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Desire, Tempered by Discipline

Former computer tycoon Max Palevsky brings a steely eye to his diverse collection.

June 28, 2001|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he descends the winding staircase of his grand Beverly Hills Spanish-style home, Max Palevsky makes a striking figure. It's not his impecable pink dress shirt, or his pale-blue pants, for, after all, those are pretty much what you'd expect a successful, retired businessman to wear. It's the way he holds himself. Board straight. And the way he looks at you through his thick, dark-rimmed glasses. Direct and unflinching.

From first greeting, Palevsky, 76, emits an air of self-confidence that borders on arrogance, but his demeanor also seems intended more to challenge than to put off the visitor. With a strong handshake, he evokes an old-fashioned elegance--gracious, but no-nonsense, fitting for an entrepreneur who has turned his attention to art collecting and political patronage.

A student of mathematics and science, Palevsky got into computers in the late 1940s. His vision paid off, and by the early 1970s he was a very wealthy man, having sold his company to Xerox. He continued to work in various businesses, but his new affluence allowed other interests to flourish too, including art--both as a collector and a donor to museums--as well as political patronage and movie producing.

Married and divorced five times, Palevsky also owns a sweeping, ocean-view Mediterranean-style house in Malibu with interiors by Italian Pop designer Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis group, an ultra-Modern house in Palm Springs designed by Craig Ellwood built in 1968 and an apartment in New York, all of which contain his very personal mix of art and fine furniture. His '20s-era Beverly Hills home, which he shares with three of his six children (they range in age from 16 to 43), sits on a quiet street just below Sunset Boulevard; it is spacious without being overwhelmingly huge, and one can imagine conversations flowing in the many different public quarters.

Every detail of each room was done over for Palevsky when he moved in about 15 years ago by L.A.-based architectural designer Coy Howard, who also designed some of the furnishings. From the dark floors, which glow with a mirror-like shine, to the ornately decorated ceilings--different in each room--the interiors contain many unusual flourishes, all of which easily complement the mix of early 20th century Arts and Crafts furniture, Modern and Contemporary art and oriental rugs. Delicate Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass windows can be seen on the French doors leading to the pool and in Palevsky's master bedroom suite.

"I hope the house doesn't look like its decorated ," Palevsky says as he sits down to talk about his collection in the library on a brightly colored sofa designed by Sottsass, lit from behind by a Tiffany floor lamp. "I hate decorated houses." He mentions a recent party at a celebrity's home. "Wow! I haven't been to a place like that in a long time," he says. "Oh!"

His own house, he insists, is informal, and anything can be used. "I hate houses that are fragile," he says. But everything has a distinct place. When he sets down a book, he does so very carefully, taking a moment to correctly align the edges with the sides of the table. Upstairs, six pairs of glasses line up in a row on his bedstand, next to six different decorative cases.

"I know it's all a little obsessive," he says with a smile. "I should have been an architect."

He tends to talk in exclamations, with a sly grin when he's making a point about some aspect of society he doesn't approve of. He leaves the room at one point, giving his visitor a recent Sotheby's catalog with a page marked showing a work by British artist-provocateur Damien Hirst. Coming back, he asks, "Isn't that incredible?" barely concealing his contempt.

But ask Palevsky about the kind of work he collects, and the "wows" take on an entirely different tenor. He loves the French Purist Fernand Leger, whose "Femme Assise (Sitting Woman)" hangs above the mantle in his living room. He is passionate about a sideboard in the dining room made by English craftsman and architect Charles Robert Ashbee; he says he is the world's most extensive collector of the late Richard Lindner, a German-born Surrealist-style painter who immigrated to the U.S. and was a friend.

In this house, Palevsky's collection mixes a vast array of important Arts and Crafts movement furniture that will be the basis for an upcoming exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with bold Pop art by Roy Lichtenstein, including an early cartoon painting from 1964 titled "No Thank You." In an upstairs hall, drawings by Wright are encased in elaborate wood frames made by Howard, which close to protect the work from fading. In the bedroom, a wall display of Japanese prints recently returned from an exhibition at LACMA are rotated occasionally, so they're not exposed to too much sun. Everything else remains in place, unless it's on loan to a museum.

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