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A throwback that's a step forward

Enough with the sleek, spare look. Give us a house like Jamie and David Wolf's, full of '40s-style color, texture, wit, contrasts and, well, stuff. Traditional never looked so fresh.

June 09, 2005|Barbara King | Times Staff Writer

Lunch was long over, the conversation lingered, and Alice's patience was wearing skittishly thin. A girl couldn't wait all afternoon. At last the guest stood from the dining table to leave, but not just yet, please, journalist and photographer Jamie Wolf requested, not before the neatly coiffed springer spaniel did her "jobs" -- she had trained to become a therapy dog in hospitals and she needed to go to work.

A choreographed performance involving tricks and treats followed in the kitchen, all a build-up to the grand finale: Alice's piano recital. As Wolf squirted Cheez Whiz across the keys of a child's piano, the spaniel lapped it up left and right to produce a zany atonal sound not unlike a John Cage composition.

Welcome to Jamie and David Wolf's world: tradition, entertainingly tweaked. It's not what you'd likely imagine given the luxe Beverly Hills address and a cursory look around the flower-laden grounds and the refined public areas of the 18-room, 1927 Normandy-style house. But in no time flat you get a whiff of something slightly edgy and off-center in this otherwise comme il faut environment -- a throwback to the comely decorum of the '40s and '50s -- with its floral wallpapers, its fragrant bouquets of roses and dahlias, its multiple seating areas of plush, patterned upholstery, its pink and green striped umbrellas shading patios and poolside.

What an unabashed pleasure to find oneself surrounded by these enveloping comforts in an era of pared-down austerity. How unfamiliar it feels, but how right, how strangely new, somehow. And how defiant to stare down the prevailing chic of modernism, to go for what you really want. What, in fact, really makes a home behave like a home.

The Wolfs lived for 15 years behind the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood until Jamie got the itch for more space to garden. It was David -- a Berkeley and Harvard educated TV and screenwriter currently collaborating with Jamie to adapt Anne Tyler's novel "Searching for Caleb" -- who first saw the house on a stately road near Sunset Boulevard. "It looked like an old ramshackle Berkeley house," he recalls. "It hadn't been touched in a long time." But it was Jamie who took over from there, and Jamie who hasn't let up since.

"The truth is, I'm semi-oblivious to my living circumstances," says David. "I just really don't care. I have veto power, but like George Bush, I rarely exercise it. Left to my druthers, it's not really the way I'd choose to live. My fantasy would be to have a duplex with white walls, two pairs of khakis and a few polo shirts, but Jamie did a fabulous job. It's actually a lot of fun because there's so much going on."

For two years Jamie worked to renovate the house with Max King, an interior designer with a like-minded '40s sensibility, and Jack Oliver, a contractor. Still, years later, she fiddles with the details. "A house is never done," she says. "Just when you think you've got everything perfect, the upholstery wears out, the back of a cushion splits. You're always coping with the inevitability of decay." She hasn't yet hung all the pictures. She hasn't quit acquiring either. All the "smalls," the personal touches, were her finds and her choices.

"Jamie said she wanted grown-up, but with a twist," says King. "If you're not looking carefully, it looks like a conventional house. The artful arrangements, the richness of it becomes more evident only after you study it for a while. When we started, my tendency was to prettify, but when things got too pretty, Jamie would put a little wrench in it to keep it from being just a house with chintz and ruffles and so forth."

Contemporary, occasionally outre art mingles nonchalantly with more orthodox landscapes and portraits, a total of more than three dozen framed works hanging in the living room alone. Wherever the eye falls, there is art: stacked against the walls in hallways, stacked on guest room beds, stacked in chairs. And books, stacks of those too, on cabinets, on the floor; on top of the books, stacks of CDs; on top of the CDs, stacks of envelopes, invitations.

Boxes and bibelots from antique to period to new lined up or fanned out in deliberate formations on coffee tables and game tables and side tables. Objects here, objects there, objects everywhere. Objects begging to be picked up, examined, however inappropriate the gesture in a private home. So much to look at. So much to absorb. "Basically it's a house full of stuff Jamie loves," says David.

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