Interior designer Ryan Brown has made a career buying ugly-duckling properties, turning them into beauties and selling them for profit. It's a process that he and his business partner, Jeff Lewis, reveal on the Bravo reality series "Flipping Out," which starts its third season Monday.
Two years ago, however, the 35-year-old Brown, known as the voice of reason on the show, realized that with the real estate market shaky and his own personal life in transition, it was time to focus less on remodeling for profit and more on getting his own house in order. As fans of "Flipping Out" know, Brown and his domestic partner, chef Dale Monchamp, became fathers to a daughter born through surrogacy. After living in a succession of flip houses, the couple wanted to put down roots. "We've moved seven times in one year," Brown says. "When Chloe came along, we had to get off that roller coaster. She's 3 and has already lived in two other houses."
They found a home in an area of the Hollywood Hills called the Oaks, where the couple turned the 1942 stucco original into a four-bedroom, 4 1/2 -bath residence decorated in a relaxed mix of Hollywood Regency, British Colonial, Asian-accented modernism and nautical charm. It was Lewis who found the property, "a double lot with a lot of flat land for a lawn, which is very rare for the hills," he says. "I knew he was looking to nest, and this would be a good house for his family, but it needed to be updated, and Ryan has certainly exercised a lot of creativity. In his own home, he has been able to stay away from safe choices."
After plunking down $2 million for the property, Brown embarked on extensive renovations to the 3,600-square-foot house. If you are renovating a house for resale, Brown says, profit is paramount: "You think: If I spend this dollar, will I get three out?" But, he adds, "When you find the house that is your sanctuary, and make it specific to your needs, it's hard to put a price tag on it."
He replaced doors and windows and added hardwood floors. There was a gourmet kitchen built, complete with Hollywood Regency custom cabinetry, and bathrooms got the glam spa treatment with Calacatta gold marble.
"It's not an authentic period house like you'd find in Hancock Park or Pasadena," Brown says. "It's an L.A. special, a little bit of everything architecturally."
The two-story rectangular house has a protruding entry and vaguely English bay windows set into half-towers in the front and back. Brown added awnings and railings to give the exterior more visual dimension. The yard was relandscaped to provide an organic vegetable garden, a mosaic tile pool and a lawn for Chloe and a chocolate Labrador, Jordan.
"Ryan's a techie guy, one of those little nerds that has sophisticated security systems and remote controls so you can turn the stereo on from the second floor," Lewis adds. "He's got that house wired within an inch of its life."
The home also has a balanced layout with formal and family areas, says Monchamp, formerly an interior designer. Downstairs, the living and dining room sit on one side of the house, and the kitchen and TV area on the other. Upstairs, bedrooms for Chloe and guests are at the front, and the master suite is in back.
The total tab came to about $700,000. Brown says he completed the renovations as inexpensively as possible given the materials he wanted to use; anyone without his industry sources, he says, would have spent a million or more.
"We're forgoing vacations," Brown says, enjoying lunch under an arbor by the pool. "We can stay right here."
Indeed, the house has no restrictions on Chloe. On a recent summer day, neighbor Eddie McHale, 4, joined Chloe in the living room, scampering under a three-tiered chandelier that adults have to duck to avoid.
"It's the one exception to form following function in the whole house," Brown says, as the kids made a game out of deconstructing the B & B Italia sofa.
"They'll take every cushion and pillow off and throw them on the floor, then they'll jump on them," Brown says, nonchalantly. Adds Monchamp: "We couldn't do anything too precious. We are not 'No, don't touch that' people."
Eddie's mom, Sara McHale, says the house represents Brown's ability to make modern style feel accessible. "The house tells a complete story," she says. "I want to linger as I wander down the hallways looking at their family photos, old and new."
Even the way those portraits are displayed demonstrates design savvy: The various shapes and styles of picture frames have been unified, all painted white; those groupings are framed again by molding that creates the appearance of wall panels. Elsewhere, Brown is not afraid to hang a picture on a piece of molding, so that it floats in front of the wall.
Design comes naturally to Brown, who runs Brown Design with brother Joshua. Their father built spec homes near the beach in Oxnard. Ryan, Joshua and a third brother often joined their dad at job sites. "It was a constant education," Brown says. "My dad taught me a lot about proportions."
Brown's mother frequented estate sales for antiques to furnish the family home, and she still shops in the vintage stores on Main Street in Ventura, where she spotted the airplane propeller that hangs in her son's bedroom.
It is one of many unusual items Brown likes to hang as art: In the family room, oars are mounted above a sofa, and in the guest room, a giant tortoise shell hangs above a four-poster bed. Wooden bakery paddles -- souvenirs from a trip to Europe -- are on a wall in the living room. "The world is an art gallery, you can learn something new at every turn," Brown says. "When I am traveling, I always take pictures. I've even been known to steal a shot of something in an open house."