MINUTES before 25 guests are to arrive for a Tennessee barbecue party at her Santa Monica home, Kimba Hills hangs a Susan Fama collage of bright blue midcentury gas station numbers on the kitchen wall she had painted the night before. Hills throws down a blue and orange Turkish kilim on a poolside patio, then places a Pop art lamp from the living room between two lawn chairs in the garden.
As helpers set up coral-colored Tony Duquette chairs around one of three outdoor dining tables, Hills angles the vintage McGuire bamboo bar just so. Then she goes back inside, tosses half a dozen Kuba cloth appliqued pillows onto the sectional sofa and switches an Ed Ruscha print with a William Wegman photo of one of his famous Weimaraners. Popping into the kitchen, she checks on the barbecue, which had been flown in from Hog Wild in Memphis the night before. While housekeeper Luz Luis rubs the pork spare ribs with dry sauce, cookbook author Carolynn Carreno spreads seven-pepper jelly over goat cheese -- the upscale version of the classic Southern appetizer calling for cream cheese, Carreno says.
The guest of honor, artist Gayle Lewis cruises into the walled garden with husband Jeff. Tonight's gathering is to celebrate a show of Lewis' paintings that has just opened at Rumba, Hills' vintage furniture store and gallery in Santa Monica. But Hills doesn't actually need a reason to host a dinner party. This native of Jackson, Tenn., does it at least once a month, and just about any excuse will do to have friends over to the Sunset Park bungalow she renovated and once shared with artist Laddie John Dill, the father of her son, Jackson, 15.
As the sky begins to turn orange and mauve, the guests who filter into the bamboo-lined garden all seem connected in some way.
"She brings people together who should know each other, and sometimes they actually do," says Celeste Wesson, producer of public radio's "Marketplace."
There's Jeff Lewis, who launched his writing career on "Hill Street Blues" with Wesson's husband, Bob Ward, and Roger Director, author of the memoir "I Dream in Blue: Life, Death, and the New York Giants." There's Robert Katz, a neighborhood real estate broker who had sold a house to Director, among others in the crowd. There's jewelry designer Liv Ballard, who went to Ole Miss with Hills, and sculptor Guy Dill, Laddie's brother, who came with wife Mary Ann.
"It's that Southern girl thing, where everybody's family, everybody's a cousin," says landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power, a Southern gal from the Maryland shore.
"When Kimba gives a party, she's relaxed and completely genuine and makes everyone feel like they are her best friend."
IN the living room, film public relations maven Nancy Willen takes in the warm palette of burnt oranges, deep reds and woodsy tones. "She's got a great eye," Willen says. "She'll find something at an estate sale or a flea market and know exactly how to freshen it up without sacrificing its authenticity."
Documentary filmmaker Dinah Minot jokes: "If Kimba found a couple of Louis XVI chairs, she'd re-cover them in red leather."
At this moment, however, Ed Moses, one of the founding fathers of the Los Angeles art scene, doesn't seem quite so amused. He stands frowning in front of one of his oil paintings, a piece he had traded to Hills in exchange for a rosewood and metal Herman Miller dining table that she found in Maine last summer. He removes a silver lamp and several delicate Moye Thompson vases from atop the Danish credenza below the painting and puts them on the floor. Eleanor Burkett, a young pastry chef from Buttercake Bakery in West L.A., watches incredulously from the sofa, trying not to giggle.
"They were distracting," Moses says, to no one in particular.
To say the house encourages a good time understates its ingenuity. French doors leading to the patio blur the boundary between indoors and out, and the lushly landscaped pool area and garden, spread over a double lot, afford plenty of space for milling about.
"Unlike the South, in Santa Monica we can entertain outdoors all year round," Hills says, "so why wouldn't we?"
The garden's nooks and crannies make the house seem much larger than its 2,000 square feet.
"It's a small house that really feels big," Santa Monica architect Doug Suisman says. "It's got a lot of architecture with a small 'a' and lots of taste with a capital 'T.' "
The master suite, added by Dill and Hills, overlooks a trellised patio where "Dogtown and Z-Boys" director Stacy Peralta holds court on a swing, talking about the gangs of South L.A., the subject of his latest film.
"If you went down to South-Central and said you were from Santa Monica, people would ask if you know Kimba," Bob Ward quips. "She knows everybody."
IN the dining area, guests fill their bright blue and yellow Fiesta dinnerware with ribs, pulled pork shoulder, slaw and black-eyed pea salad. Guests in their 20s dressed in funky chic vintage gather around the large Laddie Dill glass-topped coffee table in the living room; others settle in the garden at the tables dressed in white linens and candlelight.
Laughter fills the night air as friends regale one another with stories. Peralta's self-effacing girlfriend, Fox Searchlight executive Stephanie Allen, tells of being a finalist in More magazine's 40-plus model search. "Of course, the winner is always tall and gorgeous, but the other candidates look like you or me," she says.
Steven Zaillian, who won a screenwriting Oscar for "Schindler's List," listens as landscape designer Power and the Dills discuss recent trips to India. Power visited Buddhist and Hindu temples in Rajasthan and was drawn to "the empty spaces next to them where the gardens must have been," she says. Dill tells how the marble for a large sculpture he's creating outside of Delhi must be transported by sedan chair.
Every time guests get up to refill their plates, Hills steers them back to a different seat.
"Sit here," she says to Willen, guiding her to another table. "You haven't spoken to Tom Hines yet. He wrote the Neutra book."
After all this barbecue, the crowd still has room for Burkett's mini cupcakes, honey pecan bars and chocolate espresso cookies, not to mention Carreno's Tennessee whiskey-laced apple cobbler.
"I usually serve it with Jack Daniels-spiked whipped cream," Carreno says. "But that doesn't always go over so well in health-conscious L.A." Tonight, it's cobbler with vanilla ice cream instead.
"There was a character in Dick Tracy called Sparkle Plenty," says Moses, as Hills scoops ice cream onto his plate. "Well, Kimba is our Sparkle Plenty."
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Kimba Hills' entertaining tips
KIMBA HILLS, an interior designer and owner of the decor shop Rumba in Santa Monica, helps clients with something she calls "speed designing." Some of her quick fixes for entertaining:
Bring the inside outdoors. Spread area rugs on patios and in courtyards. Arrange dining room chairs around picnic tables covered with white tablecloths.
Arrange conversation areas. Set up seating in small vignettes: comfortable seats with end tables and lighting.
Light for mood. Overhead illumination should be reserved for art in the home. Use candles, table lamps and other low lighting for an intimate atmosphere.
Light for safety. Use votive candles to illuminate pathways and the edges of the pool.
If you have a great view, show it off. Set the buffet table in front of the window, for example.
Set up the bar outside. It improves flow and prevents overcrowding. So often people gravitate to the kitchen; having a bar outside gives guests a reason to circulate.
-- Andrea Vaucher