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The Eye by Barbara King

Everything must go

Harry Segil designs a future with less stuff and more room for fresh ideas. Is downsizing easy? No way.

September 09, 2004|Barbara King

On a conspicuous corner of Wilshire Vista, passersby slow down, stop, take a closer look, break into smiles. The house before them bursts onto the landscape with the mad exuberance of a Mardi Gras float, vibrating with life force in the midst of the monotonous rows of buff and putty stuccos that line the streets of this mid-city neighborhood.

"Whoa! Cool!" A driver calls out from his SUV on an afternoon in early July. "You live here?"

No, Harry Segil does, for the next few weeks, at least. The furniture designer emerges at that moment through the sculpted metal side door and comes down the stoop -- painted with stripes in the same tones that have turned his Spanish Revival into "an iconic art piece," as he puts it, a Technicolor confection of orange, magenta, deep-sea blue and apple green.

He's sorry, his stereo -- spilling samba from the second-story windows -- must have drowned out the doorbell. A woman bicycling with her daughter rounds the corner.

"You're moving?" she asks him, pointing to the "In Escrow" sign in the front garden. "Oh, no. The buyers won't change anything, I hope," more a plea than a statement. "We come this way every day because your house makes us so happy."

Harry hears this, or something like it, on a regular basis, he says, shaking his head with pleasure. It just makes it harder, what he's going through, about to walk away from it all.

The exterior only remotely prepares you for the interior, in the way a guidebook description of desert heat would prepare you for a high noon hike in the Mojave. It's a giant-size crayon box of color, a tumult of patterns and shapes and textures that electrify the atmosphere.

The visual overload makes me momentarily lightheaded. Even Harry's attire is in concert with these surroundings, his home for 16 years. His baggy, bright-rust pants and graphic black and white shirt, coordinated with checkered and orange canvas shoes give him the hip aspect of a man much younger than 57.

Sitting on one of his own designs, a sinuous leather sofa in repeating primary colors, he pours tea into porcelain cups and surveys the living room. "Everything will go," he says with a sweeping toss of his hand and a grimace of a grin. "Everything."

He has decided to rid himself of the whole caboodle, except perhaps his bed, a few chairs, a table or two, a piece of art -- he's still deciding. "I'm facing the dilemma of so much of my generation," he says, meaning the post-50 baby boomers, aging en masse, who long to be released from the hassle of caring for large properties and lots of things, but who struggle with the magnitude of the decision.

They've had their mid-life crises: Call this mid-life opportunity. Time to unload themselves of burdens. Live unencumbered, not possessed by their possessions. Maybe live out a few unfulfilled fantasies if they feel like it: Free up their homes, free up their psyches.

Seven of these boomers turn 50 every minute. They're driving what builders and housing researchers expect to be the fastest growing trend in the housing market during the next decade -- smaller homes with better amenities to lighten the load of chores. Already, the signs are evident: Condo/co-op sales have reached record highs, and the square footage of the average new home has stopped increasing.

"It's time," says Harry, who is divorced and whose two sons are grown and firmly established. I'm committed to downsizing to a simpler way of life."

By the end of the month, he'll be ready to move to his new home, an industrial open-plan loft space in Culver City that will incorporate his living space and studio.

On this particular July day, his journey, as he often refers to it, has begun, fraught with no small measure of ambivalence and trepidation. "My home, like everyone's home, is charged with my history. Every item tells a personal story." Perhaps that's why he's put off the inevitable until just 3 1/2 weeks before the new owners are scheduled to move in.

For a man staring at the task of divesting himself of decades' worth of objects, including inherited pieces, he seems reasonably confident, in a rickety sort of way -- shadows of doubt creep in from time to time and darken his optimism. But they pass almost fast as they appear. "Well, I have to, don't I? There's no choice. It has to go."

A statement like that can't be made nonchalantly when you're speaking of belongings on the order of Harry's. They're valuable, many of them, and covetable, most of them, and they number, I quickly calculate, in the thousands. He goes through the nine rooms, opening cabinets and drawers to reveal 30 years of over-the-top collecting. In a word: crammed. In two words: too much. And he is the first to point it out. Stuff, all that stuff.

Huge armoires, centuries old, hog wall space next to important Mid-Century designer pieces by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Alvar Alto blithely mix with several of Harry's famous creations.

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