So clever, so cheap

Jackie Terrell, 57, "started over with IKEA" after her divorce. Renting in Park La Brea for the third time, she chose a 12th floor unit, repainted the walls her favorite shade of white and decided on an airy, modern, informal look throughout.
(Iris Schneider / LAT)
Special to The Times

In the earnest, too often self-important world of interior design, Jackie Terrell’s irreverent take has helped her stand out. Two years ago, the relative unknown was plucked to redesign the laundry room, arguably the runt of any house, in the first showcase project sponsored by House Beautiful magazine.

But Terrell’s treatment — she painted it dill, framed her own drawings of irons and clothespins and added a robin’s-egg blue Formica counter — became the unexpected darling of the sprawling Brentwood home.

“Other people would have mailed it in because it was such a small room,” says Mark Mayfield, House Beautiful editor in chief. “But Jackie got it. What she did in terms of color was amazing. I was stunned by it.”


The fine arts painter reinvented herself as an interior designer half a dozen years ago after divorce left her in financial free fall, and for the third time in two decades she returned to living in one of the towers at Park La Brea. Becoming reacquainted with the notion of a budget didn’t just make her more resourceful. It changed her taste.

“When I was married, I had more expensive furniture, but it was formal,” says Terrell, 57. “After my divorce, I sold my Sub-Zero and my Eames chairs, and I took half of that money and got the nicest things for the least amount of money. I started over with IKEA.”

Today, her three-bedroom apartment works as an airy artist’s statement against excess, and as a ringing endorsement for cleverness over cash.

“Living here tells us that we don’t really have to have a lot of space or separate rooms for this and that,” says Terrell of her 1,440-square-foot apartment, whose 12th floor living room looks out onto the Hollywood Hills and the Pacific Design Center.

When she moved in, she first painted the “landlord beige” walls with her favorite white, a mixture of two shades from Benjamin Moore, and then sketched a floor plan. Starting with IKEA basics — which under Terrell’s steady hand look less like graduate-student staples and more like provocative design statements — she mixed in pieces from ceramist Jonathan Adler and midcentury staples from Design Within Reach, Martha Stewart, Urban Outfitters and catalogs such as Garnet Hill, as well as custom pieces of her own design.

Color, light and proportion are carefully controlled, although the result is far from a masterminded series of vignettes. Instead, it’s a constantly shifting set that she can strike at any moment. The pair of dining tables she assembled from 1940s movie-camera tripods and birch tabletops, the slipcovered daybed, wooden benches from IKEA — they all glide around the room depending on her mood, or if she’s having a dinner party.


In keeping with the apartment’s clean, Bauhaus-y architectural lines, Terrell’s approach to the décor is also fuss-free. A confirmed “lover of the plain,” she keeps things light, using a combination of restraint and a willingness to keep some of her collections in storage (and even, on occasion, crammed into the guest bathroom tub behind a Restoration Hardware canvas shower curtain).

The Eames surfboard coffee table, the square dining tables, her low-slung, plainly dressed bed all conform to a look of pared-down Zen chic, so that composition and color, not clutter, become the focus of every room.

“A lot of the big pieces are white, and that adds to the airiness,” Terrell says.

The designer made sure to claim an apartment with fixtures that date to 1948. Those original metal kitchen cabinets and metal countertops satisfy her love for “utilitarian things. The more socialistic, the better.”

“They tackify everything in the updated units,” says Terrell of the granite countertops, the cabinets she says have a Home Depot pedigree, and the open kitchen/living room plan, conversions that sometimes take place when units turn over.

“We add some bells and whistles like granite countertops to some,” says Barbara Barsi, director of marketing for Park La Brea, “but most of them are kept as they are. That’s how people want it.”

The tower apartments were not included in the original plans for Park La Brea. It was only after the war in 1948, during a housing shortage in Los Angeles, that developers added 18 towers to the garden townhomes.


Laid out in an X shape for optimum views and lots of corner units, the 13-story towers have one- to four-bedroom units that Terrell knows intimately. She has lived in every configuration except the one-bedroom.

In the spacious three-bedroom, Terrell spent as much time selecting the fixtures as the furniture. She added track lighting, hung IKEA panels from hospital curtain tracks mounted on her bedroom ceiling and replaced vertical blinds with Venetians in the living room.

When the air-conditioning unit prevented her from placing the blinds directly in front of the windows, Terrell accommodated the inconvenience with signature wit, hanging them about two feet in front of it. If the result looks more like a spirited design quirk than a concession to a boxy AC unit, that seems to be the lesson of Terrell’s life these days. Style can get you out of almost any situation.

“Doing design was an opportunity that came out of a very hard time for me,” says Terrell. “My divorce attorney knew better than me that I wouldn’t be able to afford life, so she asked me to help decorate her house, and I realized I felt confident doing that — that in fact I had been doing that for a long time before.”

That first project six years ago became a calling card for Terrell’s new career, and soon friends of her attorney began signing up to experience her offbeat elegance and confidence with color. “I never thought I’d ever be a businessperson,” says Terrell, who now has two assistants and the third-bedroom office filled with projects for television writers and the occasional “low-key” actor. “I’ve become the person I thought other people were.”

Terrell has become an avowed “rebel against formality,” and her aversion to the staid has become her trademark. She consistently injects wit into her projects where others might be tempted toward reverence. She’s a one-woman campaign against “seriosity.” That’s her word for what she tries to avoid by hanging a factory-size clock on the wall or putting a Philippe Starck gnome side table in her apartment. And whether she’s buying a $2 frame or a $10,000 dining table for clients, she consistently plays with scale, color and artwork, always looking for the visual in-joke for “clients who can appreciate it.”


Even though Jackie Terrell Design is now hired to decorate supersized Brentwood pads and spacious Hancock Park Spanish homes, Terrell still draws on lessons from her storage-deprived apartment. “Having things exposed, they have to look organized visually,” she says.

One of her tricks is to clump by color, whether she’s grouping her collection of vintage globes on a powder-coated Martha Stewart worktable or clustering kitchen utensils that hang on a metal rack from, yes, IKEA. “My rule is almost anything can hang there as long as it’s stainless steel. If you have a hodgepodge of stuff, it can end up looking messy.”

Another Park La Brea twist she brings to clients is making a statement in multiples, by repeating patterns and shapes through plastic frames or birch IKEA bookshelves. “It just looks tidy,” she says. “Sometimes I even have to force myself not to buy things in pairs.”

In the dining room she installed what she calls her Wall of Children, a series of 16 identical black IKEA frames hung in a horizontal line with childhood pictures of friends, including Los Angeles-based British designer Paul Fortune, colorist Scott Flax and her attorney.

“It’s that whole thing about remembering the child in us,” says Terrell, who plans to add more photos to the lineup. “This was a fun way to visualize that. Plus I can’t stay mad at my friends when I see them as kids.”

In one project for a client, she brought an imposing entry down to earth by hanging a series of hooks from Anthropologie on the wall. Umbrellas, bags and jackets hang from them, making the room personal, engaging and unexpected. She says she avoids cluttering mantelpieces because “it’s nice to let those important places be plain,” and she never places framed photographs on surfaces. “Unless you have a grand piano and they’re silver frames. That can be nice.”

Terrell first lived in Park La Brea in the early 1980s when, as a single mother, she moved into a two-bedroom with her teenage daughter. A year later she returned to a four-bedroom with her second husband, two children and an au pair.

The interior decorator signed her third rental agreement at the sprawling rental complex three years ago and, as always, opted for a tower unit over a garden townhouse. (Three-bedroom tower units currently rent for $2,200 to $2,600 a month.)

“I love the Bauhaus-y design of the towers,” says Terrell, who moved in with her youngest daughter, then 15. “The floor plan is smart, and spatially they’re perfect. I’ve considered the townhouses many times, but they’re too crackerboxy for me.”

Designed in the early 1940s by local architects Gordon Kaufmann and J.E. Stanton, and inspired by the notion of Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s “urban village” with modernist-minded affordable housing surrounded by generous expanses of park, Park La Brea has become decidedly more upscale in the past decade.

Now a gated area with resort-like amenities — a fitness center, swimming pool, putting green, yoga classes, low-fat-fare cafes and a beauty salon — the 176-acre complex has evolved from a government issue-looking rental complex with swaths of crew-cut grass into a carefully landscaped village where television writers and lawyers can drop off their dry cleaning at Tower 34 and go online to the Park La Brea singles club.

At last year’s House Beautiful showcase, Terrell was promoted to remaking the kitchen, putting her in league with designers who live in and design sprawling homes.

Just because Terrell could leave Park La Brea doesn’t mean she’s packing. Instead, she’s hoping to persuade management to let her expand into the neighboring unit if it becomes vacant. Imagine the possibilities: The complex’s first five-bedroom could provide for the ever-expanding Wall of Children.


Alexandria Abramian-Mott is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. She can be reached at