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Do-it-yourself Diva

Hollywood Regency's theatrical mix of modern furniture, ornate antiques and glamorous patterns can be hard to pull off, especially in a family home. Novice Cristi Conaway was up to the challenge.

January 26, 2006|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

FOR Cristi Conaway, necessity is the mother of reinvention. As a self-described "Dallas girl with big hair who dressed like Madonna," she overhauled her style to become a model in Japan. As an actress, she used downtime on film sets to knit the sweaters she couldn't find in stores -- colorful, sexy cashmere creations marketed under her name in more than 500 boutiques. Late last year, frustrated by the shortcomings of Internet gift stores, Conaway and her husband launched their own online luxury emporium for housewarming and baby shower presents.

In the midst of these entrepreneurial ventures, Conaway took on her most challenging transformation to date: turning a Santa Monica house that she calls "Orange County Mediterranean" into a hip young family home in the still red-hot Hollywood Regency style. Lacquered, Lucite and mirrored furniture mix with European antiques and Asian accents in swank, colorful rooms, often with exaggerated patterns. Designers such as Jonathan Adler and Kelly Wearstler have amplified strong graphic elements of the style, giving Hollywood Regency a pop profile in Southern California stores, restaurants and hotels.

Wearstler's design for the trendy Santa Monica hotel Viceroy was particularly influential for Conaway, who met her husband, commercial real estate developer Mark Murphy, at a party there. Inspired by Wearstler's "sense of scale and way with color, her ability to create jewel box moments in rooms," as well as by Slim Aarons' glamorous midcentury photography of Hollywood royalty at home, Conaway fearlessly faced a daunting design task.

"Hollywood Regency is a demanding style," says Scott Mangan of Rubbish Interiors, one of the first vintage dealers in Los Angeles to revive the post-World War II mix of ornate antiques and custom furniture that define the look. But in the last few years, he adds, "people have become more educated about the genre. There are books out on the legendary designers of the period like Billy Haines and Frances Elkins who created rooms that have stood the test of time."

The success of Adler and Wearstler has brought a flood of upscale Hollywood Regency furniture, fabrics and accessories to the market, and some signature pieces such as fretwork chairs and upholstered headboards are trickling into the catalogs of West Elm, Ballard Designs and others. The revival scratches an itch for luxury, Mangan says.

"The old days of throwing a bunch of Eames chairs and Nelson bubble lamps into white rooms are pretty much over. People who are interested in design now want architectural detailing, fine carved furniture and high-end upholstery," Mangan says. The challenge, he adds, is making this theatrical look more livable for a home.

"With Hollywood Regency you can use so many distinctive materials -- wallpaper, patterned fabrics, mirrors, Lucite, marble, leather, brass -- and you can choose from many historical periods, which makes it that much harder to pull it all together," Mangan says.

From the start, Conaway was working at a disadvantage. She and Murphy, who run the website, had not yet moved into the house when they began renovating the interiors, painting and ordering furniture last summer. She also was trying to complete the project in less than six months, in time to host a friend's engagement party.

"Luckily, for better or worse I am incredibly decisive to the point of craziness," she says.

The novice decorator had tough decisions to make. Built in 2001 by Los Angeles architect William Hefner, her new 4,200-square-foot house had the bones of an A-list ingenue, but the previous owners had dressed it as a dowdy dowager. Conaway decided her makeover would be "California casual with a touch of Palm Beach, because that's where my husband comes from."

Like many new Mediterranean homes, Conaway's house was neither pure Spanish nor Italian. Rooms had good height and dramatic windows but were decorated with floral flourishes and poetry quotations painted on the walls. She reduced the interior to a blank canvas by painting the exposed wood beams and trim white and staining 5-inch-wide oak plank floors a dark espresso color.

"The walls came first," Conaway says. "As soon as I picked colors for some of the rooms, the selections of rugs and fabrics became much easier."

One guest room is painted in Benjamin Moore's deep Polo Blue, which sets the stage for silver lamps, a white desk and a headboard covered in a tapestry print by the British textile designer Lulu DK. The sea-glass green nursery for daughter Colette, 1, is dominated by a floral rug in a rainbow of pastels that reflect on a mirrored dresser. Hand-printed rose wallpaper covers one wall.

"Wallpaper is a key ingredient of the Hollywood Regency look," says Conaway, who kept a notebook of swatches, paint chips and inspirational images for each room. Wallpaper is a great way to fill a room, she says, especially if you don't have a lot of artwork.

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