Designing Hollywood

How do people whose lives consist of taking on serial identities, assuming the psyches of one made-up character after another, figure out how they wish to be at home? How do they and all the other people who help them win at pretending, come by an environment in which they can rest their multiple selves, soothe their insecurities, renew their will, and still present to all who enter their inner sanctums an image of success and sophistication?


David Geffen, the famous/infamous enfant-terrible-turned-music-maven-turned-DreamWorks-partner/philan-thropist, offers one example. Tom King's recent biography, The Operator, recounts how Geffen purchased the grandiose, furnished estate of long-deceased studio founder Jack Warner for $47.5 million (a record for a single-family home in America). Geffen was not under any impression he'd gotten a bargain until producer Joel Silver, owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright mansion himself, came over with a bunch of books and told Geffen that there were priceless treasures within the 13,600-square-foot house. The thrilled Geffen brought in antiques dealer and designer extraordinaire Rose Tarlow to look things over and give him a more precise estimate, but when Tarlow delivered her verdict--that the vast majority of furniture in the house was "garbage" (read: reproductions)--Geffen went from speechlessness straight to yelling and told Tarlow she was crazy. Tarlow was no doubt horrified at Geffen, and she didn't much like the house either, but before long she'd agreed to renovate the place for him-- on an unlimited budget, mind you--and proceeded to put many years into that and other Geffen projects.

Not many entertainment people are as wealthy or mercurial as Geffen, and not many designers are as gifted and resilient as Tarlow, but the overall dynamic of Hollywood folk and their artistic support players has a consistent shape. The Industry is full of actors, producers, executives, etc., who want what they want without necessarily knowing what they want, and who require help from bona fide talents with patience and tolerance for the eccentricities of "creative" people.

Hollywood design lore is filled with stories of those who've performed this service brilliantly. Wallace Neff, "architect to the stars"--the first stars--built lovely Spanish Revival houses in the '20s and so understood how to play to the dramatic impulses of his clients that when it came to millionaire razor-blade magnate King Camp Gillette, he worked while the owner took off to Europe for a year and presented him, upon his return, with a 25-room hacienda, complete with dinner waiting on the table.

Legendary designer Billy Haines, who had a first career as a movie star, then morphed into an interior decorator when his openly gay lifestyle became too much for the studio, rose to be the arbiter of taste for all of Hollywood for decades, designing lives as much as houses, dictating everything down to the ashtrays. Another life designer, Tony Duquette, who died just a few years ago, lent his famously over-the-top imagination to many of Hollywood's more exotic dreamers. In his long life, Duquette designed everything from the costumes for the Broadway production of Camelot to the interiors of houses for powers like David O. Selznick to fantabulous jewelry beloved by fashionistas today. Duquette shared Hollywood's love of theater, being wholly dedicated to the transport of the spirit through transformation of material things both high and low (he's rumored to have spent $1000 in a 99-cent store). He was a pioneer in global eclectic, and was unique in his ability to combine pagodas, faux leopard fabrics, abalone-shell chandeliers, geodes and God knows what else, and have it turn out both beautiful and coherent. Sharon Stone, who befriended Duqette at the end of his life, acknowledges his influence and has put a pared down version of it to work in her San Francisco home as well as in a number of her friends' homes she's helped decorate.

Today hundreds of architects, designers, craftsmen and artists supply the design magic for Hollywood's elite. The range of taste and temperament is far greater than you might imagine, given the sameness of the product Hollywood puts out. Because money is not necessarily an object, there can be a divergence of sensibility even in one married couple. Brad Pitt worships at the altar of postmodernist Frank Gehry and got a team together to design his own studio/playhouse in a style that reprised the major modernist movements of the 20th century; his wife, Jennifer Aniston, saw to it that the couple's actual residence was a far more traditional chateau-like affair. Even on the traditional side there's a mood spectrum of approaches: major Industry interior designer Barbara Barry puts a minimalist, sometimes anorexic, spin on mid-century French style; she's balanced out by, say, Frank Pennino, or the very now Hendrix Allardyce, who bring a heftier grace to the business of glamour. When it comes to collecting art, Hollywood players once again exhibit herd mentality of the sort that has the herd running in different directions. Mike Ovitz likes to play mine's-bigger games with his Picassos and Lichtensteins. Candice Bergen owns a number of the loveliest California plein air paintings in captivity.

Designers or artists who deal with prominent Hollywood people are interesting on two counts. First, their work itself is likely to be very good, for though Hollywood has never excelled in good taste as much as simple excess, there is often great beauty with the big money. Second, these designers and artists have an unusual, firsthand perspective on the process of working with Hollywood folk. Some are collaborators; some truly appreciate the weirdnesses of Hollywood creativity; some are bemused. Here's a sampling of people who are very good at their work and very good at dealing with Hollywood, too.


Designer Elaine Culotti estimates that probably no more than 10 percent of the high-end entertainment world brings in decorators to do everything "from when they buy the house to when Variety is lying on the table." Some have a precise sense of what they want and like to chase it down, but most want varying degrees of assistance.

Because Culotti owns the spacious, beautifully mysterious furniture and antique store Porta Bella in the heart of Brentwood, a village-y center of the wealthy entertainment world known best to outsiders for its ex-residents Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson, she appeals to all levels of interest from cocooning showbiz folk. Often, someone who becomes a major client starts out as a browser, like Dylan McDermott's actress-wife Shiva Rose ("the most feminine woman I have ever met," says Culotti), who walked into Porta Bella one day and now has a home designed for the most part by the store's owner.

Porta Bella, which resembles an artfully arranged prop house for a Best Foreign Film romance shot in Tuscany--multi-pastel-colored 19th-century Venetian glass chandeliers overhead, a dark, outrageously carved gondolier rocker featuring the God of Wind in one corner, gorgeously faded tapestries here and there--draws everyone from Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger to Joni Mitchell to Kelly Preston to Julie Andrews ("who drew the largest crowd of any celebrity who ever came in the store").

A few years after Culotti opened Porta Bella, which was an entrepreneurial leap from her existing antiques and furniture design business, and included both a manufacturing capability and her now fully developed design practice, two movies came along that accelerated her success: Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth. The exact look of those films (early 16th century) wasn't the key--Culotti's pieces are mostly Italian in style (she goes from the Parma Fair to outbuildings in Umbria and beyond to buy an entire shipping container of antiques every few months). It was the lushness of feeling, the sense of Old World abundance, the richness of texture and color. Culotti was already experienced in creating versions of this world, which has natural appeal for a good portion of Hollywood--including Sylvester Stallone and his wife, Jennifer Flavin, who were part of that 10 percent who wanted total design and had the budget to do it. Stallone had moved back to Los Angeles from Miami, where the design of his house was masterminded by Gianni Versace, at the height of South Beach fever. His current house, a Tuscan villa, is a more serene affair, a comfortable version of luxury that gives a nod to both the showpiece and sanctuary aspects of a celebrity home. Culotti found the Stallones a cinch to work with: "He's an executive decision-maker," she says, "and a pussycat with his kids."

Culotti's first major experience with high-intensity celebrity had come when she designed a home for Jean-Claude Van Damme and his then-wife (and future Herbalife widow) Darcy LaPier, who proceeded to get a divorce in the middle of the project. But that did not sour her on celebrity clients. "Hollywood people are artistic and take delight in the process of creativity," she says. "They're fun." And Culotti, whose lickety-split efficiency takes care of the impatient part of the celebrity equation, has a raucous laugh to go with her creative skills in taking care of the other aspects of Hollywood-ish dealings--she's humorously forgiving of showbiz absurdity (she's perhaps the biggest fan of "The Osbournes," since much of the furniture that the domestic nuttiness takes place around is from Porta Bella). She also applies an analytical eye to the psychology of her clients. She loved working for Renny Harlin, director of Die Hard 2 and Deep Blue Sea, who sought her out to decorate a mission-style Spanish house he'd bought, one of the oldest in Beverly Hills. "He was great because, as a director, he understands the benefit of delegation," she says. "Veto power was enough for him."

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