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Her party playground

The hilltop palace of Kelly Gray -- she of St. John Knits fame -- is inspired by her travels and her playful style. For her guests, it's the perfect escape.

August 28, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

No one was tossed into the pool, which created a ripple of disappointment among the party guests crowded into the adjoining wine cellar. What's the point of having a subterranean picture window if there's no underwater action?

Oh, well. There are plenty of other diversions at the Newport Coast estate dreamed up and built by Kelly Gray, head of her family's St. John Knits clothing empire and the familiar blond model in the company's print ads. Spiraling staircases lead to surprise hideaways. Wooden faces appear on door panels. A beet-colored game room with a pub-sized bar and ornate billiards table spills into an ocean-view deck.

At her Friday-night party, Gray, 36, darted through the terraced backyard, passed the flagstone fireplace and platform bed -- perfect for sleeping under the stars -- and paused just long enough to blast up the volume of ABBA's "Dancing Queen." She greeted guests with cheery commands of "Have a drink," herding them to the Moroccan-style pavilion, its canvas swags peeled back to reveal a bar. It was here, under a crystal chandelier that sent glints of light onto the stainless-steel kegerator, where the contrast was made clear: Her home is a witty mix of French Mediterranean villa and frat-boy fantasy.

A hydraulic basketball hoop hovers over the three-car motor court. A King's Table, so named because its throne-like chairs have carved lion's-head arms and paw feet, sprawls across a loggia outside the formal dining room. And the foyer? It's a menagerie. Try not to smile at the silver rhino chest, leather bulldog footstool or the springing monkey holding an amber lantern with its tail.

Forget Disneyland. This is Orange County's best amusement center. In the front yard, a 6-foot-long bronze hippo squirts water into a lily pond. A winding ficus-hedge maze with confounding twists, turns and dead ends towers over a side yard. And in the back, a vast glimmering pool seems to pour into the canyon below.

"Kelly is creative and has a lot of energy," said John P. McCloskey, the architect who worked with Gray to design her 8,200-square-foot home. "And she wanted a place to enjoy life."

Some of the furnishings were picked up during her 21 years of traveling to exotic locations -- Java, Kenya, Marrakech -- for fashion shoots. Checking into the world's finest resorts gave her decorating ideas and refined her tastes. "I borrowed heavily from [hotelier] Ian Schrager and the Delano Hotel in Miami," she admitted.

Gray paid $3 million for a large lot in developing Newport Coast, assembled a design team -- casting herself as the interior decorator -- and began making her hilltop play palace. It took 2 1/2 years.

Landscape architect Daniel Stewart was surprised to find that Gray's seemingly out-there ideas for her first custom home have, well, worked. "She wanted to create definite spaces with themes," he said. "And she has: active spaces, quiet spaces, fairyland spaces."

The whimsy starts at the gated entrance. A wavy-edged bluestone driveway curves around a water fountain topped with pineapples, which Gray zipped around in her boxy black Mercedes SUV. She was finally home, eager to shake off a long day of work.

That afternoon, she hosted a spring fashion show near the company's Irvine headquarters; she had just finished a modeling shoot on the nightclub-dizzy island of Ibiza off the coast of Spain a few days before. Now, it was time to let loose.

Gray entered her glass front door just seconds before her guests arrived. No sign of anxiety. The party was about to start, but the house staff and caterer would, of course, handle the details.

Bowls of chips, salsa and guacamole were scattered on patio tables and granite countertops. Open-air bars were stocked with cosmopolitan ingredients and cervezas. Sizzling goat-cheese pizzas made with Gray's recipe were constantly pulled from the outdoor wood-burning oven.

"Kelly likes to be pampered," said one member of the house staff, "but not in the white-glove style."

White gloves don't fit in a home where living room chairs are slipcovered in snowy washable denim so the hostess doesn't have to worry if a guest spills a drink. Where walls are decorated with Ringling Bros. posters. And stepping stones in the yards are shaped like turtles. The cast-iron turtles tramp under jasmine-wrapped arbors, past plant pots big enough to dwarf statuesque models in stilettos and beyond a bench outlined with kissing elephants.

They stop at the property's edge, a cliff 700 feet above sea level, then do a quick turn, pointing to a dozen descending stairs. At the bottom is a mysterious door bearing the sculpted face of Bacchus, a heavy doorknocker and a handle the length of a forearm. Push it hard and it opens to the underground wine cellar. Although the home is only a year old, the cedar cellar has the intoxicating musty scent usually present after centuries of storing fermented grapes under the earth. Hundreds of bottles, embedded in two of the walls, stack to the arched ceiling. Cut into the middle of one brick wall is a 2-inch-thick glass window that looks into the pool. This keeps the water out but allows streams of sunlight reflected off the smooth plaster inside.

A pale blue glow. A glass of Merlot.

This is fantasyland.

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