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DESIGN 2001

Cozying Up to the Stars

Kathryn Ireland's eclectic take on English traditional home design has gained her a star-studded client roster.

February 22, 2001|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At only 224 years old, the United States often feels somewhat deficient, tradition-wise. So when a self-confident Brit landed in Hollywood, complete with a crisp accent, a sure sense of how a proper home should look and a sense of humor to boot, she had a good shot at collecting acolytes.

Interior designer Kathryn Ireland's clients include Fran Drescher, Steve Martin, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Lorne Michaels and Robert Zemeckis. Along with a roster of socialites and moguls, they've hired the 39-year old, Santa Monica-based mother of three to decorate their Park Avenue apartments and their Long Island beach houses, their Pacific Palisades mansions and their Montecito retreats.

The look she gives them is homey, comfortable, family and dog-friendly, with large doses of color and a lack of orthodoxy. Though her style might seem familiar, January House & Garden magazine included her among a list of "Ten to Watch in 2001," a group of architects and designers they predict will influence the style of the 21st century. Her success working among people who could afford any feathers for their nests proves that while the shelter magazines regularly tout new trends like mid-century modern or Shaker minimalism, the appeal of traditional English style endures.

Ireland is one of those polymorphously creative and fearless individuals who just gets on with it, whatever "it" may be. When she first came to Los Angeles 14 years ago, after working as an actress, designing a line of women's clothes and running her own public relations company in her native London, she helped her new husband, director Gary Weis, who made short comic films for "Saturday Night Live" and rock videos.

She never dreamed of hiring anyone to help decorate the succession of houses she and Weis rented as their family expanded. (Their sons are now 7, 9 and 11.) "When I grew up in England," she says, "no one had decorators. Anyone who did was thought of as terribly nouveau riche. Here, we'd only rent a house for a year or so, so I got very good at doing them up quickly." In 1990, she converted Weis' editing studio on Santa Monica's Main Street into a store. Ireland-Pays, named after the designer and her then-partner, actress Amanda Pays, was stocked with pillows, lampshades and other accessories that Ireland acquired on trips to London. Meg Ryan, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening and Maria Shriver were customers.

"From the shop, I started getting a few small jobs," Ireland says. "One of them was Victoria Tennant and Steve Martin, who were married then. I made all the curtains for their apartment in New York. Then when they divorced, Steve came to dinner, and he looked around and said, 'I'd just love to live in a house like this. I want something cozy.' "

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The house that charmed Martin is a Spanish hacienda built in the '20s on one of Santa Monica's tree-lined streets, north of Montana Avenue. The decor is Ireland eclectic--an old wooden coffee table from Bali, a squooshy sofa with colorful pillows scattered on it, an 18th century Italian chest that was a gift from Ireland's mother, and a wall covered with a baker's dozen portraits of Jesuit priests found in an antique shop.

"I live with a rather casual look," she says. "It isn't very mannered. With my boys and the dogs, it can't be. I grew up around nice things. It was important to my mother that we go to the best schools, so the friends I made lived in wonderful homes in England and Europe that I was exposed to. It does educate the eye, even if you don't know you're taking it all in." Ireland's father was a stockbroker, and the family had homes in London and on the Scottish shore. "Now, I know what's right when I see it. If I was a butcher, you'd say I know how to cut meat. Sometimes I'll walk into a room another decorator has done, and I'll see right away that the proportions of the sofa are wrong. Some people just don't get it."

Fran Drescher used the same phrase in trying to explain what she enjoyed about working with Ireland on her Malibu house. "I rarely can work with other decorators because they either impose themselves on you, or they just don't get it," she says. "When Kathryn's finished your house, it doesn't look decorated, it just looks beautiful. What she creates has the relaxed feeling we appreciate in California, but she has a wonderful eye for an elegant look that isn't pretentious."

Evidence of Ireland's unerring eye is that clients hire her to do a house, then engage her again. She's done three homes for Martin, two for Schlossberg, Zemeckis' home and office. "I've actually worked with a lot of single men, which is fabulous," she says, "because there's no one else giving an opinion. I don't think my look is really feminine, anyway. And doing stuff for Steve Martin is wonderful, because he has such good taste. He let me buy beautiful antiques."

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