The Abels of Laguna Beach
A Home and Legacy Steeped in Art
written by Liz Goldner
The Abel family is composed of artists and art collectors who also delight in giving back to their community. This generous spirit flows from the family’s legacy of encouraging their children to explore and pursue art from a young age. A second generation Lagunan, Gregg Abel is descended from an artist/craftsman who came to this country in the 1930s—and who himself was descended from a woodcarver. Having grown up with a strong interest in art and design, Gregg, along with his wife, Kathleen, passed this passion to their now-grown children, Lea and Tristan.
Reflecting on his artistic legacy, Gregg talks about his grandfather Carl Abel, who immigrated to Laguna in 1937 from Denmark. When he and his wife arrived here, they already had five children, three of whom became artists. Carl worked in the oil fields of Long Beach while pursuing his avocation as a woodcarver. Their youngest child, Chris—Gregg’s father—had been born in 1924 in Denmark, and later became a well-known architect in Laguna, designing and renovating many important structures. Growing up with an artistic father who encouraged his children to pursue their own passions was a “great gift,” Gregg explains. As a teenager, he often worked in his dad’s architectural office, drafting designs with a pen—as he still does. He also learned woodcarving from his uncle Mogens Abel.
Gregg married Kathleen—an artist from New York City—in the 1970s, and the couple soon moved to Austria for a year to study art and design. After returning to Laguna Beach, Gregg founded his own architectural design and construction firm, Kathleen began working as an interior designer, and the couple had two children. They purchased and moved into their current home, then nearly six decades old, in 1985.
The Abels’ large rambling home near Park Avenue is not only a work of art in itself. It has an illustrious history as well, having housed seven family members and hosted a variety of social, literary and political events over the years. The saying “if these walls could talk ” could easily apply to their home. Yet the many decorative accoutrements and artworks throughout its many rooms say quite a lot.
The 4,200-square-foot-house was an 1,100-square-foot bat and board cottage when the Abels moved in, and they have lovingly modified and enhanced the simple structure during their more than three decades there. Today their home features gabled roofs, tall windows, extensive use of stucco and decks overlooking lush canyons and the ocean.
Among other renovations, the Abels added several rooms on three levels, replaced plate glass windows with beveled and carved glass, and built decks and patios. They have also added a dining room with a fireplace and cabinetry designed by Gregg and windows designed by Tristan and carved by Gregg’s sister Lark. This room also features a large carving of a samurai, created 100 years ago by an Abel ancestor, and a figurative regionalist painting by California artist Dennis Hare.
In the living room, a hand-painted mural above the Masonite fireplace by local artist Alfred Dupont (a friend of the original owners) displays an English country scene. Gregg carved the woodwork below the mural, as well as the mahogany woodwork on a side wall. The vaulted exposed beam ceiling features an added skylight, while leaded glass windows look out to lush gardens.
The large wooden snail that you encounter on the railing of the entryway is one that Gregg himself carved decades ago, while the iridescent glass window with a pastoral scene that you see as you descend the stairs was created by Laguna designer Craig Herbert. A dark-toned semi-abstract painting by local artist Jorg Dubin hangs on the opposite wall, along with a small still-life of an apple painted years ago by Kathleen. In the nearby bathroom, a mixed media collage of a mermaid by Laguna artist and art dealer Leonard Kaplan is illuminated by a large window. Down the hallway are several colorful floral scenes drawn by daughter Lea in high school when she was influenced by the psychedelic works of her classmates.
There are many more unique pieces in the Abels’ collection, including large 50-year-old ship models in the den alongside a tall sculpted wooden seat by local artist Jon Seeman. Also on display are works by local artists Cunningham/Haight, Scott Moore and Pat Sparkuhl near a poster by Shepard Fairey and the painting Point Pleasant by famed actor Lionel Barrymore. Works by other local artists, including David Cook, Michael Hallinan, David Soloman and former Disney animator Jerry Wayne Downs, also hang on the walls. And among Kathleen’s favored works are whimsically decorated bottles by Connie Archbold.
Drawings, paintings and figurative ceramic sculptures by the Abels’ multitalented son Tristan are also on display, including a painting of his wife, Sarah. His assemblage piece of a skeleton adorns the den, while a Prisma and ink work, The Bone Collector, features a vulture and stacks of coins. Currently studying studio art at Laguna College of Art + Design while working in design and construction for his dad, Tristan is also a fifth-generation wood carver, having learned the craft from his father as an eight-year-old.
Admiring the Abels’ residence on the day of our visit, albeit in his own special way, is their infant grandson Sterling. As his mom, Lea, walks him through their home with its seemingly endless array of art, it is easy to envision him making his own mark in the art world and carrying on his multi-generational family tradition.