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Getting personal

An Architect's Home Tells a Story of Her Desert Sojourns and Love of Nature

June 08, 2003|Barbara Thornburg

In Eva Schwarz's hillside home, insects with metallic-hued bodies the color of tricked-out lowriders crawl up walls, butterflies alight on headboards and blowfish hang from ceilings. In an age when many designers are embedded in a mid-century world, architect Schwarz is in a world all her own.

"Interiors are very personal--people should surround themselves with things they love," she says. For the architect, that might include anything from chambered nautiluses and peacock feathers to quirky taxidermy armadillos, yucca stalks and sponges. "I take inspiration from the natural world. I also like to use pieces that remind me of my travels."

She turned four blowfish from a Hawaiian vacation into a playful dining room chandelier. More fish appear in the guest bedroom, where a school of lacquered piranha swims on a metallic gold wall. Flesh-eating fish in the bedroom? "They're sort of scary and beautiful all at the same time--like a scene from a bizarre movie," says Schwarz, who once studied set design and whose favorite film director is David Lynch.

Schwarz likes using a room's objects to create narrative. In her dining room, insects purchased at the Natural History Museum pursue a moth like the one on "The Silence of the Lambs" poster. Two rows of lighted sea urchins scale the steel fireplace, patinated to look as if it were dredged from the bottom of the ocean. "In the dark the sea urchins appear to fly out of the fire," she says.

The German-born architect attributes her love of nature and warm places to the Sahara desert, where she spent time as a child. Her father, a geologist, mapped a section of the desert near the Tunisian border for his PhD thesis in the '70s. "He had my brother and me competing to find the most beautiful fossil shells," she recalls.

Schwarz's sojourn in the desert left her dreaming of sunny places and outdoor living. Southern California became an obvious destination. "It's a perfect combination of great weather and a beautiful natural environment," she says. "I can be in the desert in an hour." After a semester at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 1993, she returned to complete a degree in architecture at Frankfurt's Fachhochschule, then returned four years ago to make California her home.

Since then the designer has been working with her husband, James Nicholas, a real estate developer and restaurateur. In May they opened Oasis, a restaurant on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. Schwarz dreamed up a Moroccan theme, decorating the space with cobras that sport rhinestone eyes, mirrors framed with peacock feathers and walls covered with faux-snakeskin paper.

Their tri-level canyon home--built in the early '90s on a steep hillside on the Los Angeles/Pasadena border--is no less exotic. Here color plays a dominant role both inside and out, inspired by the flowers, insects, shells and animals that surround it. The iridescent green beetle on Schwarz's dining room wall inspired the metallic hue of the pool's three shell fountains, which were spray- painted at an auto body shop in East L.A. Jungle-green walls in the master bedroom act as a perfect foil for her leather headboard, studded with butterflies. In the garden, dark blue walls recall travels to Greece. "I fell in love with the white houses with their blue shutters," she says. "The color always reminds me of vacation."

Furnishings are a melange of Schwarz's custom creations--upholstered headboards, pillows, ottomans, lampshades and chandeliers, mixed with Asian, Indian and Moroccan pieces, as well as inexpensive flea market finds. A six-foot-long Capiz shell chandelier she purchased for $40 at the Rose Bowl flea market hangs in the stairwell. Now outfitted with blue bulbs, at night it resembles a large jellyfish. A wild variety of fabrics--ranging from leathers embossed with crocodile and lizard patterns, to sheepskin, embroidered Indian saris, Chinese brocades and douppioni silks--add texture throughout the house. "I like glamorous textiles that feel good next to your skin," she says. "I'm not into down-to-earth fabrics."

Ten months ago, Schwarz terraced the backyard, installing a pool and a Moroccan tent on the lower level and a lush tropical garden above, with an adjacent dining room and bed where she likes to nap. Inspired by the black sand beaches of Hana in Hawaii, she used black lava rock as a decorative ground cover for the garden beds planted with king palms, philodendron, birds of paradise, black cannas and plumeria. Red banana trees stand 10 feet high, while fanciful Indonesian parasols and woven fish traps interspersed among the plants supply additional color and shade. Nearby, bougainvillea plants meander along a contrasting backdrop. "I couldn't resist the pink flowers against the blue wall."

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Resource Guide

Eva Schwarz Design, Los Angeles, (323) 258-3399.

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