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Design : TURNING INWARD . . . A SPECIAL REPORT ON THE PEOPLE AND IDEAS THAT ARE SHAPING OUR HOMES, OFFICES AND STYLES OF LIVING : Mix It Up : Making the Old Work Along With the New

June 14, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER | Bevis Hillier is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

"Sweets to the sweet," says Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, when strewing flowers on Ophelia's grave. Some people believe in "Antiques to the antique"--the idea that old objets d'art should be shown in settings of the appropriate periods, in paneled rooms or under neoclassical ceilings of molded plaster.

But another school of interior designers thinks that antiques can be used to give accents and focal points to new interiors that might otherwise be simple to the point of sterility. They suggest that antiques look better in contemporary rooms, where they don't have to compete with Corinthian columns or blend in with the tapestries, but stand out as conversation pieces. Traditionalists continue to regard such mixtures of old and new with the horror of a gourmet confronted with a surf 'n' turf dish.

"Too many people are afraid of mixing old and new furnishings," said B. J. Turner, showroom manager of Connoisseur Antiques, 8478 Melrose Place. "But the different styles can complement each other very favorably. In stark modern rooms, you get some intimacy and homeliness from the old wooden pieces."

Charles Pollock of Charles Pollock Antiques, 8478 Melrose Place, agrees. "Antique accessories take the hard edge off the modern look," he said. "We find that most of our clientele do their decorating in this general manner, of mixing comfortable contemporary seating and contemporary backgrounds, with focal pieces which may be Oriental, or perhaps Biedermeier (a solid, neoclassical style of furniture popular in Germany and Austria circa 1820-50)."

Pollock mentioned two pieces currently in stock that he thought would make good focal points in a modern setting: an art nouveau lamp in the form of a monkey ($2,700) or an iron-red Chinese Coromandel screen ($120,000). Pollock said that most modern design tends toward casualness: Antiques can give a bracing dash of formality. "Gilt is back in now. It's like the right pin on a black dress, the right accessory. It's the elegant final touch that really sets off the design," he said.

John and Louise Good of John Good Imports, 469 Melrose Place, think that a French 18th-Century china cabinet looks fine against the stark white of a kitchen; 17th-Century Italian altar pieces serve as end tables at either side of a sofa.

Kurt Nielson of Morey Palmer Associates, 8457 Melrose Place, said, "You can mix more or less anything. The eclectic look is easy to live with." Pressed to think of a modern setting and an antique that would not mix, he replied: "There are almost no rules to this game." He suggested as an ensemble that would enhance any modern setting, a French 18th-Century console ($4,600) with, above it, a Dutch 19th-Century mirror framed in repousse brass ($11,250).

As a contrast to these galleries of museum-like elegance, Don Badertscher, 716-A N. La Cienega Blvd., has narrow corridors crammed with anything from good-quality antiques to purest junk. Visiting his store is like going on an antiques safari. In the upper range is a wood sailor figure looking through a telescope, at $3,000. But there are also old rows of theater seats, some hat pegs, a turn-of-the-century toilet pedestal decorated with blue flowers and a plastic champagne bucket in the form of a top hat.

Art Deco pieces of the 1920s and '30s in contemporary rooms cause fewer culture-shock waves than Louis XV furniture with oodles of gilt, marquetry and tumbling cherubs. For the last 12 years, Maddie and David Sadofski have run Thanks for the Memories, an Art Deco shop at 8319 Melrose Ave. Perhaps overstating the case a little, they believe that Art Deco is the beginning of modern, and "everything you see today is just an extension of that period." As well as stylish pieces of furniture, such as a semi-circular 1930s desk by Gilbert Rohde (1894-1944) in glass and black-lacquered wood, the Sadofskis often have old telephones, radios and electric clocks. You can even buy from them a pair of 1930s doctor's health scales ($3,200), a pre-World War II touch for the bathroom.

A "period" bathroom is not an entirely new idea. In his short story "Totentanz" ("Such Darling Dodos," 1950), British writer Angus Wilson described an interior decorator refurbishing a London mansion. "His greatest triumph of all was a large lavatory with tubular furniture, American cloth and cacti in pots. 'Let's have a dear old prewar lav in the nice old-fashioned Munich style,' he had said, and the Cappers, wondering, agreed."

Art Deco lighting fixtures look particularly good in modern rooms. Thanks for the Memories has a majestic chromium-plated chandelier that was filmed in the 1937 movie "Topper," starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. That is priced at $12,000. Less expensive fixtures, including a chandelier in the form of Saturn, can be found at Papillon, which has showrooms at 8111 Melrose Ave. and at 13830 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

"Art Deco was originally designed to go in very austere settings in order to accent very plain walls without a lot of fabric on them, without a lot of draperies," said Martin Wolpert of Papillon. "So Art Deco is probably the most appropriate of all pre-World War II things to go in that type of decor. Maybe that's why it's so popular now."

A quick, easy and comparatively inexpensive way to give a modern room a garnish of the antique is to hang old prints--engravings, etchings, aquatints, mezzotints--on the walls. Gideon Gallery, 8748 Melrose Ave., has a good selection of hunt scenes, fashion prints and mezzotint portraits.

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