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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

An Interior Mind

What makes Tim Street-Porter so good at photographing posh homes? Perhaps it's his artist's soul, architect's eye, eccentric flair, good taste . . . and his devotion to Los Angeles.

March 16, 1997|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the rich are different from you and me, that goes double for their kitchens.

They're lavish, to be sure, often costing more than reasonably well paid people make in a decade--before taxes, that is. But open the doors of some of Beverly Hills' vast refrigerators and see what Tim Street-Porter sees: a delicious irony.

"Rows of cans of diet Coke and maybe a few remains of pizza. This kind of architecture is Realtor-driven. They say you have to have the scale of the kitchen and certain kinds of ranges and refrigerators when you're selling the house."

The lanky Briton knows what goes on behind L.A.'s posh closed doors because he's commissioned to open them for the country's glossiest shelter magazines--House Beautiful, Architectural Digest and House & Garden. He's also hired by decorators and architects who want their work filtered through an artist's lens. Trained as an architect, Street-Porter photographs spaces and lush interiors with the eye of a designer.

"I look at how people live in a house and how they use it," says Street-Porter, 57.

Street-Porter's distinctive vision--glorifying Southern California living in crisp images illuminated by natural light--has placed him in the pantheon of the country's architectural photographers. He follows in the footsteps of L.A.'s dean of architectural photographers, Julius Shulman.

"Tim, probably among all the people out there, is the most significant after Julius in Southern California," says gallery owner Craig Krull. "He recognizes significant architecture and he's able to interpret it and teach the viewer about it."

Indeed, when Vogue assigned a story on Herb Ritts' log cabin hideaway in Santa Fe, N.M., last year, the celebrity photographer asked the magazine to hire Street-Porter for the shoot.

"He's a photographer's photographer," says Bret Parsons, spokesman of the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, which is honoring him Thursday with an award for Lifetime Achievement in Photography of Interiors, one of seven Stars of Design laurels meted out at the annual WestWeek conference of industry professionals.

"He's one of the best in the country and there's just a handful," says architect-designer Brian Murphy, whose work Street-Porter has documented extensively. "He's certainly our preferred photographer. He's got a good eye. I love seeing somebody else come into a project and see what they see. It's always a pleasure to cross trails with him."

In the sophisticated circles and lofty environments Street-Porter travels in, he's unfailingly polite and deferential. That's a particularly useful trait for a stranger who professionally penetrates people's inner sanctums, usually for days at a time.

"It's a slightly strange job going into people's houses because you are visiting people in their private territory, and they have obviously invited you to come, but it's always a little bit of an invasion, so you have to be very circumspect," Street-Porter says softly. "You become very expert at being diplomatic."

Street-Porter is long and gaunt like a Giacometti sculpture. He is sitting on a French 19th century couch of ivory silk in his shadowy living room, idly caressing Felix the gray cat who dangles off the edge, obligingly keeping his furry feet off the furniture.

The cavernous room, with 20-foot-high ceilings, reflects Street-Porter's personal aesthetic du jour--it is rife with 18th and 19th century French furnishings that mesh nicely with the Italianate ambience of his Whitley Heights manse, Villa Vallombrosa, the onetime home of such aesthetes as the costume designer Adrian and Leonard Bernstein.

Good taste is such an imperative of the place that Street-Porter and his Australian artist wife, Annie Kelly, like to regale visitors with tales of the 1929 home's first owner, regal widow and resident ghost, Eleanor de Witt. Her invisible hand allegedly pushed a prior tenant down the stairs when he was gauche enough to install white shag carpet.

"I was trained as a modernist, but here I am living with antiques and loving it," Street-Porter says. "Eight years ago, I was in a house which was all Mexican, while previously we'd had one all furnished with '50s furniture, so my own aesthetic has accommodated a variety of styles. My aesthetics have become extremely catholic, and I think that the one overriding thing is that whatever the style, it still has to have a certain quality and look and line."

One influence not to be ignored in his cosmopolitan flair is English eccentricity.

"He's such a character in this town," Murphy says. "You see him at a party, say it's Westweek, and he'll be in this perfectly tailored eggplant-colored pantsuit with a little matador jacket. It's perfect and nobody else would even dare do something like that, outrageous double knit, very '60s. He's out and about with Annie on his arm, the host of the toast, Mr. Style."

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