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Designing Fantasies : There's Not One Prevailing Mode of Interior Decorating Here, but, Rather, One Prevailing Mood: (Almost) Anything Goes

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T he living room is huge and bathed in sunlight. The entire west wall of glass affords a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. The pale wood furniture is oversized and the white cotton cushions are overstuffed. The carpet, too, is white. Only the larger-than-sofa-sized abstract oil painting, and a few artfully placed flowers, provide any color.

The camera pans the room, catching and tracking the flight path of a shrieking sea gull through the window, swooping across the beach.



This is the mythic interior of a Southern California home, done Hollywood-style. Like its counterparts across the country--the antique-filled New York apartment with a view of Central Park, a New England cottage with chintz for days and a rose-covered arbor, or a Midwest farmhouse with a wide front porch and rocking chairs --it's a cliche. But in that cliche are the hallmarks of Southern California style.

"Our houses are brighter, with bigger windows, and our floor plans more open . . . with fewer walls separating living areas," says interior designer Millicent Gappell.

"There is not one prevailing decorating style in Southern California, but one prevailing mood," says Jody Greenwald, director of UCLA extension's interior and environmental design program.

"We live an open, hedonistic, body-conscious lifestyle. We use scale differently, we use larger furniture and fewer pieces."

Another characteristic of some homes in Southern California is the focal point. "We live toward our back yard. Our front yards are merely an entry point to the home," Gappell says. "This does tend to shield us away from the world that's passing by. It's more private and protected."

What the big-windowed, open-floor-planned cliche home lacks, however, is a personality. And for better or worse, the indelible stamp of our ego is what makes interiors here awesome and awful. Sometimes simultaneously.

From Candy Spelling's Beverly Hills' version of Versailles to Meshulam Riklis' "Piafair"--to the guy down the street who adds a turret to his ranch-style home, many Angelenos don't let traditional ideas of good taste interfere with their fantasies.

If California is where people come to reinvent themselves, then the California home is where those new lives are put on proud display.


"Today, form follows feeling; desire, not utility, dictates design," observed Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a recent lecture. Style, she said, is "dream, invention, wish-fulfillment. . . . We reinvent ourselves, our setting, our lives; our personae hang in the closet with the designer clothes."

Designing those closets in Southern California takes someone who is part psychologist, part visionary. Those who can spin dreams out of idiosyncrasies often see them displayed in the pages of magazines such as L.A.-based Architectural Digest. Like high fashion, new design directions are unveiled in the lofty ZIP codes and eventually trickle down and across town.

One of the most acclaimed dream spinners is Santa Monica-based architect/designer Brian Murphy and his BAM Construction crew. He has worked for Dennis Hopper, Geena Davis and Belinda Carlisle. Murphy is popular among the town's fast movers and forward thinkers, and he commands a great deal of respect within his industry.

"He's amazingly creative," says Julia Winston, a decorative-arts historian.

"He treats his work like an artist the way he explores things. He's stepping on fresh territory, just like Frank Gehry has," says architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter. Gehry designed the new Walt Disney Concert Hall that will be built downtown, and he's the creative force behind the Los Angeles Aerospace Museum and Santa Monica Place.

Murphy uses found objects and common materials: He wraps a bundle of wood with steel wire and it becomes a table, a front door from one home became a dining-room table. A cluster of small hanging lamps grouped together and painted fire-engine red makes a bigger bolder statement than a single traditional chandelier.

Murphy acknowledges that his innovations--which are often labeled politically correct for their recycled parts--come from an aversion to shopping. He says he finds much of his stuff within hands' reach, which makes the finished products more reasonably priced and leaves him energy to expend elsewhere. "I find a full palette in the back yard. It doesn't take much to close your eyes and visualize something wonderful."

For his clients, Murphy considers himself an indulgent orchestrator of desires. "Some clients have idiosyncratic personality traits and we celebrate them. That's what living is all about, to take this couple, family or individual and set the stage in their home."

Designer Ron Meyers, who has done such trendy restaurants as Tryst and Atlas and several private residences, says one of the first questions he asks clients is, "What are your fantasies?"

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