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Kevin Haley May Like His Rooms Spare, but These Are Plush Times for the Ex-Actor Who Got His Start Designing for Winona Ryder

October 04, 1998|MARY MCNAMARA | Mary McNamara is a staff writer for The Times' Life & Style section

There is a grand piano in the corner of Kevin Haley's living room--a Steinway, dark and sleek--and against the pale wall it seems to pull together all the elements of the main floor of the house. The deeply shining wood of floor and furniture, the almost-white walls, the simple statement of sofa, chair, table, plant--the rooms that stand, like the piano, serene in the beauty of utility.

The thing is, he doesn't play the piano.

"I fell in love with the piano as a piece of furniture first," he says.

"And when I walked into this room, I knew it needed one."

But Haley believes that everything one has should be of use. So now he is learning to play the piano.

"I don't read music or anything," he says, sitting on the glossy bench. "I just play what sounds good to me."

So then there is music. Nothing recognizable--not Mozart or Joplin or even "Chopsticks." But music--lovely and not too complicated.

And this seems to be how Kevin Haley, interior designer to the hip and Hollywood, operates: Go with your instinct and learn the particulars later. He may not yet be a cottage industry a la Rose Tarlow, but he has managed to carve out what he admits may be the perfect job: working with interesting people to create beautiful spaces full of beautiful things, and getting paid for it. It may not be what he does for the rest of his life, but in the meantime, his voice-mailbox is full, darling.

At the time that he got his first client, his interior design background consisted of having moved a lot. But that client was longtime friend Winona Ryder, and the taste he had shown in decorating his many apartments was enough recommendation for her. In 1994, she handed him the keys to her newly purchased Beverly Hills 1920s house and promptly left town. "Just do it," she said. The results--the white walls that created light where there was none; the eclectic assortment of bold, solid furniture; the buckskin sandstone and river-rock walks winding around outside--pleased her so much that she flew him to New York less than a year later and presented him with an empty two-bedroom apartment. Both places landed in an Architectural Digest layout and, voila!, the model-actor had a brand new career.

"I had never done a house before," he says of that first project. "And there I was, ripping out walls, doing landscaping, plumbing, everything. For a minute I thought I was in over my head. But my mom tells me when I was, like, 5, I whined for a certain wallpaper until I got it. So you could say it was in my nature."

With no formal training and a client list that now includes Ryder, writer-director Anthony Drazan, agent Bryan Lourd and actor Brad Pitt, you certainly could. And the story--Midwestern boy with great taste makes good in big city--is so L.A. "When I first started, I didn't know how to be an interior designer," he says. "I was an actor. So I just acted like an interior designer until I was one." So really, really L.A.


Kevin Haley, 41, grew up in St. Paul, Minn., though you wouldn't know it to listen to him--his vowels are nice and round, his syncopation theater-workshop even. But that's how he met Winona Ryder. "Her grandparents lived next door to us." In fact, he lived with her family in Northern California for a year when he was 16. "They were this cool hippie family and I was a cool hippie boy."

"I've known him since I was in utero," Ryder says. "He was basically my au pair."

After doing time in the Haight, Haley moved on to London and New York, working as a model and actor until he wound up in Hollywood. Although he starred with some soon-to-be-great actors in some not-so-great movies--with Julia Roberts in "Satisfaction," George Clooney in "Combat Academy"--his own acting career had become frustrating by the time Ryder made her request.

Haley actually doesn't act much like an interior designer, at least not the fussy, petulant design divas so lovingly portrayed in film and on TV. Skidding around his Hollywood house, barefoot, clad in burnt orange corduroys that need hitching up and a perfectly deplorable gray T-shirt, he looks prepped to participate in a fraternity car wash. Except he's not the frat rat type--handsome, yes, very, but he's way too frenetic, and really too nice, eye-twinkling nice. Even Holden Caulfield, disdainer of all things phony, would have liked him.

"I know I look like a slob," he says. "But I was watering. I always seem to be watering. I guess because it's so hot."

Not in this house, although there is no air conditioning, not even a fan. Just a lot of open windows and doors, and outside, a lot of shady, wet green. Built into the hill, it overlooks a cul-de-sac tucked behind Hollywood Boulevard and chock-full of big, charming houses from the early 1900s.

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