"We're really not about parties," whispered Gep Durenberger, knee-deep in a crush of revelers at the gala opening of the Center for the Study of Decorative Arts in San Juan Capistrano. "But you need them to get things going. We're about home--studying about preserving beauty in the home."
Well, everyone knows there's no place like home for a cozy, elegant party, and the guest list proved it on Saturday night. That's when such members of the rich-and-famous set as producer Norman Lear, mega-developer Donald Koll and business magnate Gavin Herbert--each an admirer of Durenberger, the antiquarian who started it all--swept into the new center to peruse period vignettes and polish off paella, French chocolate cake and white-chocolate ice cream.
And such a home. The second you set foot on its tiny porch, you knew it was going to be a party package wrapped in style: the scalloped canopy that framed the doorway was festooned with bouquets of flowers and centered with a twinkling chandelier. White camellias drifted in a gushing patio fountain.
Inside, fires roared. Classics by Porter and Gershwin were played on a mirror-finish grand piano. And champagne and appetizers were proffered from gleaming silver trays.
"I feel like I've given birth," said Durenberger, brown eyes dancing as he drank in the richly appointed center, the first of its kind on the West Coast. "Really! We've had twins here! Maybe even quintuplets."
John Saladino, the revered New York interior designer who was a school chum of Durenberger at Notre Dame (and is now busy-busy creating lush looks for Lyn and Norman Lear's new Los Angeles mansion), said the center is unique in the nation.
"You see this kind of thing in Europe, but for the West Coast, this is a rare opportunity for people to expand themselves culturally and at the same time learn about what their great-great-grandmother may have lived with and what they may now own."
On view through May 6 is an exhibit entitled "California Style: Collectors and Collections," which includes such items as the 18th-Century cherry highboy loaned by locals Lori and Bob Warmington. "We've been collecting furniture since we were first married," Lori said. "The pieces are like children, a very special part of our lives."
Art Birtcher, director of development for the center, and his wife, Gaye, honorary chairwoman of the gala, loaned their tabernacle, circa 1500, to the Renaissance vignette. Carved heads of a man and a woman decorate the sides of the rare piece, and a carved Cross of Godfrey of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre embellishes the front.
"How perfectly appropriate to have the center in San Juan Capistrano, where we have so much history," said Gaye, greeting guests with a mink tossed over her bare shoulders. (Fur was the wrap of choice. It was cold outside.)
Gala chairwoman Electa Anderson wowed the crowd in an ecru opera coat that once belonged to her great-great-grandmother. She said she decided to become involved with the center after meeting Durenberger only a few months ago. "I could see right away he was the kind of man who makes dreams come true."
Electa had a secret: She and her husband, Norman, were celebrating their 24th wedding anniversary at the affair. Underneath her lace-inset coat was her pearl-trimmed wedding dress. "I'm all CONWAYfor family," she said. "And I'm all for establishing a purpose for beautiful decor and an attachment to it."
Durenberger said he thinks that the center's supporters must have been taught about beauty in their childhoods. "And learning about beauty makes you a better person. There's something very basic about it . . . a reverence. You don't even have to understand it."
Also at the center of things: Lyn Lear, Norman's newish, young and charming wife, who said that the couple collect "a lot of modern art" and that their new home is going to be a mix of modern and classic; Marguerite Holub, who, during dinner, sat next to Norman Lear and told him that she remembers meeting his first wife, Frances (publisher of Lear's magazine); and designer Martha Gresham.
Plus, David and Bette Auerbach (in the night's sartorial showstopper: a black-jet-beaded fuchsia silk ball gown by Nina Ricci) and Marsha and Phil Schwartze, who said he had been to San Juan Capistrano's sister city Petra (in Majorca), birthplace of Junipero Serra, and that it is so much like Capistrano, "with its swallows and rollings hills, that Father Serra must have felt right at home here."
Other faces in the crowd: San Juan Capistrano Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer; Jack and Jody Pike; Chris and John Luhrs; Harry and Diane Johnson (the designer who worked with Don and Dorothy Koll on their breathtaking chateau-by-the-bay in Newport); Joyce Mac Rae, an editor of House and Garden magazine, and Phil Jacoby, president of Marbella Golf and Country Club, who helped underwrite the affair.
Special favors of fragrance were provided by Tiffany & Co.