture.”
Not everyone would be comfortable living in such expansive conditions. But Asim, a native of Pakistan, had studied in London and traveled and enjoyed classical Greek and Roman architecture.
“He liked the sense that classical architecture can be freeing and modern as well, if done well, with open spaces,” Kensington recalls. “His favorite, what he really wanted to do, was this classical villa with a rotunda.”
The home, started in 2000 and completed in 2005, is modeled after Andrea Palladio’s 16th-century Villa La Rotonda, a Renaissance villa in northern Italy’s Veneto region (and a model for Jefferson’s Monticello), but, naturally, has modern conveniences.
Main wings on the house extend from a central, three-story rotunda in the foyer. The first level’s ceilings stand 14 feet tall, while second-floor ceilings reach 12 feet in height.
A living room, dining room, study, sun room and sitting room off the master suite offer plentiful living space, as do seven bedrooms complemented by seven full bathrooms, with three powder rooms for guests. There’s also an elevator, media room and exercise room in the main house.
To entertain in the style in which they were accustomed, the couple requested a separate chef’s kitchen, off of which extends a family room. The home also contains au pair quarters and offices for a chauffeur and other staff.
“They wanted to have a private kitchen so somebody could cook there—it wasn’t built with a family kitchen and gathering spot in mind,” Kensington says. “They have a more formal take on it than a lot of people. I personally believe we should do more of that.”
The Abdullahs, Kensington says, had an advantage when planning their home’s functionality: They’d both been raised in homes with household staff and knew the benefit of having help—and separate spaces for staff to operate when running the home.
Younger tech clients—largely self-made and from more modest backgrounds—still want large homes of 10,000 square feet or more, Kensington says, but don’t always understand how helpful a staff, chef’s kitchens, butlers’ pantries and separate quarters can be.
“These houses are getting larger all the time, and it’s hard for people to run these houses—they don’t know how,” he says. “It becomes a bottleneck: ‘Where do I put the caterers? How do I have a party?’ When they want to go off on vacation for a month, who’s going to take care of the home? They should know they have this option, and it’s a very nice way to live.”
The outdoors is similarly sumptuous. A Bisazza-tiled swimming pool and spa, as well as a separate 700-square-foot pool house with guest quarters, are surrounded by mature oaks, redwoods, and fruit and boxwood trees, thanks to landscaping design by Suzman Cole Design Associates in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, there are hidden amenities. Underneath the home lies a 15-car garage for his classic car collection, accessible by a concrete ramp that curves underground like something out of Batman. A Crestron whole-house integration system allows the residents to control everything from lighting, temperature and music to security with touch screens in rooms, or remotely from mobile devices. Fine finishes throughout the home include travertine and Rosa Verona marble carved and imported from Italy, Honduran mahogany panels, Venetian plaster walls, solid mahogany-framed windows and doors, and custom hardware thanks to a collaboration between Kensington and P.E. Guerin in New York.
Once the couple’s children grew older, the couple was able to complete Asim’s original vision for the interiors. That refresh, completed last year, brought in more art and sculpture no longer threatened by the kids’ rough-and-tumble stage.
Despite its scale, the home is livable, says Kensington, who notes: “We had a decorative painter paint all the walls. The draperies are as decorative as can be with custom silk tassels and drapes. The interiors help to soften the building and bring it down to a human scale. It was like putting together a beautiful gown.”
The residents tried it on for size—and liked it. “The home,” says Asim, “allows all of us to be together when we can and allows us the privacy when we need it.”
Originally published in the October issue of Silicon Valley