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MisterClean

Mary McNamara is a staff writer for The Times' Life & Style section

There is a grand piano in the corner of Kevin Haley’s living room--a Steinway, dark and sleek--and against the pale wall it seems to pull together all the elements of the main floor of the house. The deeply shining wood of floor and furniture, the almost-white walls, the simple statement of sofa, chair, table, plant--the rooms that stand, like the piano, serene in the beauty of utility.

The thing is, he doesn’t play the piano.

“I fell in love with the piano as a piece of furniture first,” he says.

“And when I walked into this room, I knew it needed one.”

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But Haley believes that everything one has should be of use. So now he is learning to play the piano.

“I don’t read music or anything,” he says, sitting on the glossy bench. “I just play what sounds good to me.”

So then there is music. Nothing recognizable--not Mozart or Joplin or even “Chopsticks.” But music--lovely and not too complicated.

And this seems to be how Kevin Haley, interior designer to the hip and Hollywood, operates: Go with your instinct and learn the particulars later. He may not yet be a cottage industry a la Rose Tarlow, but he has managed to carve out what he admits may be the perfect job: working with interesting people to create beautiful spaces full of beautiful things, and getting paid for it. It may not be what he does for the rest of his life, but in the meantime, his voice-mailbox is full, darling.

At the time that he got his first client, his interior design background consisted of having moved a lot. But that client was longtime friend Winona Ryder, and the taste he had shown in decorating his many apartments was enough recommendation for her. In 1994, she handed him the keys to her newly purchased Beverly Hills 1920s house and promptly left town. “Just do it,” she said. The results--the white walls that created light where there was none; the eclectic assortment of bold, solid furniture; the buckskin sandstone and river-rock walks winding around outside--pleased her so much that she flew him to New York less than a year later and presented him with an empty two-bedroom apartment. Both places landed in an Architectural Digest layout and, voila!, the model-actor had a brand new career.

“I had never done a house before,” he says of that first project. “And there I was, ripping out walls, doing landscaping, plumbing, everything. For a minute I thought I was in over my head. But my mom tells me when I was, like, 5, I whined for a certain wallpaper until I got it. So you could say it was in my nature.”

With no formal training and a client list that now includes Ryder, writer-director Anthony Drazan, agent Bryan Lourd and actor Brad Pitt, you certainly could. And the story--Midwestern boy with great taste makes good in big city--is so L.A. “When I first started, I didn’t know how to be an interior designer,” he says. “I was an actor. So I just acted like an interior designer until I was one.” So really, really L.A.

*

Kevin Haley, 41, grew up in St. Paul, Minn., though you wouldn’t know it to listen to him--his vowels are nice and round, his syncopation theater-workshop even. But that’s how he met Winona Ryder. “Her grandparents lived next door to us.” In fact, he lived with her family in Northern California for a year when he was 16. “They were this cool hippie family and I was a cool hippie boy.”

“I’ve known him since I was in utero,” Ryder says. “He was basically my au pair.”

After doing time in the Haight, Haley moved on to London and New York, working as a model and actor until he wound up in Hollywood. Although he starred with some soon-to-be-great actors in some not-so-great movies--with Julia Roberts in “Satisfaction,” George Clooney in “Combat Academy"--his own acting career had become frustrating by the time Ryder made her request.

Haley actually doesn’t act much like an interior designer, at least not the fussy, petulant design divas so lovingly portrayed in film and on TV. Skidding around his Hollywood house, barefoot, clad in burnt orange corduroys that need hitching up and a perfectly deplorable gray T-shirt, he looks prepped to participate in a fraternity car wash. Except he’s not the frat rat type--handsome, yes, very, but he’s way too frenetic, and really too nice, eye-twinkling nice. Even Holden Caulfield, disdainer of all things phony, would have liked him.

“I know I look like a slob,” he says. “But I was watering. I always seem to be watering. I guess because it’s so hot.”

Not in this house, although there is no air conditioning, not even a fan. Just a lot of open windows and doors, and outside, a lot of shady, wet green. Built into the hill, it overlooks a cul-de-sac tucked behind Hollywood Boulevard and chock-full of big, charming houses from the early 1900s.

“Edgar Rice Burroughs lived right over there,” he says, leaning out his kitchen window. “He wrote the Tarzan novels right here. Isn’t that cool? Now it’s very bohemian. The woman over there,” he says, pointing, “writes for ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ my friend across the street runs a catering business, that guy’s an actor, that one’s a screenwriter. . . . I just love this street.”

As he gathers up the car keys, fabric swatches, pencil sketches and other design detritus, he voices his indignation over the proposed 1.2-million-square-foot entertainment and shopping complex planned for the Hollywood Boulevard-Highland Avenue area.

“It’s appalling,” he says. “They’re basically going to put Universal CityWalk right in the middle of Hollywood. Horrible. They’re going to close Orchid Avenue, which we use. I don’t think people realize what’s going to happen. People hear ‘revitalizing Hollywood’ and that sounds good. But when they hear how big it is, they think, ‘Wait a minute, how’s that going to work traffic-wise?’ and the answer is, it’s not.”

He slams the door of his silver BMW station wagon, with its rolls of Indian fabric and piles of furniture pads visible through the back window. “The neighborhood has organized a protest. We’re meeting with lawyers, drawing up proposals, and somehow I’m right in the middle of it.”

The prefab development runs exactly contrary to Haley’s aesthetic, which he explains with words such as “simple,” “organic” and “pure.” Certainly there is a marked Asian influence--dark woods, rich colors, clean lines and an emphasis on bringing the outside in, whether through color, form or actual space manipulation.

“I want to create spaces of tranquillity,” he says, “so people can feel peaceful. I think as technology gets more and more advanced, we feel out of touch. I want to create a safe haven.”

It’s hard to pin him down on exactly how he does this. “I don’t have any set rules,” he says. “I like to walk into a space and get a feel for it.”

His own house, with its screenless windows (“it looks so much cleaner, and what’s a few bugs?”) and pale, pale walls is an illustration: the bathroom floor is tiled in small squares of iridescent watery-blue glass, the ceiling of the master bedroom is done in pewter leaf, while the office is a more businesslike gray-green with a quartersawn oak work station that he designed with furniture maker Mike Lee wrapped along two walls. As sim-

ple as you can get while employing custom-made furniture and pewter leaf, the house is a very serene space.

“If I had one piece of advice,” he says, “it would be get rid of everything that isn’t really important to you--even if the only thing you have left is an empty room. It will be a beautiful empty room.”

That’s sort of what he had in mind when he redid Barry Sabath’s media room. “All the equipment is hidden,” says Sabath, a Blue Wolf Productions executive. “All you see is wood. Actually, it started when Kevin and I found this rug, an orange and yellow Edward Fields. The room sort of grew around the rug.”

Sabath, who is waiting for Haley to “create” a fireplace, says he consults the designer on just about every decorating decision. “He’s got great taste, and he’s very obsessive about things,” he says. “One day he was sitting in my house and noticed that my recessed lights were white on the outside and black on the inside. He said I should change it--that the eye shouldn’t be drawn to the lights. Same with the covers of my air-conditioning vents. It sounds really little, but the changes make a big difference. The rooms are much more peaceful now.”

Another client, fashion photographer Doug Inglish, says he had “a 1940s California ranch-style house that didn’t know what it wanted to be. There was some Art Deco, a little Spanish,” he says. With such touches as birchbark wallpaper in the dining room, subway tiles in the master bath and ebonized floors throughout, Haley gave the three-bedroom, three-bath house a coherent identity.

“Other interior designers can make a room impressive and extraordinary,” Inglish says. “His rooms are extraordinary too, but they’re also livable. His style is modern but timeless.”

*

“I think we should keep it really simple.” These words are so often the portent of disaster when uttered by an interior designer--invariably the standard for simple lies somewhere between the Vatican and Versailles. But Haley seems to mean it. He’s officiating at a meeting between Amy Goldenberg, his neighbor and the owner of a catering business called Ammo, and a couple of German architects. Business is booming and Goldenberg wants to add some tables outside her tiny business/eatery on Highland, as well as a counter just inside. The plans seem just that, simple, to be wrought in stainless steel, aluminum and glass.

“We want to play off what’s already here,” Haley says. “We can etch the logo into the glass, here and here, so everyone knows at all times where they are.” He smiles at Goldenberg, who nods with nervous excitement--change, even good change, is rarely simple. He brings her outside to show her some samples of metallic leather for stools and chairs. “Isn’t this blue fabulous? I thought the blue might work for you, but now I am not so sure. Might be too much.”

The work is done as a favor to a friend, which seems to be a Haley trademark. And if the client isn’t a friend to begin with, he or she is by the time the paint’s dry. As important to his success as his eye or his sense of color is Haley’s enjoyment of people.

“The reason we worked together is because we have so much fun,” says Inglish.

“It’s been a pleasure watching his career unfold,” says Sabath who met Haley when the designer was working with Ryder in an office on the Fox lot. “And he does it with virtually no self-promotion. I’m always telling him to promote himself more.”

The Ammo job marks his first foray into commercial work, a likely next step. “I think I’d like to do a hotel more than a restaurant,” he says. “I’m more into the comfort of the hotel. The challenge of making a comfortable place to sleep and hang out is more interesting to me. I don’t cook, y’know.”

The work he’s doing for Brad Pitt should prepare him for such a project. Pitt’s Hollywood compound is certainly more complicated than any three-bedroom Spanish or Manhattan apartment. Haley’s been on it for more than a year, but beyond that, he chooses discretion over description.

“Brad has really good taste himself,” he says, declining to get more specific, “and that makes me really lucky because there are no limits--we are experimenting with a lot of different styles.”

*

In the belly of the Pacific Design Center, Haley searches for a few choice items--a bench and wall sconces for separate projects. “It’s harder when you’re down to the specifics,” he says. “It’s not my favorite part of the job. I like doing the big stuff, the windows and walls, the door frames. When the room’s empty, you have more freedom.”

He walks quickly, his voice bouncing off the the red-tiled floor. “I hate this place,” he says, brazenly committing professional heresy. “It’s like some weird airport,” he gestures to the silent, empty promenades, the arched windows that reach the cavernous ceiling. “And there’s never anyone in here. Some of the places are great, others . . .” he glances at a window display that holds a clear acrylic spiral staircase, among other things, and shivers.

One of the great places is Charles Jacobsen, which, with its doorways framed in diaphanous Indian silk and cool hush of beautiful things, is more like a museum than a place of commerce. Above and around the dark, calm lines of chair and chest, lamp and armoire, hangs a scent that’s wonderfully spicy and mysterious. “Bitter-orange incense,” says Haley. “I asked immediately, first time I came in. I love it. It’s all over my house now.”

Jacobsen and his assistant, Perris, are very happy to see Haley and press him to visit their warehouse, where presumably even more exquisite treasures dwell. They are having a sale, Perris tells him, “only in August, so please, whatever you are interested in, and if you should call me Sept. 1 or 2, well, that would be no problem.”

After admiring a simple black headboard and two long daybeds, Haley glides out, promising to return. Jacobsen, he says, is one of a handful of furniture dealers he checks in with regularly. Blackman-Cruz, Russell Simpson and Modern One are others. If he had to cite the most influential designer, it would be Christian Liagre of Mercer Hotel fame, who hovers between modern and primitive.

Back in the car, Haley zigzags expertly through Hollywood while he returns a call on his car phone. His aesthetic may be simple, but his life less so. “This is what my life’s like these days. Running all over the place. I should get an assistant, but I’ve gone through a lot of assistants,” he admits, changing lanes. “I can’t seem to delegate. So many designers have like 30 or 40 clients. I’d go crazy,” he says, making a last-second left. “I have maybe three at a time. Because I’d rather do everything myself. Even just the checking in with places. ‘What am I doing on Santa Monica?’ ” he asks before another heart-stopping left. “I could get an assistant to do that, I should get an assistant to do that. But,” he grins, just before capitulating to a stoplight, “I’d be afraid they’d miss something fabulous.”

Like discordant recessed lighting. Or bitter-orange incense. Or a grand piano in the living room.


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