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Beach chic turns surf noir

The classic coastal vibe -- so warm and bright -- gets a cool dose of darkness.

August 02, 2007|Jake Townsend | Special to The Times

AFTER spending almost 20 years as head of visual merchandising and store design for Quiksilver, Steve Jones can say without much exaggeration that the surf is his life. The Laguna Beach apartment where he lives during the week is classic coastal modern, a bright white cube with punches of sunny color. A wall of plate glass bathes the home in summer sunlight to a concert of rustling sea breezes and crashing waves.

But if the Laguna space is a celebration of light, Jones' weekend house in West Hollywood is an exploration of the dark. The interiors still reference the beach and beach culture, but there's not a hibiscus print in sight. Traditional seascapes and sea horse tchotchkes give way to off-kilter paintings of mermaids and animal dioramas that look as if they're on loan from a natural-history museum.

"The objects that I've put in this house," Jones says with understatement, "are all a bit skewed."

Jones' decor, much like surfer style in general, is letting its dark roots show. Call it the dirty-blond movement: a moodier, irreverent, urban-tinged aesthetic that can be seen across pop culture, be it the skull motif that's so ubiquitous in fashion or the art direction of HBO's new surf-themed series, "John From Cincinnati," which explores the gritty underbelly of beach culture.

Translating the dirty-blond vibe to interiors was a natural for Jones, who admits that he doesn't exactly think like everyone else. "I'm like the reverse guy," Jones says. "Most city people escape to the beach or the mountains on the weekend. I flee to the city."

ABOUT four years ago, Jones was living in Laguna and visiting L.A. when a morning jog from his hotel changed everything. "I'm running up and down the streets in West Hollywood, and I'm looking around, and it just hit me," he says. "I knew I wanted to live here."

He says he looked at a hundred properties but was smitten with three small, run-down houses on a single lot just south of Santa Monica Boulevard. "Hansel and Gretel on acid," Jones says. "It was completely falling apart when I bought it. Everything was overgrown."

As he went about remodeling, however, Jones was careful to maintain what he calls the "gloomy" aesthetic.

"I didn't try to lighten it up, I didn't try to add light to the place," he says. It was dark with a touch of melancholy, and that was just fine with him. West Hollywood would be the yin to Laguna Beach's yang, and together the two homes began to make complete sense. The key, Jones says, was the collection of belongings he brought into each space.

"The objects I love and the places I design have one foot firmly in the past and one foot somewhere else -- though I don't always know where that is," he says, laughing.

Jones rents out two of the West Hollywood units and lives in a 1,200-square-foot house at the rear of the property. The Spanish-style structure looks unassuming from the outside, but inside the surprises are immediate. Rich oak floors stained black flow from one room to the next, like an inky sea.

"I didn't want to see any grain coming through, so we added color to the clear coat so the grain didn't pop up as much," Jones says. "People think black makes things look smaller, but it makes things look bigger because it's hard to see where it ends."

The home makes efficient use of its compact footprint. The front door opens onto a living room enlarged by a double-height ceiling, with the dining room and kitchen beyond. Rough-hewn stairs lead to a catwalk overlooking the living room, then two bedrooms, a bathroom and a small office.

Throughout the home, Jones' mix of contemporary designer pieces and flea market finds is in full effect -- dark, yes, but in a tongue-in-cheek way. His 1960s oil paintings of Southern California beach scenes are joined by a naive nude, hung over a boxed diorama of sandpipers behind glass.

"It's a nude woman in a seascape, but she's kind of weird looking. She's beautifully painted, but she's strange -- everything in the painting is just a little bit off," Jones says, as he moves on to another piece. He flips a switch, bringing to life what he calls his "fox in a box," a 4-foot-wide shadowbox with vintage taxidermy slinking through a faded mountain scene.

"People's homes are like dioramas for living," he says. "I approach design the same way someone would approach creating a diorama: Which background best suits the person living inside?"

For his own habitat, Jones kept the original wood beams and other structural features while replacing practically everything else. New touches that might seem overly quaint in another home -- arched, rough-hewn pine doors, bottle glass in some windows, custom stained glass in others -- give the place a storybook feel.

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