Modern architecture mixes with traditional furnishings in Los Angeles house

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

ALTHOUGH Brooke Anderson was brought up in a modern milieu, she credits her famous “Grams,” actress Gloria Swanson, for imbuing her with a love for the traditional. As a young woman, Anderson frequently visited her grandmother’s stylish apartment on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park. “It was formal but very comfortable, and filled with beautiful antiques with tons of books everywhere,” Anderson recalls, adding that her grandmother always wanted to be an opera singer. “She had a baby grand piano in the living room where she would play and sing.”

Today that green baby grand has a place of honor in Anderson’s new Los Angeles home, a 1938 classic designed by Gregory Ain. Even though she fancies traditional, Anderson is also an ardent fan of modern architecture. The former gerontologist turned writer grew up in a 1950 redwood, steel and glass Bel-Air home designed by Los Angeles architects John Rex and Douglas Honnold and landscaped by Garrett Eckbo. The state-of-the-art residence, published in Arts & Architecture magazine’s June 1956 issue, featured built-in furnishings, radiant floor heat and stainless-steel cabinets.

“I loved the sense of proportion and light in my parents’ home. It was beautiful but cold,” Anderson says. “I knew that if I was fortunate to have a modern home one day, I would fill it with friendly furnishings. I love modern architecture, but I love my comfort too.”

Ain, a second-generation modernist architect, created Anderson’s split-level home for pharmacist A.O. Beckman and his wife and two daughters. According to Anthony Denzer, assistant professor of architectural engineering at the University of Wyoming and author of “Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary,” to be published by Rizzoli next month, “it was not typical of Ain’s pre-war houses.”

Ain is perhaps best known for bringing cost-efficient, modern homes to the working classes. He is also often credited as being one of the first architects to design a house that did not contemplate servants. He did, however, include a maid’s quarters in the more upscale Beckman home.

From the front door, Ain created direct access to the functional realms of the home -- zones for sleeping, leisure and work. He placed the maid’s quarters in the work realm next to the kitchen and laundry room. An office with its own entrance faces the street in the front wing of the house; children’s bedrooms are down the hall. The dining room and kitchen, along with a glass-enclosed living room and upstairs private master bedroom, overlook the backyard.

Designed in a pinwheel shape, the house ingeniously allows gardens on three sides. Bands of clerestory and large fixed windows offer garden views from every room and flood the home with natural light.

Anderson bought the midcentury gem six years ago. Out on a neighborhood walk from her Georgian-style home in Hancock Park, she fell in love with the modest house nestled along a sycamore-lined street.

“They had an open house every weekend, and after six months of walking by,” she says, “I finally bought it.” She made small changes but lived for nearly three years in the home before calling in a friend, interior designer Joe Nye, to help with a serious renovation.

“We wanted to be as true as possible to the modern home, but of equal importance was to make it comfortable,” Nye says. “Comfort in a modern home seems like an oxymoron. Modern homes back then were all about effect -- how did it look rather than how did it feel? -- but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Anderson’s 2,100-square-foot residence feels comfortable indeed -- as well as modern. Filled with an eclectic mix of traditional and modern furnishings, and with a peppering of memorabilia from her famous grandmama, the well-edited furnishings reflect a modern aesthetic.

A down-filled sofa and club chairs sit atop original dark-stained oak floors in the living room. Nearby a pair of red Chinoiserie chests that once sat on top of each other in Swanson’s apartment now serve as coffee tables -- colorful exclamation points in a room awash in cream and ivory hues.

A Regency dining table, its warm mahogany surface polished to a mirror-finish, is at the end of the room. It doubles as a console and, when pulled out into the room, a more formal dining table. Upstairs in the plush wall-to-wall carpeted master bedroom, a cushy chaise longue in the corner of the room beckons.

“It’s my favorite place to curl up and read,” Anderson says.

Downstairs, Anderson’s everyday dining is done at the contemporary, white-laminated table from IKEA in Ain’s open-plan kitchen. Nye gave it to Anderson as a gift, then surrounded it with her vintage Chippendale chairs; antique toile baskets filled with flowers complete the mix of old and new.

“I think beautiful old pieces against a modern setting make them more exquisite,” Nye says. “It creates a much more interesting chemistry, don’t you think?”

But just what would the midcentury great, who believed in architecture’s potential to shape a more egalitarian world, say of this home, appointed with antiques, down-filled sofas and spa-steam showers?

“It’s true Ain designed for the working classes and was more concerned about economy than comfort,” Denzer says, “but Ain was not possessive about his work. It belonged to the people, and he understood that people would inevitably make changes.”