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INNER LIFE

Revival, their way

One couple's Spanish house becomes an experiment in tweaking the traditional.

August 09, 2007|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

ONLY in Los Angeles could the label "traditional" be construed as an insult. For a place obsessed with the new and the unnaturally enhanced, the T-word connotes everything that so many here strive not to be: tired, old, ordinary.

But anyone who buys a classic piece of Southern California architecture -- whether Craftsman, ranch, beach cottage or midcentury Modern -- soon finds out that tradition often comes with the keys. Each type of home is well furnished with long-standing notions about what's right and what's oh-so-wrong, especially when it comes to the interior design.

For Eva and John Simpson, Spanish Revival was less of a style than a question: How could their San Marino house feel classic yet not a cliché, translating an architectural tradition with a definitively personal voice?

For part of the answer, the couple looked to a completely different language of design. "I'm of Chinese descent, and I really want my kids to have that heritage and know that's part of who they are," says Eva, who called upon some cultural fusion to create a home that's now Spanish with a twist.

Witness the powder room, where a vintage door salvaged in Spain opens to an antique Chinese rice bin converted into a vanity.

"It was a Chinese box, but when set under a Monterey-style mirror, it could pass for Spanish Colonial," says Carolyn E. Oliver, the Pasadena interior designer to whom the Simpsons turned for help blending periods and places without undermining the house's 1920s Spanish Revival roots.

The synthesis of cultures didn't stop there. In the living room, eight months of searching yielded just the right antique Chinese chests to flank the Batchelder fireplace. Seemingly disparate elements crafted thousands of miles apart look as though they were designed to sit side by side. "They just talk to each other," Oliver says.

Adding an Asian influence in the wood-beamed master bedroom was a bit trickier, but ultimately Oliver suggested it be done through color -- a porcelain white and deep china blue that appear in easy chair upholstery and a custom Michaelian & Kohlberg rug.

"I call those my señorita drapes," Oliver says, nodding to white sheers intricately sewn with hundreds of silk squares, at once reminiscent of a flamenco dancer's billowy dress and a thousand pieces of rice paper, fluttering in the breeze.

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AS co-founder and managing partner of the vintage Spanish door showroom Portera in Pasadena, John Simpson had a passion for Spanish architecture but wanted his own house to feel distinctive, not formulaic.

The point of hiring Oliver, Eva says, was to get help expressing the couple's taste in tandem with the house's inherent style, to "broaden our horizons and show us things that we wouldn't have picked out for ourselves.

"I know what I like and have a sense of my own style, but you can stall," Eva says. After looking at hundreds of pieces of furniture or fabrics or artworks for each room, "I'd stop and say, 'I've just lost my steam.' And Carolyn would respond, 'That's OK, I still have it.' And she would keep us going."

The process can be overwhelming. John Brinkmann, publisher of American Bungalow magazine, says he regularly hears from Craftsman owners who feel pressure to decorate in an "authentic" way. Move into a classic bungalow and you very well may be welcomed by neighbors bearing instructions on the proper paint palette for your rooms.

Yet, Brinkmann says, many Southern Californians would rather tweak tradition than blindly conform to it. They want a home that's more modern, personal or simply more comfortable.

"They don't want company to come over and sit in a wood chair that just doesn't feel good," Brinkmann says.

"I see no reason why you should adhere to some standard. Newness comes out of experimentation, not limitation."

Cameron Silver, founder and owner of the vintage fashion boutique Decades in Los Angeles, has made his name forging a fresh, modern look from pieces of the past. Eight years ago, inspired by R.M. Schindler's radical re-imagination of what the Southern California home could be, Silver bought a 1930 residence by the Modernist icon and spent a year and a half reversing alterations that previous owners had made to the original design.

Though it stands as a piece of architectural history, "I didn't want it to feel like a museum," Silver says. "It's still a home."

So French 1950s furniture shares the space with a Frank Lloyd Wright chair, a George Nelson table, a new chenille sofa and paintings by emerging contemporary artists. It's a mix of eras and styles that feels natural for a Schindler yet is still Modern and, most important for Silver, "quintessentially Los Angeles."

"My own sense of luxury is probably the antithesis of the Schindler aesthetic," Silver says with a laugh. But any doubts about design concessions he's made in the name of authenticity -- limited closet space, the galley kitchen -- fade away when visitors see the house.

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