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The holidays' magic maker

No one decorated like Hollywood legend Tony Duquette, whose over-the-top interiors and deftness with a glue gun inspire designers to this day. His former business partner recalls Duquette's larger-than-life spirit that swelled this time of year.

December 20, 2007|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

EVERY day was a holiday for Tony Duquette. The legendary Hollywood designer was obsessed with beauty, devising exotic sets for screen and stage, as well as glittering interiors for movie star mansions, Los Angeles department stores and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. A painter, sculptor and hot glue gun fanatic, Duquette was an early recycler, mixing cheap industrial products with luxurious fabrics and natural materials to build ornate furnishings and environments.

"He outdid Hollywood at its own game," says Wendy Goodman, coauthor of the weighty, vividly illustrated "Tony Duquette," released this month from Abrams. "He created fantasies of joyful, colorful and sensual texture. There was a sense of celebration in everything he did. His childlike sense of magic and wonder about the world never stopped."

Co-author Hutton Wilkinson, chief executive and chief designer of Tony Duquette Inc. since Duquette's death in 1999, reminisced about the master in a recent interview and recalled Duquette's distinctive take on holiday decor.

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What are the signatures of a Tony Duquette interior?

Gold, coral, abalone shells, malachite, crystals, sunbursts and mirrors. Tony was a master of placement of mirrors to reflect light and expand vistas. He used clear jewel colors -- nothing muddy or dark or monochromatic -- and layered paint, fabrics and paintings on walls. The fifth wall was the floor, where he usually put antique Oriental carpets. And he always said the ceiling is the sixth wall. They are not to punch holes in for can lights. He liked ceilings painted, draped and decorated.

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Wasn't that expensive?

Tony used to say, "Beauty, not luxury, is what I value." He often used nontraditional materials to gain traditional effects. He had no snobbery; he didn't care if something was glass or plastic, solid gold or gold paper. As a young man, he made costumes and sets for Fred Astaire movies; in the '80s he made jewelry for Tom Ford at Gucci. He was always of his time and very modern.

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At the L.A. store Downtown, Duquette-inspired Christmas windows feature red pipe cleaners simulating coral. Why do contemporary designers worship him?

Tony's work will always appeal to the people with the self-confidence to express their personalities through their environments. His is also a uniquely American story: a boy born in Los Angeles to not very rich parents and raised in Three Rivers, Mich., who achieved his goal of living with -- and like -- the movie stars and European nobility he admired. Tony's place in 20th century design is as a beacon of individuality and creativity.

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What was his secret?

The New York designer Jeffrey Bilhuber recently said: One coral branch on a table does not a Tony Duquette make. It's the repetition of pattern that creates an effect. You can throw a skateboard up on a wall and people will think you're crazy, but if you put 500 skateboards around the frieze of a room, all of a sudden it really looks like something.

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Descriptions of the Duquette look almost always include the phrase "over-the-top." How far did he go when December rolled around?

In the late 1930s and early '40s, Tony worked at Bullock's and Robinsons. His job was to make the entire store change seasons. And he used to say, "You know, working in those stores ruined Christmas for me, because I had to work six months in advance and by the time it came, I was so exhausted when I got home there was no point in decorating anymore." He gave us all these wonderful ornaments: crocheted bears in sailor suits and giraffes and tigers dressed in capes and top hats. I've got a warehouse of antique Christmas decorations that he collected, and I don't think he ever used them.

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So how did he celebrate?

On the Twelfth Night of Christmas, Jan. 6, Tony and his wife, Elizabeth, gave a huge party at his old studio on Robertson Boulevard, between Santa Monica and Keith, which was once owned by Norma Talmadge. It had a ballroom that was 150 feet long, 28 feet wide and 28 feet high with a stage at the end. He had all of his collections, antiques and treasures and workrooms in that building.

Before anyone was doing those little white lights all over the exterior of the buildings, Tony did it. You had to go through a garden gate on Robertson and go quite a distance, walking through a tunnel of light in his jungle of plants until you reached the porch with mirrors on the ceiling and 16th century Spanish front doors.

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What was going on inside?

It was extremely dressy, usually black tie. For Tony, that meant having his clothes made from brocades and velvets at a place where they tailored vestments for priests. Everyone was invited to bring their children. They would have square-dancing and a parade of puppet shows with Tony's collection of antique 18th century Sicilian puppets that were at least 3 feet tall. There was always an orchestra and some kind of divertissement, whether it was Balinese or Indian dancers or gambling on the balcony.

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