Design for living, separately
If Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato ever “go Hollywood,” they’d have to leave town.
Instead, the uncompromising documentarians live and work in the heart of Hollywood, the city — Bailey in a 1924 English Arts and Crafts bungalow, built by a scenic designer for Cecil B. DeMille above the Magic Castle in Hollywood Heights, and Barbato in a 1927 Spanish movie star manse in Hollywood Dell.
Birthplace of the American fever dream of fame, city of lustrous myths and lurid scandals, Hollywood is more than just an address for Bailey and Barbato, who moved their film and TV production business, World of Wonder, to Los Angeles from New York in 1994. It is the dream factory in which they are able to manufacture surreal and cerebral meditations on the rich and infamous.
“We are storytellers who celebrate the freaks,” they have said, explaining a résumé that includes films about Tammy Faye Bakker, Monica Lewinsky and Manhattan club-kid killer Michael Alig, and their latest, “Inside Deep Throat.”
One could say Bailey and Barbato are a Hollywood story in their own right: two 44-year-old filmmakers — one an Englishman of the David Niven variety, one a blue-eyed New Jersey Italian with a screwball comedy demeanor — who for two decades have been romantic as well as professional partners, turning their pop culture obsessions into an industry.
As with every good Hollywood story, theirs has a twist. In the summer of 2003, Barbato moved into his own home, ending their long cohabitation.
“In the words of our respective therapists " Bailey begins, " we de-merged,” Barbato continues, finishing the thought the way longtime associates often do.
“We redefined our interpersonal space,” Bailey says in mock psychobabble.
“Everybody should try that,” Barbato says. “We now have a respect and support for each other that was completely missing when we lived together. And we still are and will always be family.”
Over the last four years, designer A.J. Bernard, who wears trim custom-tailored suits and drives a 1979 black Chevy Silverado pickup, has become a part of that family, helping Bailey and Barbato realize working and living spaces that reflect Hollywood design from the 1920s and ‘30s while showcasing the filmmakers’ eccentric tastes. Their two homes are filled with Art Deco and midcentury designs as well as 20th century kitsch such as “Dynasty” dishes and Spice Girls action figures.
Bailey likes art depicting historic events such as the Hindenburg disaster and the sinking of the Titanic; Barbato picks up “interesting wacky things,” like a Russian doll in the image of Madonna. Both fill their walls with a mix of contemporary photography, flea market snapshots and art made by friends; both also have loving cups stacked on their bookshelves. “We had a trophy phase,” Bailey says, “which is in remission.”
“The combination of highbrow and lowbrow exists in our work and our domestic aesthetics,” says Barbato.
“People might see our work and think that we were into Modernism,” Bailey concedes. Appearances are apparently deceiving, The truth, they both say, is similar to the impression people had “when they saw the inside of Andy Warhol’s house. You know he was the king of pop culture, and everyone was surprised when they saw an old, traditional place filled with a lot of stuff.” Minimalism is anathema.
“I’d rather live in a Hobbit house than a glass box,” Bailey says. “We like to feather our nests.”
“Their sensibilities are very similar, and they certainly are collectors,” says Bernard, 46, who has had the luxury of knowing his clients since the early ‘80s when they were all part of the nightclub scene in Manhattan. “I just wanted to create a livable backdrop, one that would work with the architecture and house their ever-growing collections of pop memorabilia.”
Bernard’s first assignment was the 1924 Arts and Crafts house, which Bailey and Barbato bought together in 1994, the year they created a VH-1 talk show for drag superstar RuPaul and directed “L.A. Stories,” a compendium of footage shot by citizens affected by the riots following the Rodney King verdict.
“We pulled up and thought, ‘Brown bungalow, yuck!’ It didn’t have much curb appeal,” Bailey recalls.
It did have drama: a two-story wood-paneled living room, a classic Craftsman dining room with a view of Hollywood and a third, lower level that had once housed an architect’s office. “It was only 2,500 square feet and basically a box, but the way the rooms were articulated with little nooks and crannies was so clever, it seemed enormous,” says Bailey.
Aside from the Craftsman’s plum walls and white floorboards, the house was, Bailey recalls “toothbrush ready, as they say in the real estate ads.”
By the time Bernard was hired, Bailey and Barbato had spent six years haunting L.A. antiques stores and the Rose Bowl flea market, adding to their extensive collections, which included childhood treasures and mementos from their lives in New York and London. The living room was cluttered with books, the lower level was crowded with boxes, and the master suite was cramped. “The list of improvements just kept getting longer and longer,” Bailey recalls.
They had started with a designer who turned out to be "über-Hollywood, Spielberg-scale money.” So they reconnected with Bernard.
The pair first met Bernard after they had dropped out of a graduate film program at New York University and moved in together. Barbato and Bailey formed a group called the Fabulous Pop Tarts, using Bailey’s scholarship money to buy drum machines and synthesizers. Around the same time, Bernard was a solo act, a rock ‘n’ roll performance artist known as Zette.
“We had lost touch,” Bailey recalls. “So when we asked Bernard to design the house, we played the downtown card. You know, ‘We’re all struggling artists.’ ”Bernard had been struggling. In the mid-'90s, his Berlin-based recording career had come to a grinding halt when MTV Europe yanked a video in which he wore “a rock ‘n’ roll version of Nijinsky’s costume for ‘Afternoon of a Faun,’ toe shoes with knife blades for heels and a lot less makeup than Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.”
Having appeared in the films “Last Exit to Brooklyn” (1989) and “Storyville” (1992), Bernard moved to L.A. but found the Hollywood audition mill “unbelievably degrading. I wasn’t hungry enough to put myself through the masochism of being an actor in this town.”
To pay rent, he became a decorative painter. “I wielded a mean stencil,” he says. “People used to call me Eldin, like the character on ‘Murphy Brown,’ because I would move in with them for months.” Soon he was consulting on window treatments and furniture, decorating offices for agents and accountants, designing a Texas home for Dixie Chick Natalie Maines.
It was the perfect career transition for Bernard, who as a boy in New Orleans used to take plantation tours and go to open houses with his mother, a professional seamstress and, he says, “quite a homemaker — she could take an old iron base and a gilt mirror and put them together to make a table.”
That kind of ingenuity proved useful when it came time to reconfigure the top floor of Bailey and Barbato’s house, turning two smaller rooms and a hallway into a larger bedroom-bath. Impressed with the design, the pair commissioned Bernard to draw up plans for renovating the top floor of an Art Deco building on Cherokee Avenue that the filmmakers had bought for their business, which has expanded to nearly 50 full-time employees.
“The idea was that it should be a pared-down version of an old bank,” Bernard explains, “slightly modernized but harkening back to the era when the building was built.”
“The ‘20s and ‘30s were the first original American style,” contends Bailey. “It all connects to old Hollywood.”
So it would be when it came to decorating the house. In what was once a storage space, Bernard created a movie moment, transforming the lower level of the house into a bookcase-lined library with a fireplace and a desk clad in orange leather and studded with brass.
“It is purportedly from the estate of the producer Irving Thalberg,” Bernard says. “And it is quite possibly a custom piece by William Haines, the Hollywood decorator about whom Fenton and Randy were making a biographical documentary at the time.” Using the colors of the desk and a hearthside Spanish Deco rug for inspiration, Bernard painted the cross-beamed ceiling in complementary shades of olive and orange, turning the room into a cozy think tank.
“Bernard is a brilliant colorist,” Bailey says, walking through the house, followed by mutts Edith and Sabrina. “He painted the kitchen, which had blue tiles, this shade that changes colors from blue to green to gray throughout the day. Some of his choices scare me on paper, but they always work on the wall.”
“In New Orleans,” Bernard explains, “people are fearless. You look in houses in the Quarter and the Garden District and there’s this rainbow of colors. I always say color is your friend. And if you decide you don’t like it anymore, it’s the easiest thing in the world to change.”
Building a library downstairs freed up the living room for a decorative scheme worthy of a house built by an employee of DeMille. Down came the bookcases surrounding the fireplace; up went an Art Deco peach-colored mirror hearth. The inspiration for the mirrored fireplace, says Bailey, came from his teenage fascination with Biba, the glittering Art Deco London department store designed by Barbara Hulanicki during the height of the 1970s glam rock period.
When Biba went out of business, Bailey bought a piece of its signature wallpaper. Bernard had it reproduced by a company in Australia that prints wallpaper by Florence Broadhurst, an Australian designer Bailey discovered a few years ago while shopping in London’s Selfridge’s. With large-scale prints and metallic colors, these wallcoverings are used sparingly, in two vestibules leading to a bamboo-furnished guest room and the stairway to the downstairs library, which flank a media center hidden behind wood panels.
It is a swank take on the traditional screening room, with square sofas, a glass coffee table from Blackman Cruz, tapestry ottomans by Jonathan Adler and two swiveling club chairs that Bernard designed and covered in a Gretchen Bellinger gray wool with metallic threads. When the sun is shining, the dark silk velvet curtains glow with an orange incandescence.
It was in this room that Bailey and Barbato spent a merry, if somewhat unusual, Christmas in 2002. They had gathered friends for a screening of “Deep Throat,” the 1972 XXX-rated film that became the most controversial and successful independent film ever made. Fascinated by its cultural and political impact, Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer had approached Bailey and Barbato to direct a documentary about it.“In our minds, he had already hired us,” Barbato recalls. “He just didn’t know.” What Grazer also didn’t know was that the couple he was about to hire were in the process of separating.
“The business side tended to grow over all the other aspects of our relationship,” says Bailey, who had also fallen in love with filmmaker Billy Luther, with whom he now lives.
“I said I would move,” Barbato says. “Fenton was more emotionally attached to the house. He’s old-fashioned and English that way — I mean, he still has his teddy bear from school. So I felt like I was being the bigger man. Little did I know I would find such a gorgeous new house.”
Barbato’s new home is a classic California Mediterranean, with terraces, patios and a pool surrounded by gardens that climb the hillside. In stark contrast to the woody gentleman’s club feeling of his former residence, it is filled with light that illuminates the walls, all of which are painted Navajo white.
Once again, Bernard picked up the pieces after Barbato started work with another designer. “I thought it might be weird since the two of us had worked with him, that maybe I should break away,” Barbato explains. However, it quickly became evident that Bernard was “someone who could tolerate my crazy Italian behavior.” Bernard also understood how to communicate with a filmmaker.
“Every house is character-driven,” he explains. “The client and the architecture provide the inspiration. Then I have a certain sensibility that I bring to it. The only pigeonhole I feel comfortable in is that of the changeling. It would be the death of me to become known for a look I had to re-create over and over again.”
Still, Bernard was creating a new home for a former client whose taste he had come to know well, as part of a couple he knew well. “There wasn’t really any conflict,” the designer says. In fact, there was cooperation.
“When I had some new chairs made for Fenton based on ones his father had designed,” Bernard recalls, “we gave the chairs that they replaced to Randy. And the first thing I told him was, ‘This is going to be your house. We can do whatever you want.’ ”
For the extroverted Barbato, Bernard envisioned bolts of color in the living room: a pair of midcentury chairs and a matching credenza by Edward Wormley in a bracing shade of coral, a rug with magenta tones, and wool felt carpeting in blue and green.
The layout is elegant and functional. A spare Finnish desk circa 1915 from the local antiquarian Lief Inc. doubles as a console table behind a European daybed flanked by Art Deco chairs and a chrome-framed settee. Modernist lighting fixtures, particularly one that appears to be made of blue bowling pins and multicolored geodesic domes, add levity and wit.
Upstairs, the mood is more subdued. There is rich wood furniture, including a contemporary bed by Charles Jacobsen, built-in cabinetry and weathered French club chairs of elephant hide.Variations of green provide accent color in an abstract floral rug by Edward Fields. Elsewhere the texture is visual: brown check carpeting and sumptuous drapes in striped velvet by the midcentury fabric designer Jack Lenor Larsen, and what appears to be vintage Pendleton plaid shirt material. The effect is luxury without stuffiness, as rugged and refined as Rock Hudson in a tweed hunting jacket. Utility was just as important as glamour for Barbato. That meant renovations: enlarging the master bath, encasing the tub in a wooden frame that makes it look as if it belongs in a 1920s yacht, and adding a media center in the den, making the TV visible from the pool.
“During Christmas week, my vacation was spent in that pool watching tapes of movies that were up for consideration for Academy Awards,” Barbato says. But living by himself for the first time in his adult life isn’t all about kicking it poolside.
“Fenton is very domestic. He’s tidy and likes to cook. Aside from doing the garden, I had a free ride,” Barbato admits. “We used to go to Starbucks, but now I make coffee in the morning, which I haven’t done in 20 years.”
Fully caffeinated, each in his own fashion, Barbato and Bailey meet at their Hollywood, 10 minutes or less from their respective homes. “They never wanted to be anywhere else,” says Bernard. Hollywood has the same allure as New York in the ‘80s, where they all began their careers. “Being in Hollywood, in the thick of it, whether it’s pretty or gritty. That’s what excites them.”