The blue pucker martinis are being iced and shaken. Guests, some armed with their monthly rent checks, pour into building manager Marc Yeber's silver and sapphire minimalist living room, part of a 1927 apartment building by architect Leland Bryant, designer of the landmark Argyle Hotel.
It's just another Tuesday-night gathering -- a contemporary design version of the Algonquin Round Table -- at the Four Gables in West Hollywood. In this 16-unit complex, half of the residents are artists or decorators in their 30s and 40s who have made their interiors as distinctive as the stately period revival architecture.
"It is so like a designer dorm here," says Dean Robert Jones, a couture wall upholsterer who has lived in the same lavishly appointed, two-story, two-bedroom apartment filled with antiques and chintz for the last 14 years. "We all go to each other's parties."
And host them. When Jones' neighbor, Jillian Kogan, threw a Mad Hatter's party for her 30th birthday, she held it in Yeber's streamlined space instead of her comfortably cluttered "Paris flea market" one-bedroom. Yeber's apartment, says Kogan, a production director of events for MTV Networks, "is the hangout, our Central Perk."
It is more than a hangout for "Friends." Old 1920s jewels such as this are a magnet, says Scott Roberts, an interior designer who manages the upscale L.A. furniture gallery Modern One.
"Los Angeles has always been a place where people can invent themselves, so designers want to live in buildings like the Four Gables because the history, the architecture and the interiors are part of their whole image," Roberts says. "It's a substantial piece of history. Living in it is inspiring to me as a designer and makes me feel connected to a creative past."
At the gathering, Roberts joins Kogan and Jones in Yeber's apartment. Also on hand is Emmanuel Cobbet, a partner in Yeber's Em Collaborative studio, a furniture design firm that recently opened a showroom on Beverly Boulevard. He warns latecomers that the bread with cheese, honey and nuts that he made hours ago is going stale.
Yeber's next-door neighbor, animator Greg Griffith, drops by without his "roommate," Isabel. Other than a couple of Griffith's houseguests, no one has ever seen her. Isabel is a ghost.
The specter of a paranormal presence hasn't dissuaded other creative types from making Four Gables their haunt. Actresses Sherry Stringfield and Winona Ryder and the late Hollywood studio photographer George Hurrell all lived here in this Fountain Avenue building-- perhaps drawn by the apartments' sweeping staircases, telephone wall niches, oak floors, soaring stucco walls and ceiling beams with carved corbels of cat, owl, ox, hawk, satyr and cherub faces.
The compact kitchens and guest powder rooms tiled in exuberant turquoise and lilac reinforce the bygone elegance of the era in which the Four Gables was built, a time when dinner meant supper clubs and entertaining at home was a more intimate affair. The apartments, Yeber says, represent a chapter in Los Angeles architecture defined by period re-creations that are a synthesis of Continental influences and local craftsmen.
"In Leland Bryant's work there are gothic arches, Tudor doors, Spanish plaster and Churrigueresque, a highly decorative Latin American form of European Baroque, and a French chateau exterior," Yeber says. "A lot of the architects of that time who did historical revivals weren't absolutely pure. They were known to mix styles and let themselves be influenced by regional elements to create that grand European look."
Before she ever set foot inside it, Kogan was seduced.
"I had always driven by and looky-looed, and I absolutely coveted it because it reminded me of manors I had seen in Europe," she says. "The waiting list for an apartment was four pages long, but I started leaving funny postcards under Marc's door."
In 1999, Yeber, "possibly swayed by the homemade cookies" left by Kogan, approved her application. She and her cat, Spuds, moved in.
"Every apartment is a little bit different," Yeber says. "I don't have a fireplace, but she doesn't have the gargoyles on the ceiling beams."
The manager and the tenant had different ideas for identical sweeping staircases. Yeber took his down to the original magnasite, a lightweight concrete once used on wood-framed steps, and designed a bookcase with a built-in reading bench at the top of his landing. Kogan ran a leopard print runner up her stairs and, at the foot of staircase, used the iron railing to support a stack of vintage guitars and old suitcases.
"I bought one years ago," she says of the charmingly battered boxes with hotel decals. "Besides being decorative, they're great for storing letters and things, only now I can't find them at a decent price."
Kogan calls her decor sensibility "shabby chic French country with a pop-culture edge."
Her locally purchased furniture includes a white slip-covered sofa with toile pillows, a blue gingham living room chair and a crystal chandelier from Target over the pine dining table with cabbage rose cushioned chairs. A large photograph of a young Mick Jagger and a volume on artist Julian Schnabel on the coffee table attest to her artistic side. In her spare time, Kogan creates "Jasper Johns-influenced manipulations" of the California state flag made from scraps of cloth.
Luxurious silks and velvets and chinoiserie prints from Scalamandre and Donghia surround neighbor Dean Robert Jones. In the late 1980s, he was a prosperous but bored mortgage broker when he found his passion.
"A friend of mine was upholstering the walls of the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, and I helped him out," he recalls. "Then we went to the Pacific Design Center, and I fell in love with fabric."
With an eye for beautiful materials and the precision of a tailor, Jones and his custom wall upholstery business have built a client list that has included the Hotel Bel-Air, Eddie Murphy, Christina Aguilera and the late billionaire Marvin Davis. At home, however, the only padded walls are in his bathrooms: Summerhill chintz in the powder room and cappuccino Ultrasuede in the upstairs master.
The Four Gables, named for its distinctive rooflines, "has so much charm and style," Jones says. "It's not a modern box with 8-foot ceilings." The designer has taken full advantage of the double-height living room, hanging a large Asian floor screen above the sofa and 10-foot drapes over the windows.
In the dining room, he removed a drop ceiling, discovering the only original stencil-painted wood beams left in the complex. It is an ideal setting for a small collection of plein-air oils by Laguna Beach painters and an inexpensive junk shop landscape that he bought for its ornate gold frame.
Despite its lush Euro-Asian style, Jones' apartment was furnished economically with travel souvenirs, items from consignment shops and pieces that had been left unclaimed by their owners in upholstery and wood refinishing workshops.
"The Art Deco armoire came from a client in lieu of payment," he says with a laugh, adding that he got his sideboard "for the cost of refinishing it, and my coffee table was marked down to $200 because the surface was marred. I just put a tray on top of the damaged spot. Poof. Done."
Decorating need not be such serious business, Jones says. "I love to throw in something that brings me joy, like my pug dog pillow on the couch or remote control Roman shades that wake me up in the morning by letting in the sunlight. If there were a right way to do an interior, then everyone's house would be the same. Do what makes you feel comfortable, although I also follow what the great decorator Billy Baldwin said: No room is complete without a touch of red."
For Scott Roberts, the designer and a former Emmy-nominated art director, the extravagant architecture of Four Gables is a proscenium for creating his homage to the screwball comedy era Hollywood. His design for living, Roberts says, "reflects the interiors of Billy Baldwin and other gentleman decorators like Van Day Truex, who was a Tiffany & Co. design director, and my biggest influence, David H. Hundley, who lives in Pasadena. They valued good taste, and their work was a mix of European classicism with very simple materials." The result: "elegant and athletic."
Roberts' tastes lean to midcentury designs by Baldwin, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings and Jacques Adnet, who designed for Hermes.
The basic black-and-white color scheme is exemplified not only by the ebony fan coral that serves as a summer screen for the ornate, cream-colored fireplace in the living room, but also by the TV, which is usually tuned to black-and-white films on Turner Classic Movies. Flanking the hearth there's a dash of color, points-of-toast brown, in the two tufted linen slipper chairs that he designed for Modern One.
"In L.A., where people have more space, they can find big sofas," Roberts says, "but it's more difficult to get large and comfortable lounge chairs." Though he lives in more than 1,000 square feet, Roberts has created a balanced arrangement, filled with sophisticated focal points. Throughout the apartment, there are old money touches: sculpted horse heads on a bookshelf, a pair of white porcelain lamps on a Parsons console, a Piero Fornasetti chair sitting underneath framed line drawings and prints of Roman busts.
Roberts inherited the apartment from Modern One owner Ben Storck, who recently opened an eponymous emporium in San Francisco. Storck wasn't so much losing an apartment as he was gaining a pied-a-terre.
"He sleeps on the sofa whenever he's in town," Roberts says. He and his cat, Kate, don't mind. It's one more person with whom to watch Ernst Lubitsch films.
"I love old movies so much," he says. "In the original 1937 'A Star Is Born,' there's an opening shot that shows this neighborhood, so I've always wanted to live in one of these French stone-and-cement apartment buildings from the '20s. It's much more my style than a lot of the Case Study houses and modern homes I have done design work in."
As his guests lounge on a cubist sectional sofa he designed, Yeber regales them with tales from his 15 years of managing the building, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. His interior may be coolly contemporary -- metal display shelves in the built-in book niches, resin light fixtures from his store, an area rug made of Flor carpet squares and the odd IKEA piece -- but Yeber is very much the caretaker of the building's legacy and its almost-forgotten architect, Bryant.
In just six years during the 1920s, Yeber says, Bryant was responsible for almost 300 buildings, most of them luxury apartment buildings in period styles. "Then the Depression hit and real estate developers were no longer interested in that type of architecture," he adds. "He did a lot of public works, rebuilding schools after the 1933 earthquake in Long Beach, and then gravitated into engineering."
In 1977 the Four Gables was purchased by Mark Gallon, whose pride of ownership, Yeber says, has kept it a desirable place to live. For his part, Yeber's pared-down aesthetic makes his apartment a logical meeting place -- and a model for how contemporary design can coexist with early 20th century interiors. Using only small, low pieces of furniture, Yeber's modernist design accentuates the architectural details that make Four Gables a living reminder of high Hollywood style.
In anticipation of the building's 80th birthday, major exterior renovations are planned -- a headache for Yeber but not for the obvious reasons. He applied for the building permits, which were granted, but as vice chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission for West Hollywood, he had to recuse himself from the vote on the proposed project.
It's all in a day's work for Yeber, interior designer, associate architect, furniture retailer, apartment manager and part-time social director. He wouldn't have it any other way. Nor would his friends and neighbors.
"I still come home every night and look around in awe," Kogan says.
"I may buy and sell other pieces of real estate," adds Jones, who is grandfathered into a rent-controlled lease well under $2,000 a month. "But there's no need to move, ever."
"Well," replies Yeber, ever the guardian of the Four Gables. "If you do, those upholstered walls of yours are going to cost you your security deposit."
Times staff writer David A. Keeps can be reached at email@example.com.