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Designing Fantasies : There’s Not One Prevailing Mode of Interior Decorating Here, but, Rather, One Prevailing Mood: (Almost) Anything Goes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

T he living room is huge and bathed in sunlight. The entire west wall of glass affords a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. The pale wood furniture is oversized and the white cotton cushions are overstuffed. The carpet, too, is white. Only the larger-than-sofa-sized abstract oil painting, and a few artfully placed flowers, provide any color.

The camera pans the room, catching and tracking the flight path of a shrieking sea gull through the window, swooping across the beach.

Cut.

Print.

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This is the mythic interior of a Southern California home, done Hollywood-style. Like its counterparts across the country--the antique-filled New York apartment with a view of Central Park, a New England cottage with chintz for days and a rose-covered arbor, or a Midwest farmhouse with a wide front porch and rocking chairs --it’s a cliche. But in that cliche are the hallmarks of Southern California style.

“Our houses are brighter, with bigger windows, and our floor plans more open . . . with fewer walls separating living areas,” says interior designer Millicent Gappell.

“There is not one prevailing decorating style in Southern California, but one prevailing mood,” says Jody Greenwald, director of UCLA extension’s interior and environmental design program.

“We live an open, hedonistic, body-conscious lifestyle. We use scale differently, we use larger furniture and fewer pieces.”

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Another characteristic of some homes in Southern California is the focal point. “We live toward our back yard. Our front yards are merely an entry point to the home,” Gappell says. “This does tend to shield us away from the world that’s passing by. It’s more private and protected.”

What the big-windowed, open-floor-planned cliche home lacks, however, is a personality. And for better or worse, the indelible stamp of our ego is what makes interiors here awesome and awful. Sometimes simultaneously.

From Candy Spelling’s Beverly Hills’ version of Versailles to Meshulam Riklis’ “Piafair"--to the guy down the street who adds a turret to his ranch-style home, many Angelenos don’t let traditional ideas of good taste interfere with their fantasies.

If California is where people come to reinvent themselves, then the California home is where those new lives are put on proud display.

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“Today, form follows feeling; desire, not utility, dictates design,” observed Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a recent lecture. Style, she said, is “dream, invention, wish-fulfillment. . . . We reinvent ourselves, our setting, our lives; our personae hang in the closet with the designer clothes.”

Designing those closets in Southern California takes someone who is part psychologist, part visionary. Those who can spin dreams out of idiosyncrasies often see them displayed in the pages of magazines such as L.A.-based Architectural Digest. Like high fashion, new design directions are unveiled in the lofty ZIP codes and eventually trickle down and across town.

One of the most acclaimed dream spinners is Santa Monica-based architect/designer Brian Murphy and his BAM Construction crew. He has worked for Dennis Hopper, Geena Davis and Belinda Carlisle. Murphy is popular among the town’s fast movers and forward thinkers, and he commands a great deal of respect within his industry.

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“He’s amazingly creative,” says Julia Winston, a decorative-arts historian.

“He treats his work like an artist the way he explores things. He’s stepping on fresh territory, just like Frank Gehry has,” says architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter. Gehry designed the new Walt Disney Concert Hall that will be built downtown, and he’s the creative force behind the Los Angeles Aerospace Museum and Santa Monica Place.

Murphy uses found objects and common materials: He wraps a bundle of wood with steel wire and it becomes a table, a front door from one home became a dining-room table. A cluster of small hanging lamps grouped together and painted fire-engine red makes a bigger bolder statement than a single traditional chandelier.

Murphy acknowledges that his innovations--which are often labeled politically correct for their recycled parts--come from an aversion to shopping. He says he finds much of his stuff within hands’ reach, which makes the finished products more reasonably priced and leaves him energy to expend elsewhere. “I find a full palette in the back yard. It doesn’t take much to close your eyes and visualize something wonderful.”

For his clients, Murphy considers himself an indulgent orchestrator of desires. “Some clients have idiosyncratic personality traits and we celebrate them. That’s what living is all about, to take this couple, family or individual and set the stage in their home.”

Designer Ron Meyers, who has done such trendy restaurants as Tryst and Atlas and several private residences, says one of the first questions he asks clients is, “What are your fantasies?”

Then he goes on to more mundane matters, such as “What side of the bed do you sleep on?” and “Where do you want your toilet-paper roll positioned?”

Fulfilling fantasies is his favorite part of the job. “It’s why I like California,” Meyers says gleefully. “So many people have access to money for the first time. After all, yesterday’s waiter is tomorrow’s movie star.”

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When actor-screenwriter Steve Levitt met Meyers five years ago, he’d just bought a Spanish-style weekend home in Ojai and needed it furnished inexpensively. In true cinematic fashion, Meyers came up with a high concept.

Levitt says: “He came to me and said: ‘I have a vision. A wealthy Italian family goes broke and has to leave Rome and can only take their 10 best pieces of furniture.’ ”

The quest for 10 great pieces and inexpensive filler began. “We scoured Abell’s Auction House and every flea market in Ventura and Ojai for northern Italian pieces that we re-covered in nice fabrics. After finding the 10 pieces, I looked for paintings at garage sales. I wouldn’t spend over $25, but I found beautiful landscapes,” Levitt says.

Meyers filled the house with huge sofas, day beds and a place to collapse at every turn. “Anywhere you stand in this house, you’re within 10 feet of a good spot to take a nap,” he says.

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When people in Southern California furnish their backward-looking homes, they tend to choose comfort, says Winston, the decorative-arts historian. “People want pieces they can put their feet on. They don’t want things that look too formal,” she says.

What it comes down to is, we have thespian tendencies with couch-potato proclivities. And some of us are desperate for roots.

In recent years, there’s been a rage for family homesteads--houses that look as if they’ve weathered the centuries, furnished with battered period pieces.

Dubbed “Bloomsbury Chic” years ago--for the artistically run-down interiors favored by Virginia Woolf and her literary pals--and called Neo-Ancestral for the ‘90s, the look features old silk-velvet upholstery with bare spots and broken threads, the sort of touches that assure all who enter that these are period pieces, not reproductions.

Street-Porter and his wife, artist Annie Kelly, have two old red-velvet armchairs, nestled next to their fireplace. The fabric is as ripped and shredded as a pair of Cher’s blue jeans. “We made that choice,” says Street-Porter. “We wanted the room to look like a Latin America hacienda.

“L.A., traditionally, has been a place where upscale antiques all look over-restored, they look like reproductions, and all the reproductions are made to look as antique as possible. It’s hard to know which is which.”

This conundrum of “Is it real or is it Memorex” has spawned a desire to know which is which. Winston has been retained by the wives of four executives she says, to teach them about French antiques. Like a book club they meet regularly to learn how to decipher the tell-tale signs of faux and for real.

Easing the way into the terribly tattered trend was decorator Michael Smith. He has moved on to a less laid-back style, but when he operated Indigo Seas five years ago, overstuffed arm chairs and sagging slip-covered sofas were on the cutting edge of cool.

The wildly successful Montana Avenue boutique Shabby Chic picked up on the look four years ago. It made round-backed sofas with huge cushions slip-covered in pristine white fabric its trademark and went bicoastal. There are additional stores now in San Francisco and New York City.

Old familiar furniture styles became a drawing card at flea markets, swap meets and secondhand furniture stores. Cast-off relics from grandmother’s house became hot properties.

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An alternative to claiming old French ancestry is to claim early California ancestry. Mission furniture, one of the hottest looks in interior design during recent years, is inspired by the heavy, hand-hewn oak pieces made by Franciscan fathers for the California missions.

It was not uncommon to find similar heavy oak chairs and tables (called Craftsman furniture, pioneered by Gustav Stickley who believed in the nobility of common materials and simple, functional design), Indian blankets and pottery inside California bungalows.

Restoration architect Martin Weil is a connoisseur of Craftsman style. He is restoring a 3,000-square-foot Greene and Greene home in the West Adams district. Every stick of furniture in his home is a period Craftsman piece, he says.

He is so adamant about staying true to the period that he places his furniture in configurations that were the norm in the early 1900s. This means the focus of his main living area is not the television--Weil doesn’t own one.

The style of the period, he says, was to have a library table as the room’s focus “because it was sure to have a light fixture. Table lamps were just being introduced. The major seating was armchairs that had wood frames with cushions on the seat and back. Arm chairs and side chairs were more prominent seating than sofas.”

Today, in most houses, “the fireplace, sofa and TV are the dominant elements and everything else is subordinate,” Weil says.

Reproductions of Craftsman and Mission-style furniture are cropping up like crabgrass. In Robert Redford’s Sundance catalogue of tony Northwest/American Indian/cowboy-themed housewares and fashion is a $995 Mission-style chair with leather upholstery. An original Stickley armchair that is almost the spitting image of that chair is at Jack Moore’s Arts and Crafts store in Pasadena and it carries a price tag of $900. A new version with fabric upholstery is available from Spiegel for $799.

The rustic appeal of the Craftsman style can be also seen in twig baskets, raffia bindings on furniture and packages, corrugated cardboard wrapping papers, and recycled glass containers.

“It’s a natural, more earthy living style,” says Judy McNamee a spokeswoman for IKEA. Items made of rough, unfinished wood, unbleached fabrics, wrought iron and terra cotta are selling well in the four area IKEA stores, she says.

But not everyone in Southern California feels the need to create a family history. There is a growing contingent of IKEA shoppers who like the sleek and cheap furniture sent here from Sweden. In fact, the spare lines and austere look of Scandinavian furniture was popular in the ‘40s precisely because it recalled no past memories. It was, as Winston puts it, “the intelligentsia’s rebellion against the trappings of their parents’ Oriental carpets, dark mahogany furniture and tchotchkes,” she says. Stores like IKEA are home decorating’s future, Winston says. They are affordable--the Wal-Mart of furniture stores.

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That leaves granny’s overstuffed armchair and IKEA’s stark side chairs battling for pre-eminence in decorating trendiness. But Southern California is not a bastion of design purists. Much to the horror of outsiders, there is often little or no connection between a home’s architecture and its interior design.

Enter a ‘60s ranch-style house in the suburbs and you’ll find it filled with Early Americana: pictures of calico chickens hang beneath clerestory windows festooned with gingham curtains. And a Spanish Revival home in Hancock Park, a current project of Meyers’, had sliding glass doors installed sometime during the past 20 years.

This is because the disciplines of architecture and interior design have separated. “It was a unified field, and a consistent world. Up until the time of the Craftsman tradition, architects did the job of interior designers,” says Dion McCarthy of the Los Angeles architecture firm Praxis. “It began to split apart at the turn of century. Now, it is ruled by how things are produced and the making of commodities. What you have is a fragmented universe that lacks cohesive bond.”

Record producer Allie Willis lives in a 1937 Streamline Moderne house built for one of the movie studios by William Kessling, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright. She has filled it with her collection of ‘50s Atomic furnishings.

“It’s real jet-age stuff with consummate style--it’s honest, pure, humorous and has a naivete,” she says.

Willis says Kessling was prescient about the way Californians would one day live in their homes: The pink house sits backward on the lot.

Willis has successfully combined two disparate decades of design, her ‘30s-style home and ‘50s-style furnishings.

Some of the most flagrant examples of design discord can be seen in Southern California’s new housing developments. Communities in the Antelope Valley, Thousand Oaks and Riverside are dotted with row after row of two- and three-story homes with Mission-style exteriors--tile roofs and adobe-looking cement walls. Inside is a cacophony of European styles: Euro kitchens, French doors, crown moldings and parquet floors.

The furniture that is used inside the house could go either way--Mission style would complement the exterior, but the crown moldings might suggest a Neo-Ancestral bent. The model-home decorators usually play it safe and go for the cliche--oversized sofas in pale wood with overstuffed white cushions.


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