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THE spine stiffens and the spirit goes cold. Here, on a bosky Montecito lane, is a house so improbably huge and overbearing, it takes on a momentary aspect of menace in the half-light of late afternoon.
This must be the one — no other house in sight — but how can it be? Is this really the sort of place two serious artists — a conceptual painter and a fiction writer — would live in? Two practitioners of Buddhism, in a place of such startling exaggeration, such frippery? Doesn't compute. Check that address again. OK, whew. A case of mistaken identity.
David Florimbi and Nancy Simon's house is directly across the street, obscured by a fence. An electronic gate slides open, revealing an unimposing structure that is no less a jolt to the expectations than the architectural extravagance just beyond.
After all, this is what's known as "the estate corridor" of Montecito, so a certain augustness would be perfectly in keeping with the demeanor of the region. Instead, the angling one-story house of dark green wood has a humility that renders it all but invisible in juxtaposition with its bigger, grander neighbors. At 3,200 square feet, the ranch-style homestead is less than half the size of most of the residences surrounding it and one-fifth that of the palazzo across the lane.
"Theirs is the most modest house in the area," says George Logan, the Realtor who sold it two years ago to Florimbi, a painter and former TV producer and Simon, a short story writer and former theater director now at work on a novel.
But don't be deceived by its lack of ego. It has a big personality. As soon as you step inside, you enter an environment of uncommon originality, the realization of a personal vision so sure of itself, the utterly simple becomes an artistic dazzlement. What's most remarkable is that the little house, incongruous in a world of stately traditionalism, would have been destined for demolition had Florimbi and Simon not recognized its buried potential.
Florimbi, just back from his studio in downtown Santa Barbara, exits the carved front doors and invites his guest into the free-flowing, white-washed interior of his home — dashed with luminous colors in the art and accessories — that gives off an air of capacious hospitality.
He and Simon, who has gone to pick up their 12-year-old daughter, Sophia, from ballet practice, have yet to fully transform the house they redesigned themselves and moved into a year ago after a massive remodeling. There is still the garage to convert to an at-home work space for Florimbi, a piano room to a dining room, the tiny guest house to a writing retreat for Simon.
"Everyone else who looked at this house wanted to tear it down," says Florimbi of the 1940s'-era house and, indirectly, of what is a familiar practice in Montecito: replacing the understated with the overstated. The only comparable remaining houses in the estate corridor are the guest houses, according to Logan, a third-generation Santa Barbaran whose grandfather was an estate caretaker.
"We said, why? When we first saw it, we weren't hit with, 'This is an amazing place,' " says Florimbi. "But we did think, 'This could be an amazing place.' " That is, if you had the pluck and the aesthetic vision to see past its flaws and peculiarities, and take it on.
"It was a house that, politely, you would say was 'unique,' " says Logan, "totally lacking in the basics of how you get from room to room. It was like a house that seemed to be turned on its head."
But the site was evocative — or probably was. You couldn't really tell if there was a view because of the thickly overgrown landscaping. A hillside tightly hugged the rear of the house, giving it a pushed feeling. Rooms were claustrophobically small, with no flow. The entrance was awkwardly placed, parking was far below the level of the house, the backyard was largely concrete, the floors were laid in white tile or white wall-to-wall carpeting. Flowered wallpaper covered walls, pink tile one of the bathrooms.
Not a pretty sight, and needless to say, not holding much promise for the unimaginative or the image-conscious.
Despite the outspoken skepticism-bordering-on-disbelief of some of their friends, the couple bought the property. They had reason to trust their instincts. Twelve years ago when they moved to Santa Barbara from L.A., they bought and renovated El Hogar, the 1914 studio-residence, inspired by Andalusian farmhouses, of architect George Washington Smith.
"It was in a sad state of disrepair," says Logan, "but David instantly saw the interplay of light that is a trademark of Smith's designs. It took a great deal of creativity to bring the original focus back into reality. In essence, he re-created a masterpiece."
Florimbi, Simon and Sophia have lived in several Santa Barbara houses, a converted four-car garage and a dank 1880s stone dwelling among them. "We've moved a lot," says Simon, "almost like trying on clothes. We just kept looking for the right one. And now the long quest is over. I'm never moving again."
They wanted good light, good views, and most of all, simplicity. "It's a Goldilocks kind of place," Florimbi says, punctuating the thought, as he frequently does, with a chuckle that suggests he thinks what he has just said or is about to say sounds a tad goofy or, worse, pretentious. "Not too big, not too small. Just right."
Laughter runs freely and easily in the Florimbi-Simon household, even when they're disagreeing. Humor is practically a birthright of Simon's — she is the daughter of playwright Neil Simon — and sly humor figures prominently in much of Florimbi's artwork. A painting in his house referencing Marcel Duchamp and his own Italian ancestry depicts the Mona Lisa on one side of the canvas and Florimbi's face on the other.
Florimbi moved to L.A. after graduating with an art major from Georgetown University: "New York seemed really intimidating and California seemed so wide open. I said, 'I'll take my chances.' You know, ignorance is bliss when you're a kid." He got a job as a production assistant at Aaron Spelling Productions, "so I could tell my parents I had a day job," he says, eventually becoming an assistant producer, then moving on to Universal Pictures, and finally to directing music videos. "I got caught up in the Hollywood thing. And I liked it," he says.
He also produced a short film, "Two for Tijuana," starring Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei and directed by Simon, who had majored in theater at Williams College. It was based on a short story of the same title that she wrote. (Simon's work has appeared in several literary journals; her story "Drinks at the Oak Room," published in the Threepenny Review, won the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference Phoenix Award in 1997).
But all the while, Florimbi was painting at nights and on weekends in a rented studio in North Hollywood that was above a Spanish-language movie theater. By the time he was 24, he had been discovered by a gallery, Shoshana Wayne, and by a devoted group of art lovers who still collect him today: Joel Surnow, then a producer of "Miami Vice" and now executive producer of "24"; "Stand by Me" screenwriter Raynold Gideon; "Doc Hollywood" screenwriter Daniel Pyne; Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios; and his friend and one-time roommate, actor James Spader.
At 26, Florimbi left "the Hollywood thing" and began to paint full time, encouraged by his collectors and urged by Simon to dedicate himself to the work that she says "blew her away" when she first saw it. She had moved from New York back to L.A., where she had gone to high school, and was set up with Florimbi on a blind date in 1988. Within two months they were living together, and in 1992 they were married in Italy by the mayor of Assisi.
"When I met Neil," says Florimbi, "he told me, 'Nancy's been talking about you since before she met you.' "
"David," says Simon, "was funny and silly and also serious; he listened to great music, he was on a sort of spiritual quest. I could talk to him, and there was this scruffy, messy Italian vibe there."
"And she was my dream girl — intellectual, kind, compassionate, nonjudgmental, worldly, creative. Also beautiful," says Florimbi.
His paintings often deal with classical themes or those with a moral subtext — the dance with death, the hubris of man's attempt to dominate nature or subjugate animals. His most recent series of paintings, shown in September and October at his L.A. gallery, Frank Pictures, in Bergamot Station, is called "Real Estate," most painted from actual commercial ads and symbolizing a landscape being lost to overdevelopment. He paints an idyllic arcadia, often with a cow or a herd of cattle, then a duplicate picture with the animals or the trees whited out to spectral forms.
"In Modernism, to paint a landscape is so taboo," he says. "It made me want to do it — but to take on the theme and make it relevant, not just another pretty picture. No one seems to be noticing that developers are carving up America and selling it to the highest bidder. They'll clear out 1,000 acres of old-growth forest and put in 1,000 condo units. They prefer to be unconscious and make a dollar rather than preserve the beauty of the environment."
On their own property, Florimbi and Simon — committed environmentalists (and vegetarians) — brought in a 200-foot crane to move an 18-ton canary palm from one part of the yard to another. "We loved saving this thing," says Florimbi. They saved excavated boulders in reconfiguring the grounds and moved them to the backyard to create a dramatic border below the guest house. They also brought in 50 dumpsters to haul away the prunings from the trees and hedges, which at long last exposed the mountain and ocean views they knew were out there somewhere.
"David built that house detail by detail," says Florimbi's L.A. gallerist Laurie Frank, "just as he builds his paintings detail by detail. His execution is immaculate. And just like he salvages concepts and emotions from the whole history of art, referencing Goya, Velazquez, Muybridge, the Hudson River School, he and Nancy have done the same thing with animals, plants, their house." Florimbi, a skilled equestrian who has also trained horses, works in a rehab center for abused and abandoned horses. Simon volunteers as an adult literacy tutor and as a mentor for children who have lost a parent in a program started by the Santa Barbara Hospice. (Her own mother Joan, a dancer and Neil Simon's first wife, died of cancer when Nancy was 10.)
The couple did all the design work on the house and the grounds, although they consulted with the Santa Barbara architectural firm Ferguson Ettinger and landscape architect Eric Nagelmann. They opened up the interior, eliminating the walls of five rooms and turning a front bedroom into the foyer and a more logically located entrance. The old entry became a powder room. A walk-in closet became the master bath. The china closet became Nancy's writing room. The kitchen, breakfast room and den became one big space.
"We each have strengths, like a song team," says Florimbi. "I'm spatially good and Nancy's good with décor. She has strong visual ideas
"Visual opinions," Simon interjects.
"Opinions," Florimbi agrees. "So does Sophia. She's got very definite opinions and she was definitely part of the dialogue."
Sophia designed her own room to look like a French apartment. "I call it French feminique," she says. "I love it. I love everything about our house. It's like nobody else's I've ever seen. It's, like, the coziest house."
Simon furnished the two-bedroom house in large part with sale items, hand-me-downs from her grandmother, and ethnic pieces from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China. The mantelpiece, several art pieces, a Buddha in the kitchen, a coffee table in the master bedroom, a bedside table, pink chairs in Sophia's room, lamps — lots of lamps — are from thrift stores.
For years, Simon had wanted white floors after seeing them in a magazine. "They just looked charming, clean, happy and bright," she says. And so they put in 10-inch-wide pine planks, and painted them all a charming, clean, happy and bright white. "The white walls and floors make David's art pop." And pop they do, from every room.
There is a gracious ease, a quietude to the whole environment, as if you've landed on a breezy tropical island where there are no tourists. Everything is fresh and open, big glass doors opening onto an acre of green that rolls off toward the sea and sky. It has a lovely restraint, a word — and concept — that appeals to Florimbi and Simon. They try as much as they can to adhere to the basic philosophy of Buddhism, even though "there are 80 trillion contradictions in our lives," says Simon.
"David and Nancy took a dirty old mutt from the pound," says Logan, "and they turned it into a show dog."
Barbara King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Florimbi's work can be seen at Frank Pictures, Gallery A-5, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica. (310) 828-0211 or http://www.frankpicturesgallery.com .