After 17 years of Beverly Hills apartment life, Miriam Wosk wanted a house. It's not that she didn't like where she lived — what's not to like about a Frank Gehry-designed penthouse in Roxbury Park — but "time passed, life changed," says Wosk, a mixed-media artist. She'd gotten married, had a child, gotten divorced; she was ready to make more revisions. Ocean. Sea air. Grass.
So she bought a 1926 Mediterranean villa in Santa Monica, a structure with great bones but one in need of some serious remodeling to turn it into what she had in mind for herself and her son. The small-scaled rooms were dark and dreary, she says, "a wood-paneled men's club kind of place." She wanted light-filled spaces, as wide open as possible, and an art studio that would look "like an airplane hangar — the biggest, brightest space I could get. I just wanted to bring out the best of this old house."
Wosk turned to Steven Ehrlich of Culver City, whose architecture "I love," she says, and emphasizes it again when she mentions his designs of the Sony Music Entertainment building in Santa Monica and the studios of Venice-based artists Ed Moses, Guy Dill and John Okulick.
"It's his simplicity," Wosk explains. "I wanted a clean, white shell in which to put my things."
Her many, many things. A minimalist Wosk is not. "I'm a visual glutton," she admits. "More is more." She set out to create an environment that took as its inspiration the playfully ornamental Parc Guell in Barcelona, designed by Antonio Gaudi — known for his sensuous, warped-Gothic architecture — in the early 1900s. Considered one of Gaudi's masterpieces, the park, with its fantastical structures, has been described as a cross between "Alice in Wonderland" and "Hansel and Gretel."
If the proliferation of vibrantly colored art and objects everywhere you look would seem to contradict her attraction to the simple forms and spaces that are Ehrlich's signature, it makes for a dynamic marriage of opposites. Wosk was looking for just such a counterpoint.
She knew Ehrlich from a private watercolor group they both attend each week at landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power's studio in Santa Monica, which is guided by figurative painter Kim McCarty and includes artists Scott Flax and Gayle Lewis, architects Fred Fisher and David Martin, developer Rick Ehrman and Getty Museum publications design director Deenie Yudell.
Although Ehrlich doesn't normally do renovations or additions, he agreed to remodel the house because Wosk was also creating a studio from scratch and "because it was Miriam," he says. He made it clear, however, that the new studio had to be "something different," not merely an extension of the rest of the house.
"Miriam wanted to do it right and had a very open mind," Ehrlich recalls. "If you looked at the project as an orchestra piece, she was the conductor and I was the lead guitar."
With his skill at seamlessly joining vast modern spaces to the outdoors and her flair for eclecticism and an exuberant palette, Ehrlich and Wosk reinvented the villa, which overlooks Santa Monica Canyon.
Ehrlich gutted the central rooms of the house — the family room, kitchen and dining area — and left the office, library and bedrooms in their original structural form. "I couldn't do everything I wanted to," says Wosk. "There were cost limitations. But in the middle of the house, that's where I could blast it up."
They kept the facade of the house basically intact, but enlarged the windows and added French doors and an aqua front deck that stretches piazza-like toward the front lawn. The guest house is pure color-addicted Wosk: She painted the entry a deep cobalt blue as an homage to Frida Kahlo's studio in Mexico and the archway green to pick up the color of the grass. She planted roses, and retiled the pool in turquoise glass.
From the outside, Wosk's home still looks like a classic Mediterranean, but on the inside, it's more modern-loft in style and scale, with telescoping glass pocket doors and wide windows that allow the light and the views to be a dominant indoor feature.
The 1,000-square-foot studio, which is attached to the 6,000-square-foot house, is drenched with abundant natural light that makes Wosk's watercolors covering one high wall even more vivid. The Rorschachs, as she calls them, some washed with jewels and glitter, are as elaborate and pulsating as Ehrlich's design is minimal and serene. Her work has been shown at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, and is currently available in the Ricco/Maresco Gallery in New York and the Anne Reed Gallery in Sun Valley, Idaho.
"I wanted to give her a lot of wall space and bathe her environment and her work in light," Ehrlich says of the studio. To accomplish this, he designed a sweeping, vaulted ceiling, which floats above the space on light steel bow trusses. "It's four walls with a light hat over it, which allows the light in," he says.
Wosk calls herself a Surrealist, and her paintings and collages, in which flowers, fruit, bones, organs, vines and symbols all coalesce to explore the interconnectedness of nature, are in that tradition.
Her extensive photo collection also includes several valuable Surrealist photo montages, such as the ones by the Austrian artist Herbert Bayer — a protégé of the Bauhaus art school founder Walter Gropius — a Man Ray photo of Nijinsky and a portrait of Picasso by an unknown photographer. Many are framed in black and hung against the white walls of the stairwell, the only area of the house devoid of spirited colors. The brushed-steel handrail, resembling a silver ribbon bouncing down the stairs, was designed by Wosk. The artwork in the house primarily consists of bright abstract and bold figurative paintings, pieces by friends such as New York artist Richard Merkin and L.A. artists McCarty, Tony Berlant, Jayme Odgers and Maura Bendett.
All over the house are lively collections and objets d'art — mercury glass candlesticks and vases, vintage cookie jars, silver cocktail shakers and silver sombreros, antique fans, Bauer and Fiesta ware, dolls and masks and a dazzling assortment of Clarice Clift indigo and orange pots smartly mixed with Peter Shire teapots.
Her parents bought her a Murano glass chandelier, dripping with grapes and other fruit, on the Canadian-born Wosk's first trip to Europe when she was 15. For many years, it hung in the kitchen of her childhood home in Vancouver; now it's above a pair of 1920s French Deco leather armchairs and a carpet designed by the Russian-born painter and decorative artist Sonia Delauney. Across the living room is a round Deco piano that Wosk has refinished in silver leaf and gold varnish. Above it is another eccentric chandelier — antlers and flowers in cast resin — by Philadelphia artist Virgil Marti, one of the stars of the current Whitney Biennial.
After the studio, Wosk's favorite space is the library, a rectangular room that takes up an entire wing. Art books fill the floor-to-ceiling shelves that line three walls. "I love books more than anything," says Wosk. "You can't own all the art in the world, but you can have the inspiration of it all."
A Deco chandelier from the old Wiltern Theatre hangs over a long library table (its twin hangs over the stairs) and a sculpture of a Giacometti-thin woman with a candelabra on her head, by Yossi Govrin — director of the Santa Monica Fine Arts Studio — stands sentinel at the French doors.
The Gaudi influence is most obvious in mosaic fireplaces designed by Nancy Kintisch. The one in the living room is of hand-cut glass, mirror and tile. The facades of the outdoor fireplace and barbecue, the centerpieces of a new back patio area created by Ehrlich, were made from shards of pottery and dishes, mostly valuable pieces lost in an earthquake, plus some of her parents' old Capodimonte porcelains.
Wosk, who loves to "take bits and fragments and pieces and make something out of them," was already figuring out what to do with all the pieces of shattered pottery and glass as she swept it all up after the quake. "I had a vision of it rising like a phoenix," she says, smiling.
For Wosk, who has decorated anything she could get her hands on ever since she was a child, the valuable collectibles had been merely transformed into material for making more art. Whatever she can recycle, she will. The side tables in her bedroom are two old office desks painted silver and topped with mirrors. The living room coffee table is a circular piece of glass backed in gold leaf. Old office chairs are re-covered in multicolor pony skin and surround the breakfast room table. Any of the manual work Wosk can do herself, she does.
"I learned by doing," says Wosk, pointing out that that goes for her painting as well. Though she left Canada in her late teens to study illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, she was never classically trained as an oil painter, other than in the odd workshop.
After spending 1968 as a guest editor of Mademoiselle magazine — Sylvia Plath wrote a fictionalized account of her own 1953 guest editorship in "The Bell Jar" — Wosk segued from fashion to general illustration, specializing in women's subjects (she did the first cover of Ms. magazine in 1972), but it took her nearly 20 more years before she deigned to call herself a painter.
"It was very gratifying to be an illustrator," Wosk says of those heady New York years in the '70s when she was living "in the center of the world," working during the day for creative geniuses such as Milton Glaser, who was the art director at New York magazine and whom Wosk calls her mentor, and hobnobbing at night with the Andy Warhol crowd at Max's Kansas City and Studio 54.
"You'd paint something on a Monday and by Friday a million people would see it," she recalls. "You'd get immediate feedback and recognition."
But when Wosk ultimately tried to make the transition from illustration into fine art in the late '70s, her success as an illustrator became a liability. She had no time for her work. "The phone kept ringing," she recalls, publications clamoring for her illustrations. Her solution: move to Los Angeles.
Here, as she fell in love with the colors, the plants, the ocean and the light, she had all the time in the world. "I was amazed by the Mexican tiles, the Bauer and Fiesta Ware," she recalls, "the color and pattern in the architecture. I was also influenced by the theatrical and kitschy side of what Hollywood represents, the L.A. bungalows, the car washes. The whole symphony inspired me."
So she bought "an old, ugly" four-story apartment building in Beverly Hills, and hired Gehry — not yet an international icon — to redesign the penthouse floor.
"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," Wosk says with a laugh. "I just wanted a few skylights and windows and to open it up a bit."
What she got instead was a crash course in a new medium. Gehry encouraged her to participate in the job, so she produced sketches and paintings for him to work with and designed the tile work, the stair rails and stained glass.
"He allowed me to be as idiosyncratic in my way as he was in his," Wosk says. "Even though we had different sensibilities, the dance worked." Just as the dance has worked in her new collaboration with Steven Ehrlich.
With her cocker spaniel Lady at her heels, Wosk enters her studio; she's ready to work. "I go in and I turn the music on and I'm happy," Wosk says. She has recently completed a 16-foot-long painting, the biggest she's ever done.
"This house is the container that she's happiest in," Ehrlich states. "It's an extension of her art and supports her way of doing it. It gives her the space, light and comfort to allow her dreams to grow."
Miriam Wosk used a variety of professionals in the renovation of her villa. Contact information for some of the key players: