The King of Comfort
Dust flies and chaos swirls around Paul Fortune as wrkers put the final touches on the 1904 California bungalow that will house the most recent incarnation of his Hollywood restaurant, Les Deux Cafe. Sitting with co-owner Michele Lamy at a mosaic inlaid iron table in the restaurant garden, surrounded by pungent rose geraniums, lavender and bougainvillea, Fortune seems immune to the grating, the scraping, the jackhammer-decibel pounding and the din of workers shouting.
It’s a bit after 11 a.m., and chef David Wynns has just emerged from the construction site with a plate of exquisitely sour lemon tarts and some buttery, melt-in-your-mouth cookies. This air of civilized living, this sense of serenity amid the havoc of construction, seems rather incongruous. But as a rolling fog cools the hot October air, it becomes clear that a commitment to relaxation is Fortune’s forte. It’s not that this British-born interior designer doesn’t work hard, it’s just that he has figured out a way to make a living as a designer who places a high value on the art of comfort.
Even before he put the Cadillac through the roof of the L.A. Hard Rock Cafe, Fortune was sought by an exclusive group of clients who embraced his luxurious yet modern style. Not one to circulate among the design elite, he has consciously set himself apart from such Los Angeles heavy hitters as Rose Tarlow and Michael Smith. While many designers restrict themselves to a signature style--Tarlow and Smith specialize in high- priced but understated swank--Fortune is more eclectic, more willing to mix and match. He deals in the intersection between style and comfort, between form and function. His bottom line is simple: He can make a house a home. And he has done so for scores of Angelenos, including music titans Nancy and Ken Berry, actor Gary Oldman and Sigurjon Sighvatsson, founder of Propaganda Films.
“He is very welcome here in Los Angeles,” says architectural and interiors photographer Tim Street-Porter. “He has a lithe sophistication, and his approach is relaxed and nonchalant. What he does is very refreshing; it’s very comfortable. He avoids cliche completely. It would be nice to have more designers like that.”
Sitting in his own living room, Fortune contemplates the state of Los Angeles interior design: “So many places in this town are about a facade, a look, or it’s all about ego,” he says while sitting at a 1950s Finnish-designed table-and-chair set outside the kitchen of his Laurel Canyon home. “Much of what I see is not about a way of life, like having a great chair and a great lamp so you can sit down and read or look out a window. We need wombs--places we can retreat to and live in.”
As his elegant red-haired Bengal cat struts across the room, he begins to lament the American habit of ignoring one’s immediate environment, of accepting homes and public spaces with no personal style, no sense of a future or a past. “That’s the way most people live life,” he says. “That’s dispiriting, and I think that really does something to you when you wake up in a dead, pointless space. It just takes a little bit more thought and attention to turn something around and really make it work for you.”
Easy to say for a man who was able to drag an old bungalow--previously occupied by some stray dogs and a couple of homeless individuals--across a parking lot, gut it from the inside out, transform it into a stunning new restaurant and make it look as though it had been there forever. With an intimate dining room as inviting as an elegant dinner party, and a dark-paneled bar reminiscent of a clubby bistro with its dark olive green built-in banquette, Les Deux Cafe, which opened last month, is a hybrid of old Hollywood and contemporary chic.
Fortune’s atavistic longing for Hollywood’s past is a constant theme in his work. While ‘40s pulp noir has recently been transformed into high culture and intellectual cool, his attraction to that bygone era has nothing to do with murder or perversity. Rather, his inspiration is from a time when glamour and refinement seemed to be the norm.
His house, the place he has called home for the last 20 years, is perhaps his signature portfolio piece. In a former incarnation, this house, tucked on a hillside in Laurel Canyon, is said to have been a gin shack for Laurel and Hardy. Later, it was owned by the set designer of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” who added wood-paneled, ship-like living quarters, complete with porthole. Now it’s a work in progress, an ever-changing exhibit to Fortune’s unique style: a mix of modern refinement and old-school charm. Throughout the house, warm tones and seductive corners summon those who pass to languish in the comfort of a down pillow or gaze out a window and relax. A wrought-iron railing spirals through the center of the living space and is a dramatic centerpiece to a room that’s accented by classics like the Paul McCobb dining room chairs and the sleek, streamlined dining room table and soft, inviting sofa that are Paul Fortune designs.
If you think those with impeccable taste are by definition impeccably neat, Fortune’s house will be a surprise. The bed is not made, CDs are piled precariously in a stack by the stereo and the old-fashioned porcelain sink in the bathroom is less than blinding. But such imperfections are part of the charm--personal proof of Fortune’s mantra that homes are not museums.
“I don’t like things too tight and controlled,” he explains. In a Paul Fortune house, there’s always room for change, for life. The cat may come along and shred the leg of a chair. Things can’t be so precious, so immobile, that a spilled drink would cause a heart attack.
James Truman, editorial director of Conde Nast publishing, who first met Fortune 10 years ago when Truman was a Los Angeles-based writer for House & Garden, says: “Paul’s elegance is that of an old Victorian English gent. I was attracted by his talent to pick up some candlesticks in Guatemala, his colonial eclectic eye. I think that may be his English part, that kind of snobbish ‘if it’s too perfect and too new it’s nouveau riche.’ He just brings a globe-trotting, chic eclecticism to everything he does.”
Truman, who hired Fortune to design his Manhattan apartment and a succession of his country homes, was so impressed that he recently named Fortune West Coast editor for House & Garden. As such, he scouts locations and art-directs shoots, as well as contribute to the style pages. “It’s a very different way for me to work.” Fortune says. “I’m not the boss. If it were up to me, it would be a completely different magazine. But, as James has said, it would be a magazine that sold 50,000 copies rather than 500,000, and that’s the bottom line.”
Fortune moved to Los Angeles in 1978, after he had traversed the punk rock scenes in both London and New York. So it made perfect sense that he gravitated immediately into the music business, first designing album covers and later art-directing music videos. It was a time in Los Angeles before the proliferation of Starbucks, Noah’s bagels and the Gap. “It was a cute, provincial town,” he recalls. “Everyone lived in great apartments like the Los Altos on Wilshire Boulevard. It was a good place to live. It was cheap, it was sunny, it was fun, and you could really see what made it so magical in the ‘40s and ‘50s. There was a real sense that you could create something new here.”
He immediately became part of the club scene. He started the legendary early-'80s Fake Club in an old barfly hangout on Cahuenga Boulevard and later designed the new-wave-glam China Club on 3rd Street. As he pursued his career as a film art director, the people he worked with were so taken by his house and his instincts that they hired him to design their homes and offices. “I didn’t set out on this career path,” he says. “I just kind of went with the flow.”
In the ‘80s, he worked with the late architect Frank Israel, designing the interiors for commercial, movie and music-video production houses such as Propaganda Films, Virgin Records and Limelight Productions. Within Israel’s sprawling and architecturally sophisticated commercial spaces, Fortune added the best elements of classic ‘20s and ‘30s modernism--the spare furnishings and rich built-ins. Whether he recycled and revamped old steel case chairs or created new versions of those originally designed by Eames, Fortune was allowed to integrate Los Angeles’ historic modernist legacy with a contemporary flair.
“He creates atmospheres that just feel elevated without being osten- tatious,” says film director Leslie Libman, who hired Fortune to design the interiors of her Pasadena hilltop Mexican hacienda house. “There’s a kind of artistic and casual sophistication that feels creative. These are environments that don’t seem stuck in a certain time.”
But when Fortune suggested that hotelier Peter Morton put a 1962 Cadillac through the roof of the Hard Rock Cafe, a legend was born. It seems that the night before a meeting with Morton, who had hired him as a consultant, Fortune watched “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and was struck by the image of Elizabeth Taylor retching out the door of a Cadillac while its taillight flashed. “Everyone thought I was ripping off the Cadillac Ranch,” Fortune explains. “But really, it was just my homage to drunk Liz.”
This acerbic wit is an integral part of his charm and his ability to traverse such different worlds. Fortune may call himself an old misanthrope who dreads the thought of going out into what he deems a useless, vacuous Los Angeles night-life scene, but he is known as a gracious host who can whip up a delicious dinner or Sunday lunch for 40 from his Subzero refrigerator and Wolf stove. His soirees attract an exclusive, often-famous crowd from all corners of the city.
Yet Fortune claims, all evidence to the contrary, to eschew celebrity and is inclined to take down a notch anything that’s too- too. “Many people are like sheep,” he says. “They’ll just do what they’re told. It’s that whole Goldie Hawn kind of thing, working with that cozy, shabby chic: big sofas, huge cushions, candles--that whole Malibu hippie chic look. It’s fine if they want to live that way, but I just don’t like it.”
That’s just one of his many “betes noir.” Another is ‘80s functional art: “Furniture as art is the worst. It was a big mistake, and unfortunately, often it’s the worst elements of a decade that come back to haunt us.” And don’t even ask about Ian Schrager and the Mondrian: “A big splash, and you get it in every magazine. The supermodels go there, and everyone thinks it’s groovy, but in the end it’s this horrible commercialization of an idea.”
This attitude is probably why Fortune chooses not to seek membership in the unofficial academy of interior designers, and why he does not make a point of collecting celebrity clients. “Paul is very much into doing his own thing,” publisher James Truman says. “Maybe that has cost him some, that he’s not the one Madonna calls first. But he’s been able to remain a free agent, to choose what he wants to pursue.”
Subsequently, there have been times in Fortune’s life when he has lived hand-to-mouth. “I sometimes just get snotty about it,” he explains. “I wouldn’t do a job unless it was going to have some integrity, and I think that’s just a self-preservation thing.”
The 1920s Spanish-style villa in Bel-Air that he designed for Ken (president of EMI Recorded Music) and Nancy (worldwide vice-chair of Virgin Records) Berry was the perfect job for Fortune. Here was an opportunity to take the spirit of a grand old Hollywood-style dwelling and transform it back into its original splendor, with, of course, a ‘90s sensibility.
He stripped it of its hideous high-tech light fixtures, re-exposed the vaulted beamed ceiling that had been obscured by years of thick paint and expanded the kitchen and bathrooms. The result is a stunning showcase of restrained opulence. Modern paintings by artists such as Lucien Freud and Howard Hodgkin meld perfectly with 18th and 19th century antiques from Brazil and South America and the Voysey rug and hand-blocked linen curtains.
This was a job that made Fortune the envy of Los Angeles interior designers such as Ted Russell, who says: “The house is magic; it’s so appropriate for California living. It’s so luxe, but at the same time you wouldn’t be afraid to sit down and put your feet up and relax.”
But Fortune’s current project, Les Deux Cafe, is perhaps the most revealing culmination of all that is Paul Fortune. This restaurant is a place he gladly goes to be at and be seen at. “I won’t have to go anywhere but here,” he says, because Les Deux Cafe so completely expresses Fortune’s ideas about the art of living. According to his partner, former clothing designer Michele Lamy, Fortune is a person capable of putting together all the disparate elements. “He is like the cream on top of a cappuccino,” she says.
As Fortune walks through the space, pointing out details like the Moroccan tiled fireplace and the bronze sconces, he evokes the spirit of Hollywood classics such as the Brown Derby and Musso & Frank. Fortune’s Los Angeles has the romantic spirit of a Raymond Chandler yarn, in which everyone drives a great car, men wear smart suits and women carry stylish handbags with matching shoes.
But Fortune’s is not a slavish devotion. Instead, he sees his role as more of a watchdog’s. “What I do,” he explains, “it’s like quality control. I’m stopping things from getting worse. I’m trying to keep them from being horrible. We must stop the reversion to the lowest common denominator.”