After 15 years as a TV development executive, Sasha Emerson decided to change channels. Within weeks of tossing her call sheet and headset, she opened a modern-meets-vintage furniture store, landed her first project decorating a Spanish villa in Los Feliz and began the process of redecorating her life.
Six years later, the 44-year-old mother of three has built a business applying the same transformative magic to every aspect of interior design, injecting drab rooms with her colorful brand of flea-market funk and turning secondhand duds into statement-making pieces. That Seussian-swirled vase she found for 99 cents at a flea market? It's now a groovy light fixture at Knit Cafe, the always packed yarn boutique she designed. That on-its-last legs 1950s school table? She scraped off the Bazooka barnacles, stained it chocolate brown and found it a loving new home in Sunset Plaza.
"It's not that I'm opposed to buying new things or that I'm some kind of recycling nut," says Emerson, dressed in a vintage Hungarian peasant blouse and a choker she fashioned from an extra scrap of ribbon. "I just love old things."
In her quest to make all that is old new again, Emerson, who started her rescue missions at age 9 by tagging along with her father to garage sales in New York City, has carved her own quirky niche in the play-it-safe quarry of upscale L.A. interiors. She's not in the market of designing typical Hollywood dream homes, cream-on-cream temples where sunken bathtubs and stadium-seat screening rooms are standard issue. Instead, she designs homes for dreamers, warm, whimsical spaces where ceramic bananas dangle from turn-of-the-century valet racks and vintage toy cars are parked comfortably in hallways.
"I'm not going to get the richy-rich clients," she admits. "I get the wacky, fun types." They include "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who appreciate the fact that Emerson doesn't bow to overly refined, typically tasteful decorating mantras. Her rules: Modernism doesn't have to be minimal. Color -- lots of it -- is key. Five-star design shouldn't cost a fortune.
While trawling the flea markets for fillers like Depression-era stemware and '50s fruit-print tablecloths isn't exactly novel, Emerson's approach is. She treats the Rose Bowl more like IKEA, a place to find armchairs and dining room tables just as easily as a set of milk glass mixing bowls. The pitfall, of course, is winding up with a living room that looks like a garage sale moved indoors, something Emerson avoids by sticking with elegant lines and good bones, then sprucing up the pieces with unexpected fabrics and expert refinishing. Many of her favorite finds are period, but "it's not about pedigree," Emerson explains. "I just care about what looks good."
Of course, it would be more lucrative if she did more of her shopping for clients at high-end showrooms where the standard 30% mark-up an interior designer adds to five-digit price tags makes for an easy profit. "I've tried to move away from it," she says eyeing a $5 wooden maraca as if it were Elvis's baby rattle. "But bargain hunting is in my blood."
As it turns out, penny-pinching has its perks. "Budget Living," a popular lifestyle magazine for price-conscious style-setters, named her a contributing editor two years ago. And even though she's no longer a partner in the furniture store Orange in Los Angeles, her design business has doubled every year since she started.
Her own home, a 1962 modern tucked into the hills of Rustic Canyon, is a testament to what one can accomplish with a little budget and a lot of vision. Although her husband, screenwriter Larry Levin, bought the 3,500-square-foot post-and-beam before they met, it turned out to be the perfect project-in-waiting for Emerson: a dreary, nearly empty shell in need of a serious spruce-up.
The couple turned to architect Mark Mack to execute a top-to-bottom renovation. Then, he and Emerson masterminded a punchy palette and doused the whole thing in a riot of color, starting with the green-and-blue-striped garage door.
Eight years and a few magazine spreads later, the bachelor pad turned family home is another makeover success story for Emerson. And although the couple certainly didn't skimp on the architecture, nothing in the place cost more than $1,500. They eat off a $600 old school table and sit on $30 Thonet molded plywood chairs that were once used in a hospital waiting room. The 1950s maple card catalog that now stores art supplies was a $100 steal she salvaged from the Rose Bowl, and the large braided rug made out of 1930s suits was a $700 find at Wertz Brothers, a favorite used-furniture haunt in West L.A. Even the luxe-looking chaise in the living room is a $60 flea market piece reupholstered in orange mohair.