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Keeping an Eye on Unorthodox California Look

Design: Exhibit featuring 25 years of Sally Sirkin Lewis' work opens Monday in L.A.

September 20, 1997|From Associated Press

To say a room is "So-o-o-o California" is to have an eye on the sum of the parts, because there are no required elements.

"The origins of the California look go back at least 40 years," says Paige Rense, editor of Architectural Digest.

It usually refers to big and casual: a huge sofa with loose pillows and textured natural color fabric; a tree in a large pot; expanses of bare windows; and a sisal rug. Tile floors, mega-size mirrors, European-style cabinets enlarged to fill the space and vibrant colors also are California.

"California didn't follow the rules," Rense says. Rather, it indicated "that you can mix antiques with a wicker chair and sisal rug and that a room can be beautiful and also informal and comfortable.

"When decorating magazines started showing the look, people said, 'Maybe I don't have to do things in the orthodox way, either.' "

Taking the measure of California style began almost as early as the style itself. Recent books include "California Beach House" by Pilar Viladas, published in 1996; "The Los Angeles House" by Tim Street-Porter (1995); and "Beach Houses From Malibu to Laguna" by Elizabeth McMillian (1994).

Many designers have embraced the look, but only a few are closely linked to it, the late Michael Taylor in San Francisco, and Mimi London and Sally Sirkin Lewis in Los Angeles among them.

Highlights of Lewis' work, "Sally Sirkin Lewis: 25 Years of Design," will be on exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles Monday through Dec. 12.

The Lewis exhibition, curated by Maggie Pexton Murray, the school's visual director, focuses on Lewis' interior designs, including a bedroom sitting room, and on furniture and fabrics she created for J. Robert Scott, the design firm she owns.

"To me, California design is simple rather than casual," Murray says.

No one could accuse Lewis of being overly casual. Some of her favored fabrics are luxurious pure linens, silks and heavy cotton brocades. Her furniture is clearly based on European antecedents.

The bedroom sitting room that Lewis created for the exhibition is a perfect example of her style. In the foyer of the room, a pair of mirrors in gold leaf frames, 8 feet by 4 feet, face each other. The sitting area is furnished with two 8-foot sofas, each with huge loose-back pillows.

"You sink into them and they surround you," Murray says.

Lewis, 64, grew up in New York City, began her interior design career in Florida and returned to New York to work as a designer. In 1972 she moved to Los Angeles and opened her showroom, named for her sons, on Melrose Avenue.

"Los Angeles was mired in country French when I arrived," Lewis recalls. "People said I would never survive when I opened my showroom with straw-covered walls, sisal diving board material on floors, big sofas covered in white cotton, suede and leather chairs, African and American Indian art and contemporary paintings."

The designer and the look prospered. Her textiles and furniture are in the J. Robert Scott showrooms in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Chicago, and at other independent dealers around the country.

Her interiors and home furnishings are definitely high-end. But some of her signature design ideas came from a desire to keep costs down.

"I used sisal for carpeting because it was inexpensive and would cover the terrible floors of the showroom," Lewis recalls. "The same thing with the Madagascar straw on the walls. Before you knew it, other people were going to Madagascar to have straw woven."

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