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Movies Pull an Inside Job : Interior Design Has Been Touched by Hollywood Since the Talkies; Filmgoers Took the Look Home


To some degree, what we know about history and what we think might happen in the future has been brought to us--in Technicolor--by the movies. Whether they're accurate or not is beside the point; they are glimpses into worlds we could otherwise never hope to visit.

Interior design has been touched by Hollywood since the early Talkies. Jon Jahr of Jon Jahr Interiors in Laguna Niguel curated an exhibition on the influence of film on home design a year ago at the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano.

"In the late '20s and '30s the Art Deco look was popular in films since it had clean lines, was easy to create and photograph and got the stuff away from the actors," he said. Film-goers took the contemporary look home.

"The 'Americana' look really started in 1939 with 'Gone With the Wind,' " said Jahr. "People saw that movie and wanted wing back chairs, printed fabric, rooster lamps. Although American antiques were popular in the '20s, it wasn't considered the status look until after 'Gone With the Wind.'

"Before then, status meant Tudor furniture, traditional European look, Spanish decor or, sometimes, contemporary."

In the early days of filmmaking, Jahr said "they spent much more money on costumes and sets than they do now.

"On a film like 'Marie Antoinette' (1938) with Norma Shearer, probably the best costume epic ever made, everything was from the Louis XVI period on the major sets and everything was completely accurate. They often used genuine antiques and the costumes were beaded and done to the last detail. Unfortunately most of these things do not exist anymore," he said.

Barbara and Asa Mason are two people for whom some of those moments from films still exist. Barbara has designed their Newport Beach home in the style of Napoleon III, or what she calls French Victorian. Several pieces of furniture in their home were bought when 20th Century Fox and MGM held auctions and sold off much of their set furnishings.

"We were able to get some genuine antiques at the auction," Mason said. "Some of the props in the films were just plywood painted to look like marble, but some were real."

For Barbara Mason living with the movie antiques interspersed with her other antiques is a dream come true. As a young girl, she fantasized about living in the beautifully designed, ornate houses she saw at the movies.

When she designed her house, she did so to reflect her interest in the past with more than a passing glance at fantasy. Mason's living room could be plunked right down in an apartment on the Ile de la St. Louis with its French furniture. Some of the pieces include a pink roundabout or le pouf, an embroidered fire shield and two side chairs, all from the movies.

"We see our pieces from time to time in old movies shown on television," said Barbara. "It was while watching one movie that I discovered that I had put the shield in upside down."

The living room looks like the set of "GiGi," the 1958 movie starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, both of whom would look quite right in it singing about the night they invented Champagne.

The living room isn't the only room in the Mason home with film memorabilia. In the dining room is a large, dark wooden curio cabinet in the style of the Victorian palace at Brighton. In it Mason has placed Oriental roof tiles on stands to look like statues. Upstairs in Asa Mason's office is a bookcase from the film studios, as well as a chair that was originally Abraham Lincoln's.

The adjoining guest bedroom has a chair from a Western. Here, as in other rooms in the house, Mason has arranged props to add to the room's distinction. In this small room she has a life-sized angel, once a department store mannequin, pointing a wand in the manner of Glenda the Good Witch from "The Wizard of Oz." An antique wooden bed with an antique chest at its foot holds a Moroccan dagger and fez.

In an upstairs bathroom, a collection of antique perfume bottles reflects the light from the nearby window. One of the bottles belonged to actress Norma Talmadge.

The house is a nod to the innovative set designers of the past, but what about today's set designers?

"I get ideas for movie sets from looking at magazines and other people's houses," said Michael Warga, set designer for Disney Studios' "Huck Finn," shooting on location in Mississippi.

"We are doing a lot of research for this film by looking at Southern plantation homes. We start our research by trying to be authentic and base ideas on etchings and drawings of the period, but we do use artistic license."

Warga reads the script to learn the era the film's set in, then he talks to the people involved in the production, including the actors and actresses, and finally he starts his design. This is a process not unlike the interior design of a private home.

And just to prove that everything comes comes full circle, with art imitating life imitating art, Warga says, "I'm influenced by movies. I was watching an old Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie and I saw the exact color I wanted to paint my dining room."

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