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A Place in the Sun

In a new book, editor Diane Dorrans Saeks aims to show the true California lifestyle, in all its diverse quirkiness.


When Diane Dorrans Saeks set out to write "California Interiors," she didn't want to do a predictable coffee-table book filled with lavish, immaculate houses assembled by decorators.

"Every house I picked had to have many things going for it, starting with an interesting owner," said Saeks, an editor and writer who has published nine previous books on architecture and interior design. "I wanted to counter the popular notion that people in California sit around the pool all day drinking margaritas."

Saeks interviewed artists, architects, designers, chefs, filmmakers and entrepreneurs to select 42 quirky, creative homes that range from a Venice Beach bungalow to a penthouse overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Typical is the cover illustration of artist Simon Toparovsky's house, originally a 1950s medical clinic in the West Adams district. The restored and painted concrete floor of his brightly tiled kitchen retains the basic California decorative motif--an earthquake crack.

The richly photographed, 300-page book published by German-based Taschen, with text in English, German and French, was released recently in the United States and already is popular in Europe, where it appeared in September.

"A friend of mine who just got back from Paris said the book is everywhere, and another friend saw it in Venice," Saeks said in a telephone interview from her San Francisco home.

Although she has lived in California for 18 years, Saeks retains something of an outsider's view.

"I grew up in New Zealand, which is physically very similar to California--very outdoorsy and its own sense of style. But it's so far away from everywhere--I left as soon as I could and went to live in London."

Her perspective was heightened for "California Interiors" by the European eye of her German editor, Angelika Taschen and their discussions about what represents California.

"California is an extraordinary place with an amazing history," Saeks said. "It's mostly the movies, but there has always been an intense interest in everything about it--the Gold Rush, literature, alternative lifestyles. A fashion trend that starts here inevitably goes on to the rest of the world. The challenge was to distill it down for an international audience."

"Her book is like a sociological profile of the state," said Dina Morgan, chairwoman of the Interior Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown L.A. "What's fun about it is the way the houses mirror the personalities of the people who live in them. If they are not designers themselves, they haven't allowed designers to dictate the environment."

Saeks said a fascinating aspect of California is its "house obsessed" residents, especially in Southern California. She has some theories: "People feel that living here is such a gift--they want a connection with it, they want historically significant houses. People are not interested in cookie-cutter houses. Here you are your house, and you demonstrate your creativity through it."

"California Interiors" is organized into five geographic sections and opens with Los Angeles because, Saeks said, "everyone looks to Los Angeles for ideas."

Among her selections:

* The 1950s Hollywood Hills glass and steel house designed by Allyn E. Morris that independent filmmaker Stephen Chin has restored to a luminous box.

* The rundown swimming club in the heart of town, remodeled and filled with 1950s furniture by architect Josh Schweitzer and chef Mary Sue Milliken.

* Film producer Joel Silver's painstakingly restored Storer House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and his Teton trailer, used as a mobile command post. It was outfitted with Moderne furniture and cutting-edge technology by New York designer Thierry Despont.

* Designer David Cruz's Santa Monica apartment, filled with textiles, ancient urns and lamps from his West Hollywood antiques gallery as well as colonial paintings and religious icons that recall his northern Mexico roots.

Not only does Saeks tap into the energetic artists snapping up Hollywood Hills homes of the '40s and '50s, she devotes a section to California classics. Furniture designer Rose Tarlow imported 17th century beams and planks from England for her Bel-Air "European" home. Diane Keaton undertook a full restoration of the Ramon Novarro House in the Hollywood Hills, one of the first works by architect Lloyd Wright (eldest son of Frank Lloyd Wright). Interior designer Michael Smith's "Arizona adobe and Modernist" '60s house in Brentwood is a pared-down palette of white painted bricks and terra cotta tiles.

Saeks, who worked on the book for two years, directed and selected most of the photography ("We used some existing film, but most is new"). But she says she didn't have to twist any arms.

"Everybody I talked to wanted to be in it, and people were very enthusiastic," she said.

The book is the latest in the "Interiors" series for art book specialists Taschen. Previous books featured Paris, New York, Tuscany, India and Morocco.

Although she lives in San Francisco ("an apartment in Pacific Heights that I love, with bay windows that drench the house in sun after the fog lifts"), Saeks is very much at home in Los Angeles. The book's final section lists an assortment of furniture, books and antiques shops, coffeehouses and flea markets in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as a dozen coastal cities in between.

"It's my personal mix," she said.

* Saeks will sign books at 2:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles. The event will be in the college bookstore, 919 S. Grand Ave.

* Connie Koenenn can be reached at

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