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The surfing decorator

Andrew Virtue's love of the sea spills over into his onshore life as an antique collector and designer. His Long Beach abode has many influences, one style.

September 08, 2005|Andrew Myers | Special to The Times

THE Long Beach home of interior designer Andrew Virtue brims with objects once belonging to style-makers of the 20th century -- the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Carlos de Beistegui, Elsie de Wolfe, Madeleine Castaing and other decorating icons whose collections Virtue scoured at auctions in New York, London and Paris.

Clearly, collecting is one of his two great passions. And the other? "When I picked up my oldest piece, a 17th century William and Mary desk from a dealer friend in Pasadena, he caught sight of the board rack in my car and yelled to his assistants, 'Look, it's the surfing decorator.' " Virtue says. "He got a big kick out of it."

Tall and lean, sporting blond locks reminiscent of Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Virtue looks like the surfer while sounding like the aesthete, except when a cellphone call from a surfing buddy interrupts a discourse on Directoire furniture. ("Bro, I'll call you back. Surf tomorrow? 'K, dude.")

A paradox, yes. But not one the 37-year-old feels compelled to resolve. When pushed to explain, he says surfing, besides being a "mellower," is a counterweight to the sometimes overly rarefied world of antiques, a world of preciousness and provenance that can lack, well, fun.

Virtue says he's usually out on the water three to five days a week, most often by the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach, a 15-minute drive from home and a place he finds particularly "soothing, restful and peaceful, a real beach atmosphere in a little bit of Old California." There he finds "this amazing new growth, acid greens set against darker greens and the blue of sky and water."

"That's how I see the world," he explains. "Marsh grass and lichen and hues of blue are paints and plates."

The connection was not lost on client Steve Jones, a vice president for the apparel and surf accessory company Quiksilver, for whom Virtue decorated a Laguna Beach apartment and an Airstream trailer. "Andrew totally gets surf and beach culture," says Jones, who now surfs with Virtue. "But onto that he brings his own take, this vast knowledge, and elevates it to something I've never seen before."

Virtue's own home -- two connected apartments in a 1920s Spanish Revival building with an ocean view -- combines his passions while remaining resolutely livable. The inspiration for the breakfast room's blue and green palette comes from surfing. The 1960s short board, one of about 20 surfboards in Virtue's collection, speaks for itself.

"I call this Madeleine Castaing goes surfing," says Virtue, an homage to the Parisian designer whose ceramics, glassware and spirit fill the room. Her love of color combinations like blue and green and her affinity for palm trees shocked many 1930s contemporaries.

Irreverence continues in the guest room, where a "Tourist" sign Virtue bought when he was 18 hangs above a headboard from De Beistegui's Chateau de Groussay near Paris. "Do I care the mattress is too big for the headboard?" Virtue asks rhetorically. "What matters is the room feels like a fantastic motel room in the 1950s, with great pieces mixed in with the rustic, kind of drecky bedside table -- because the wrong piece can work in the right place."

In the bathroom, an 18th century-style Italian chandelier from the 1950s hangs from the 17-foot ceiling surrounded by a surf mosaic and paintings of surfers, the Queen Mary and a sky diver. The chandelier isn't wired for electricity but is equipped with candles.

Three elements in the office -- a green Formica altar table, lacquered 18th century chairs and a TV-camouflaging console -- came from the estate of legendary L.A. designer Tony Duquette, for whom Virtue once worked. The walls are sea foam green, a color and luminescence achieved with 32 coats of glaze.

Understanding the designer behind the designs isn't always easy. He will talk about growing up in Palos Verdes, but when asked to clarify whether he means Palos Verdes Estates or Rancho Palos Verdes, for unspecified reasons he declines to answer. He says he's injured and can't surf one day, then makes a surfing date with a buddy soon after. When a photographer arrives to shoot his home, he declines to provide access to the living room -- an intriguing part of the home.

It's anyone's guess whether the occasional evasions and contradictions stem from embarrassment, indifference or simply a desire to control his image. For the record, the living room is a pink-walled wonder with what Virtue says are two coral lacquered tables and a red lacquered screen from the Duquette estate, a gilt mirror that belonged to De Beistegui, an oil painting that had been Rudolf Nureyev's, and cast iron urns and a pink-and-white porcelain flower stand from Castaing. "I call it my Little Old Lady room," he says.

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