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Decoration of Independence

Musician Turns Costa Mesa Home Into Retro Tableau

March 28, 1998|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From the sparkly, chartreuse stucco facade to the interior rooms brightly painted with circus colors, Mike Ness' Costa Mesa house reflects a theatrical fantasy that is his alone.

The 1950s tract house brims with dolls, lamps, movie posters and other artifacts from the '40s, '50s and '60s. The blond furniture is pure '50s, the jukebox in the dining room is filled with '40s and '50s street-corner music and '40s religious statues sit next to '50s pinup girl figurines. It's film noir taken to the outer limits.

"What's got me collecting is the main thing that's driven me my whole life, not wanting to do what everyone else is doing," says Fullerton-born Ness, lead singer and guitarist for the punk-rock band Social Distortion.

The group has five albums and was the top Southern California punk-rock group in 1982, covering both Johnny Cash and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

"The other reason I collect is I appreciate the craftsmanship and thought behind the pieces. Stuff was made so much better then. I was helping a friend move furniture the other day, and we put a little bit of pressure on the table and it snapped and broke because it was made of particleboard. A $10 desk at a garage sale would last you longer because it was probably built 30 years ago."

Ness' house is a night house.

He has used bright colors on the walls that don't fade with artificial light: green in the living room, red in the kitchen, gold in the dining room.

He's positioned figurative lamps and colored lightbulbs throughout.

There is no doubt this is the house of a man who works and thrives in the night.

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"All these things help me when I'm writing songs," says Ness, who is working on new material with the idea of going solo, as well as continuing with the band. "They give me inspiration. I spend a lot of time here, and this stimulates me to create more because I'm surrounded by things I like."

The rooms seem like lit stage sets waiting for the actors to enter.

"I like the '50s stuff that has either the atomic duck-and-cover aspect or the things that are glamorous but with kitschy overtones. There's a lot of Hollywood influence in it."

Despite his "Happy Days"-era appreciation, it's difficult to imagine Ness, with his body decorated as elaborately as his house, as a pal to Richie Cunningham.

"The '50s era was more than soda-jerk wholesome. There was a lot going on then, like McCarthyism, and it was a transitional period as well," he says. "I like things that are a little risky from that time. Instead of a soda shop, I want this house to look like a lounge or a gentlemen's club. Something a little bit dangerous. My house is no different from my music, how I dress, my tattoos, everything. This is my life being expressed for the past 35 years."

Ness is passionate about his collecting and is always looking for new finds.

"When I was living in New York City working on the last album, I took everything in the hotel room down and put it in the closet and decorated the room with the stuff I was buying. The maids came up to me and asked me if I was a fortuneteller," he says, laughing.

His varied collection is found everywhere in the house. The green living room has a red fireplace and '50s red-and-green leaf drapes. There are a kidney-shaped coffee table he picked up in San Diego and '40s oak-and-steel framed couch and chair he found in Long Beach.

They're very sturdy and comfortable and even have the original red upholstery, which appears to be horsehair.

A traditional black telephone near the chair looks right at home. Everything in the house is old except for the appliances.

And the smiling-faced clown and monkey dolls that line up on the living room couch?

"I like the dolls because they're very animated, festive yet horrifying," says Ness. That's not hard to understand from a man who sang "I Just Want to Give You the Creeps."

Ness started collecting items for his house when he was on tour with the band and had extra time in cities throughout the country. He began with a single clown doll and then collecting became a big part of his life.

"Going to the flea markets and finding these things is half of it," he says. "You really have to have an eye and you have to know what to pay for things. After that comes bringing it home and displaying it well."

He has rare Hawaiian dolls dating to 1950, blond wood chests with glass display shelves filled with humorous miniatures, such as a beatnik, a Shriner, a tacky souvenir from Florida and some black figures, among many others.

The kitchen is painted bright red, the color brought in from the living room; the wall that connects it to the dining room is red-and-chartreuse striped. The colors serve the purpose of echoing the colors already found in the house and adding to the circus atmosphere.

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The gold dining room, where Ness usually works, continues the exotic fantasy in which all his ceramic figures meet in a scene reminiscent of old movie lots where Ali Babas walk with Cinderellas, pirates talk to clowns, and pinups mix with biblical saints.

"When I first moved into this house six years ago, I decided to simplify and just have a few things around," he says. "I found that was really boring.

"So I immediately changed from mild back to wild."

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