Rebel in a bungalow town
Playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote reappears in the kitchen of Ron Bernstein’s Hollywood bungalow, where a few other friends of the film-rights agent collect around a table composed just so with voluptuous fruits, delicate French pastries and Sauvignon Blanc ordered directly from the Loire Valley.
“You can leave me that screen in your will,” says Foote, whose slew of major awards in a six-decade career includes two Oscars, an Emmy and a Pulitzer. “Wonderful thing.”
Which screen, Bernstein wants to know, oh, the one behind the bathtub? Well, now, that was a find, hand-painted metal, spotted in Glendale, had to have it, had to, snapped it up and all the while thinking this is madness. Where to put it? Still, you can’t pass up pieces like that. “They’re looking for you as much as you’re looking for them,” Foote suggests in his amiable, often amused, manner.
Mad, nutty, crazed, obsessed — Bernstein has called the nature of his collecting by all those names, and himself “a strange and exotic creature,” but an impulse buyer he is not. For years he has searched the world with a mathematician’s precision for exactly the right furnishings to realize his unorthodox vision: — creating fin-de-siècle Vienna in the heart of Hollywood.
In the mid-’90s he was offered a trip to anywhere in Europe by a grateful client whose book he had sold to the movies for a big, fat figure, a negotiating skill that, along with his literary taste and instinct for hot properties, has propelled Bernstein to the summit of his profession at International Creative Management. (As the West Coast head of the book division at ICM, he represents Foote, Cormac McCarthy, Patricia Cornwell, Carl Hiaasen, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Hoffman, Margaret Atwood, Candace Bushnell, Mark Bowden and Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, among others.)
“I don’t know why,” Bernstein wonders, “but I chose to go to Vienna.” And there, he fell in love — with a style and a philosophy of design. Bernstein was caught in the spell of Austrian Art Nouveau, otherwise known as Vienna Secession. Its hallmarks — the simplified shapes and surfaces (“no foof, no frou”) the geometric patterns, the superior workmanship and materials — appealed at once to his sensibilities.
By the time he returned to L.A., he’d made the decision to go Viennese in his classic 1915 bungalow, a decision startling for its turnabout given the stature of his Arts and Crafts collection. So perfected was Bernstein’s aesthetic that a photo of the living room had been used as the cover shot for the book “American Bungalow Style” by Pasadena-based architectural historian Robert Winter, an authority on Arts and Crafts, and photographer Alexander Vertikoff. His carefully honed collection of furniture and decorative arts, amassed for 15 years and including rare pieces by Stickley, was “fabulous,” says Winter. “Everything he had was museum quality.”
When, in the fall of 1999, he rid himself of the whole lot, Craftsman Auctions devoted the first 18 pages of a catalog to “The Ron Bernstein Collection.” Scores of his items were sold: textiles, tables, paintings, prints, leaded chandeliers. “Ah,” Winter sighs, “they should have been in the permanent collection of the county museum. He had the variety, and fabrics nobody else had.”
Bernstein had grown disillusioned with Arts and Crafts even before he traveled to Austria. “Once done, I didn’t like it,” he says. “I thought it was boring even though it wasn’t just brown furniture in a brown room like a lot of people think. I reinterpreted it with color. But Arts and Crafts had also become overly familiar, cheapened. And I’m too iconoclastic to do what everybody else is doing.” Besides that, he had come to realize a fundamental fact about himself: He wasn’t the cozy, cottage-y type. “I like high style. Vienna Secession is the highest of high style.”
In fact, Vienna Secession is a logical extension of Bernstein’s Arts and Crafts phase. (“Arts and Crafts was my off-Broadway run. This is my Broadway run.”) The Secessionists were a collective of progressive, disgruntled artists and artisans led by the painter Gustav Klimt, who, in 1897, broke with the traditional academy because of its fogyism, its strict embracing of the past. They wanted to look to their own age for new art and new design styles.
Bernstein’s particular interest is in the works created by the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), a direct offshoot of the Secession formed in 1903 by Josef Hoffmann, an architect, and Koloman Moser, an artist known as “the master of Viennese Modernism.”
Its idealistic aims in some ways echo that of the utopian Arts and Crafts movement: to save society from the soullessness of inferior mass manufacturing by creating household goods of fine craftsmanship and high-quality materials. Its motto: “Better to work 10 days at one piece than to manufacture 10 pieces in one day.”
The workshop strove to integrate fine arts with crafts and to “reflect the spirit of the times in a plain, simple and beautiful way,” as Hoffmann and Moser wrote. There was no reason that the functional should not also be exquisite.
Like the earlier Biedermeier, the Wiener Werkstätte style was a total design concept — from architecture to furniture to dishes to hardware to bookbindings — meant to permeate and thus enrich everyday life. Everything would be consciously designed to produce a unified environment.
It’s that unity of expression that Bernstein is after, not by designing and creating products but by buying them and reinterpreting the aesthetic 100 years after the fact. What interests him is the totality, how it all comes together and relates, and that’s what he believes is missing from the current Arts and Crafts show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I don’t think it gives you the real sense of the aesthetic,” he says. “That’s why I’m always disappointed with these shows — this piece in a case, that piece in a case. They failed to connect any of it to today.”
Bernstein buys only what he thinks works and only what’s pragmatic. For that reason, and because his eye is drawn to furniture and the decorative arts, he hasn’t bought much fine art. “You can’t sit on a Klimt,” he says. But since the recent gift from Handler of an Egon Schiele pen-and-ink drawing (“You don’t give Ron Bernstein a cheese basket,” explains the writer) he’s rethinking this “great weakness” in his collection.
He is attempting his own version of Vienna Secession, and he’s had to teach himself “through poring over picture after picture in book after book that I can’t even read,” he says, getting up to retrieve one written in German.
“Love that kitchen! Black and white, that was the look,” he exclaims, flipping through the yellowed and musty pages. He finds a photo of a brass fire screen that he hired a Pasadena metalworker, Matt Saunders, to duplicate for the living room, where it’s as dramatic a focal point as a large diamond necklace setting off a strapless dress.
“I’m concerned with how things interrelate and integrate, and I’m concerned with getting things right. I care about the emotional impact, meaning how you connect to design — the id of design.” Um. Has he been in psychoanalysis? “Every neurotic Jew has blabbed his head off to a therapist at some point,” he jokes.
He consulted a decorator, but she turned him down. “Turned down by a decorator! I’m cursed! ‘You’re a fetishist,’ she said to me. But I wanted her to carry out my ideas, not impose her own. The house is a reflection of me, not a slavish re-creation. I’m not trying to be historical. “
Catch a glimpse of the exterior of the bungalow, in its pleasant neighborhood just off Sunset, and you’d be excused if you imagined a nice, homey interior of appropriate dark woods, tiled fireplaces and a wallpapered room or two.
But observe it more attentively — take notice of the black-and-white geometric pattern topping the front porch, the way the horizontal and vertical lines are emphasized or how bushes are pruned Japanese style — and you’ll pick up a more urbane overlay, a hint of something out of the ordinary. Take one step inside and you’ll be disoriented enough to stop dead in your tracks. Most people do, says Bernstein.
For Handler, it was like walking straight into a childhood fantasy — the one where he is “really a lost prince from some exotic Bohemian royalty in some faraway land” — and not like anything he’d ever seen in L.A. “Not like anything I’ve seen anywhere. I thought it was marvelous and spooky and decadent, the sort of place in which I’ve always dreamed of holding absinthe parties but have not had the opportunity to do so. Ron’s like the uncle in ‘the Nutcracker Suite’ — a mysterious man in a mysterious place with mysterious items. It’s right up my alley.”
Even in the dusky hush of the rooms, curtained in mellowed netting and old Schumacher fabrics, gleam comes at you right and left. Black lacquer and brilliant brass play off each other and toss refracted light onto the walls and floor from the low-wattage crystal pendants and the light fixtures and lamps covered in black and white remnants of antique kimonos. In the lacquering, the metal, the subtle repetitions of squares and circles, the overall simplification, you detect the evident Japanese influences on Vienna Secession.
The kitchen is a study in the stark contrast of all black and white. So is the guest bath. “There is nothing — nobody can tell me there is — nothing chicer than black and white,” Bernstein pronounces with his characteristic insistence, tinged with theatrical inflections and a hint of playfulness.
There is an air about the interior of a set design fashioned by a scholarly aesthete for a Viennese period piece, circa 1910, impeccably rendered. “I deal in similar things from that period,” says Judy Hoffman, owner of the Austro-Hungarian gallery Szalon in West Hollywood. “His are the most incredible I’ve seen outside a museum. I hope one day he’ll open the house to students of art history. Believe me, I’ve learned about things from him I didn’t even know existed.”
The furniture, small-scale and refined, has an elegant reserve; firmly upholstered, rigorously crafted chairs and sofas are more stylish than plop-down-sink-back comfortable. No one would ever mistake this for an outpost of Shabby Chic. “California is all about casual,” says Bernstein. “Caz-u-elle. I’ve turned my back on it. By nature I’m rather formal. I’m not sun, sand and surf. I’m the ‘Danube Waltz.’ ”
He always wears a suit and tie to his office, and in off-hours something or other by a known designer or from an ancient culture, usually worthy of note. Fine fabrics and the cut of the cloth have held a fascination for him since he was a boy, a fascination he guesses he inherited from his clotheshorse mother. He even likens his house to couture: “It’s rich surfaces and very extreme designs. This is design as risky. The same as couture is risky. It’s the difference between Armani suits and Suits for Less.”
Bernstein is persuaded to model a few of the garments in the tightly packed closets of his downstairs study and his upstairs bedroom. Out come the coats, the jackets, the kimonos: Gucci, Romeo Gigli, a mid-19th century Afghan jacket, a full-length Moroccan robe, Japanese firemen’s and peasants’ coats (“farmer chic”). He tries them on over his 1980s Jean Paul Gaultier sweater, sleeves woven with metal threads. “I’ve worn it to meetings, and people raise their eyebrows and say, ‘You look so medieval.’ What can I say? I love it. I wear it incessantly.”
“Oh wait, be still my heart, this.” He throws on a large bluish-gray kimono embroidered with roosters. “I wanted to match the living room color with it,” he says, walking into the room and leaning against the wall to show how brilliantly the two blend. “It took four months for the paint to come from Europe, such a megillah to get that color.” He takes off the kimono and puts on a white wool coat that he found in a thrift shop. “A man in white wool is fairly bold, my dear. Fairly bold. But is there anything chicer? I ask you.” He’ll refrain from modeling his “army of Izzies,” meaning Issey Miyake shirts and sweaters.
Bernstein’s love of fashion morphed over time into a love of design at large. When he gets a yen, he pursues it relentlessly, and he’s willing to pay for the pleasure. He’s been lucky to buy at good prices, but there’s a point, he says, where “you’ve got to throw bargain hunting out the window. You pay the tariff.” Only the best for him at this stage of the game. During his lean years as a book agent in the ‘80s, he decorated his New York apartment “low-rent English Deco style” on the cheap, from thrift shops. “Pink,” he sums it up in a word, then makes it two: “Very pink.” He knows he’s come a long way.
His dedication to the process of collecting and assembling is keen and almost preternaturally patient, like putting together a stock portfolio. It takes time to do what he’s doing, especially on his own and with his exacting standards. “This is not a sissy aesthetic,” Bernstein says. “Not for the faint of heart. You’ve got to have the wherewithal to get up at the crack of dawn to talk to dealers, you’ve got to have the ability to travel, you’ve got to have scholarship, you’ve got to have the commitment to give it time. Lots of time.”
It took him five years of scouting to find a garbage can he could live with in the kitchen, but find it he did, pressed tin, at an Orange County flea market. It took him two years tracking Moser light fixtures to find the four-light pendant — the first of its kind he had seen — now in his living room, and he’s still tracking a Moser china cabinet to replace a Hoffmann vitrine that’s “great, but not quite right for the space.” He’ll have it or die, he declares.
Months went into lacquering the kitchen. Months more went into relacquering it. “It was terrible, all wrong,” he says of the work, done by a painter who had moved into his guesthouse for the duration. He finally turned to a production designer, Maine Burke, to take over. He brought in other studio artisans — a painter, a carpenter, a draper — to get the job executed the Bernstein way.
And after 15 years of experimenting with his garden, Bernstein at last knows what to do: By spring it will be Japanese.
Will he be done then? Not likely. “I continue to correct my mistakes, and I continue to refine my work and my life. This parallels my career, in a way. It’s taken me a long time to get to the top. But I stick with what I started, and I’m always looking to perfect what I’m doing.”
Barbara King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Where to see Secession pieces
Neue Galerie: 1048 5th Ave., New York; (212) 628-6200, https://www.neuegalerie.org .
Privately owned by Ronald S. Lauder; devoted exclusively to early 20th century Austrian and German art and design.
Szalon: 910 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-0089.
L.A. Moderne Antiques: 947 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 360-1656, https://www.lamoderne.com .
Barry Friedman Limited: 32 E. 67th St., New York; (212) 794-8950, https://www.barryfriedmanltd.com .
Jason Jacques: 40 W. 25th St., New York; (212) 352-3524, https://www.ceramic1900.com .
Kimcherova: 532 W. 25th St., New York; (212) 929-9720, https://www.kimcherova.com .
Historical Design: 306 E. 61st St., New York; (212) 593-4528, https://www.historical design.com.
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