Last week, interior designer Amanda Masters alighted, ever so briefly, on an Ultrasuede banquette built into the circular sunken living room in a 1990s Mt. Olympus McBachelor Pad. The clock was ticking relentlessly. Masters had just six more days and a budget of about $250,000 to transform the 10,000-square-foot home into an Oscar-week-only version of Soho House, the London-based private club for the film and media elite.
Open for just seven days to members, guests and invited industry A-listers, the Los Angeles Soho House is one of a growing number of award-season destinations commonly known as "swag houses."
The gold standard for product placement, houses of swag (some say it means "sealed with a gift") are Hollywood at its most ironic: The privileged few who can afford luxury goods and couture beauty services go to a by-invitation-only location and get them for free. This year, in addition to celebrity suites at hotels including the Four Seasons, the Peninsula Beverly Hills and the Luxe Hotel Rodeo Drive, swag houses have been set up at the Pacific Design Center and a private home in Trousdale Estates.
While the L.A. Soho House has its fair share of celebrity-pampering sponsors — MAC Cosmetics and the Bumble and Bumble hair salon — its main purpose is to raise the club's elegant profile in the land of the beautiful people. For Masters that means taking a house rented for three weeks — one week to redecorate, one to host Oscar events and parties, and one to put it all back like she found it — and turning it into a showplace.
Oscar week waits for no one, and last week Masters had a to-do list longer than most acceptance speech shout-outs. There was sea grass carpeting to lay, flocked wallpaper to hang and chandeliers to wire. Masters also had to design a version of the Cowshed, Soho House's spa in its London and New York clubs, inside a chandelier-lighted vinyl tent for guests wanting massages, facials and mani-pedis. There were also bathrooms and spare rooms to convert into treatment rooms and hospitality suites for a trendy shoe designer and an upscale Swiss watch manufacturer.
"I feel like I'm in the middle of a reality makeover show," said Masters, 37, with a sigh.
The former model with a rich English accent could easily be a TV presenter. MTV might call the show "Pimp My Crib," but this production is made for the Hollywood elite. Now in its second year at the Oscars, the extreme makeover Soho House edition is raising the bar for design of these events in a field where new players arrive in time for every award show.
"Décor is becoming a huge part of Oscar week," says Bryan Rabin of the production company Rabin Rodgers Inc., which created the first Oscar celebrity retreat in a private home three years ago for W Magazine.
In addition to this year's W house, a Trousdale Estates home tricked out in a homage to 1972, Rabin Rodgers designed the indoor swimming pool area at the Soho House as a lotus land tableau for the Diamond Information Center.
"The guests are highly sophisticated people who live in beautiful homes. They are accustomed to luxury and well-executed design, so you not only have to make them feel comfortable, but also that they are living out the fantasy. You can't just throw rental furniture into a hotel room," Rabin says.
Though they may last for a week or less, event locations are increasingly being created by name interior designers. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Todd Oldham decorated the main floor of the Volkswagen house with pieces from his La-Z-Boy furniture collection and TLC's "While You Were Out" star Stephen Saint-Onge turned out a lounge for Philips Electronics.
Masters, who has designed homes for director Jon Turteltaub and actor Breckin Meyer, was a last-minute replacement at last year's Soho House. "It wasn't just thrown together," she recalls. "It ended up looking like it was here to stay and people thought that Soho House had actually opened in L.A. They wanted to join. Four days after the Oscars we moved all our furniture out, moved the owner's stuff in, and the house was back to the junk pile it was before."
"Renting a hotel space is the easy way but you don't achieve the homey environment that the Soho House is all about," says Chris Sade, president of Soho House New York, who plans to open a permanent L.A. venue in 2006. Sade chose this year's location, a combed concrete structure with curved rooms and 1980s Miami Deco Revival details, for its great city views and "almost cliché bachelor-house-in-the-Hills vibe."
Masters had significant challenges trying to create the Soho House look — which she calls, "a very English mix of inherited pieces and midcentury modern furniture" — in the anything-but-understated house. Even after the owner's furniture was removed, she still had to deal with shag carpeting, faux-finished marble walls, recessed lighting and stainless steel baseboards.
In the living room, Masters covered the rounded walls with a Cowparsley, a black and white paper by the 130-year-old London company Cole & Sons and arranged midcentury furniture from local stores including Emmerson Troop Inc. and Modern One around the edge of the sunken conversation pit. Metallic damask wallpaper and wall-to-wall sea grass set the stage for leather Moroccan ottomans, George Smith's classic English, tufted furniture and lamps by the L.A. ceramist Lesley Anton, turning the gray master bedroom into a hip hangout.
"It's my attempt to create a gentlemen's club," Masters says, "with comfortable chairs and everything but the cigars."
Throughout the house, there is an easy mix of styles and periods, a design sensibility that almost begs to be called New Old Fogey, in which the antiques are actually midcentury pieces like Arne Jacobsen's Swan chair, and the new sofas and high-back easy chairs are reproductions of 19th century English furniture. In such a setting, Warren Platner's classic side tables made for Knoll out of wire and glass sit comfortably in front of a leather Chesterfield sofa.
This new take on the old idea of eclectic décor is gaining popularity. Seen in Kelly Wearstler's design of the Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica, as well as in Neiman Marcus catalogs, it is composed of studied contrasts: large-scale print wallpaper sets the stage for patterned area rugs and an arrangement of furniture that can be stripped down to pure form or embellished with decorative arms and legs and tailored upholstery. It also has begun to include minimalist furniture made from chrome, steel and glass, which became popular in the 1970s. These bold strokes of English period style, movie star glamour and futuristic Modernism add up to a 21st century Hollywood look, says Masters.
It's a look that grabs attention like a klieg light. On Monday, even before Soho House officially opened its doors, Demi Moore, Tyra Banks and socialite Jacqui Getty dropped by to take a peek. Charity fundraising "show houses" with elaborate rooms created by prominent interior decorators may provide the latest word in design on the East Coast, but in Los Angeles, the swag house may become just as influential.
"Last year I got a call from an agent at Endeavor who had been to Soho House," Masters says. "He lived in a beautiful Spanish '20s house and it was totally done, but he said, 'I want some of your crazy flair. Can you wallpaper and chandelier me?' "
David A. Keeps is a frequent contributor to Home. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times