Design : TURNING INWARD . . . A SPECIAL REPORT ON THE PEOPLE AND IDEAS THAT ARE SHAPING OUR HOMES, OFFICES AND STYLES OF LIVING : Magazines write about it and salesmen talk about it, but just what is ‘California Style’? : From appealing to total zaniness

California Style--it’s zany, bright, eclectic, overscaled and more than a little irreverent. It’s also so appealing that, to borrow from a Beach Boys song, houses everywhere wish they all could be California homes. According to home furnishings experts, the “California Look” is the hottest-selling style of the moment.

What is it that defines California Style in home design? On the most commercial level, it is a fondness for light colors, natural textures and white furniture. The Southern California landscape and climate, featuring our legendary sunshine, play a major role.

Brian Murphy is one of the area’s most avant-garde designers. His recent “tree house” residence on Santa Monica Canyon’s Upper Mesa Road is a five-story tower connected to the street by three bridges. Forty-seven single-pane French doors open onto balconies ringing the structure. “The outdoors is part of the indoors here,” said Murphy, who takes a special interest in the interior furnishings of his projects. “There is a lack of definition between the environments--dining rooms can be on verandas, living rooms can be patios. The benign climate allows us to be more spontaneous. The fact is that you could live here in a tent and be OK.”

Murphy’s work is sometimes closely akin to a fun-house ride. Dining rooms turn into underwater grottoes, bathrooms are sheathed in green corrugated plastic, wall sconces are illuminated architect’s drawing tools, chandeliers are fabricated from police flashlights and broken auto safety glass. Surprisingly, however, Murphy’s bizarre designs are also elegant.

Like Murphy, designer Nick Berman grew up in West Los Angeles and was greatly influenced by the temperate climate and proximity to the ocean. Where Murphy describes himself as irreverent, Berman sees his own work as playful. “The great weather and the beach--it’s fun here,” he said. “There’s a whimsical quality that lightens up the serious intent of design. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Berman has remodeled the San Fernando Valley home where he lives. The house is a perfect example of how California Style has evolved since the late 1940s when the house was built. Curtains no longer drape the living room windows. Doorways have been widened to allow visual flow. The facade of the living room fireplace, originally brick, has been remade with soft, plaster shoulders to give sensuality to the tract-house architecture.

Once an advocate of pure white walls, Berman has lately begun using soft colors. His entryway and dining room, for instance, are creatively painted in a palette of four colors: white, off-white, blue and pink. “The trim is pure white and the walls are warm white,” he said. “Rather than see the difference, you feel it--the trim seems to sparkle rather than looking whiter than the walls. The ceiling is a very light, sky blue for a tranquil feeling, and the pink walls add a whimsical quality.” Berman’s colors are so subtle, however, that without looking closely, a visitor might swear the walls are white.

By widening some of the interior doorways of his home, Berman has added another classic element of California Style--flow-through architecture. “I’m really into extended views where you see one room from another, much the same way that the sky and ocean have an extended horizon. Opening doorways and walls lends that quality to your home. Color adds another dimension--after the sun sets in the ocean, you see the reflected colors of the sunset. That’s the way colors glow throughout the house with light walls. It gives the house movement.”

Californians have a fondness for overscaled furniture, and Berman is no exception. His bed sits 34 inches off the ground. “Throwing off the scale is silly, but you see, I think it’s fun and refreshing to be silly. You’re taking classic forms, altering the scale and adding so much more intrigue and interest to your home. The more you’re in it, the more things you see.

“I think what people want in their homes is a quality that they find at the beach. When I go home, I feel like I’m entering a tranquil world. A big load comes off my shoulders.”

Artist Annie Kelly, who hails originally from Australia, has spent the past 10 years in Los Angeles. The home she shares with her husband, architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter, has received international coverage for its California feeling.

Kelly, who has done most of the work on the Spanish bungalow, speaks of the “intense richness” of the California landscape. The light especially, said Kelly, influences how a California home is decorated.

In her home, Kelly has relied on her own artistic talents and a growing fondness for Mexican decoration to bring charm and a sense of personal style to the rather plain two-story Hollywood cottage. Architecturally she has repositioned windows to take advantage of the views of outdoors. Decoratively she has solved the problem of small rooms by painting friezes on the walls.