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The Devil Is In The Details

Architect Brian Murphy makes a bland spec home sinfully fun

February 25, 2007|Barbara Thornburg

If homes came in ice cream flavors, then Roberta Conroy's Palm Springs dwelling was just plain vanilla. The retired attorney, who previously had hired Brian Murphy to work on her home in Rustic Canyon, thought the bland '90s spec house was a perfect canvas for the bad boy of architecture, who delights in transforming sacks of sand, broken glass and other everyday objects into artful, tongue-in-cheek creations.

Murphy began in Conroy's home by removing 1,000 yards of iridescent turquoise-hued drapery. Then he ripped out the wall-to-wall gray carpet to reveal the concrete slab, which he had polished to a terrazzo-like finish. In the spacious living room, he created a 16-foot-high tower of tamarisk logs. Palm Springs contractor Christopher Neil painstakingly packed them as snug as sardines into the newly built niche next to the fireplace. "It's a gas fireplace," Murphy says with a smile. "You can't throw a real log in there." He also painted the dining-room chairs chalk-white "just to make sure everyone would know they were knockoffs" of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's iconic ladder-back side chairs, which are always stained black.

Although Murphy's homes often reflect a modernist's gallery-white palette, the designer takes pleasure in punctuating individual rooms with jolts of color. For instance, several years ago he used a lipstick red to paint the floor, ceiling, walls and nearby bannister of a traditional Tara-like home. "You're immersed in color . . . like diving into a pool and opening your eyes underwater," he explains.

Murphy performed a similar trick on the hallways off Conroy's living room, painting one corridor hot pink, the other tangerine orange as a surprise while she was on a trip. "These warm colors help heat up the vanilla-ice interior. It's really cheap, graphic stimulation. The funny thing is, even though it's pretty outrageous no one notices they are different colors," he says.

That may be because first-time visitors are busy taking in his other tricked-out appointments, such as the powder-room-floor mosaic of Napoleon Bonaparte, who seems to be looking straight up someone's knickers. Or the 9-foot-tall goddess Aphrodite, who gazes out from the master bathroom shower.

Or maybe guests are still outside on the new front lawn, now a manicured bocce court studded with balls in jawbreaker colors. When they're finished, airport runway path lights lead them to the front door. "When the lights glow a purplish-blue," he says, "it's like an LAX runway at night."

Although the master footprint of the home was basically unchanged, Murphy did reconfigure a solid bearing wall in Conroy's master bedroom, installing a see-through cinderblock fireplace and a pair of sliding-glass doors to take advantage of breathtaking views of the San Jacinto Mountains. Another Murphy idea: a new Victorian-style ball-and-claw tub in the corner of the bedroom.

"Societies usually relegate bathing next to the elimination closet," he says, "but it can be a meditative experience." A vintage "swoon couch" in the opposite corner, outfitted in camouflage fabric--a housewarming present from Murphy--adds zest to the bedroom.

"There's a huge smile quotient in this home now," says Murphy. "What we've done is breathed new life into a generic building. We dusted it off--now it's ready to rock."

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RESOURCE GUIDE

Architect Brian Murphy, BAM Construction/Design Inc., Santa Monica, (310) 459-0955; landscape architect Rob Steiner, Los Angeles, (323) 931-4425; contractor Christopher Neil, PSI General Contractors, Palm Springs, (760) 416-5172. Bisazza mosaic tiles, Mission Tile West, Santa Monica, (310) 434-9697.

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