The financial adviser and art collector Ilan Cohen’s home in Fire Island Pines. The blue chair near the pool is by the artist Thomas Barger. Photograph by Chris Mottalini.
There’s a distinct palette to Fire Island Pines, the gay beach getaway a two-hour train ride from New York City. Boxy houses and boardwalks made of untreated cedar have gone grey from the salt air. Pale sand dunes covered in sea grass and holly trees are muted against the men in neon swim briefs who wander through them. But one house stands out amid the uniformity: a modest, 1,100-square-foot white two-bedroom with a gently peaked roof, its walls filled with colourful contemporary art. Architecturally, it looks like it belongs in Palm Springs; its contents would be at home in any Manhattan gallery.
When the financial adviser Ilan Cohen, 56, found the property in 2021, he asked his friend the 38-year-old painter Doron Langberg to tour it with him. The two had become close a few years earlier, after Cohen bought a painting of Langberg’s for his collection of queer-focused art, which he’d begun acquiring around 2010. Both men had been renting shares in the Pines for many summers but, during the pandemic, Cohen decided to find a permanent escape where he could invite artists and others to stay in his guest bedroom. “It’s not about having art on the walls,” he says, “but about them having a place and creating something here.”
He immediately knew that this house was the right one: Its slim profile, inspired by the California midcentury Modernism of the American architect Joseph Eichler, had floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the front and back to let in light. The original owner had constructed it from a Sears catalog kit in 1959, making it one of the oldest dwellings on the east end of the island (which is technically more of a sandbar). When Cohen bought it, there were still remnants of a 1999 renovation, including jewel-toned laminate doors on the kitchen cabinetry. To update it, he hired Noam Dvir and Daniel Rauchwerger, a couple who also own in the Pines and are co-principals of the Manhattan architectural firm BoND (short for Bureau of Noam and Daniel). Like Cohen and Langberg, the designers began frequenting Fire Island after they moved to United States from Israel, where they were born and raised.
For more than a century, back when New York artists like Paul Cadmus and George Platt Lynes first came to summer here, Fire Island has variously appealed to queer creative types. When the renovation was nearly complete in the early summer of 2021, Langberg used the house to store his pigments, canvases and easels for painting trips to the nearby forest, known colloquially as the Meat Rack because men are known to cruise there. “I would hang all the paintings and Ilan and I would talk about them, and I would get ideas,” he says. With all the Hebrew being spoken, Rauchwerger, 36, likened it to a “kibbutz, but with fences.”
The architects started by stripping away the colourful finishes, then moved the stovepipe fireplace to the other side of the 600-square-foot main room to create distinct spaces for lounging and dining. Most of the overhead shelving and cabinets were removed, and kitchen appliances — including the refrigerator and freezer — were sunk low in an island and adjacent cabinets to create unobstructed sightlines and allow conversation to flow easily across the open floor plan. “We were trying to de-complicate and bring back the simplicity of the original idea,” says Dvir, 40. At the same time, Rauchwerger adds, “Modernism was quite rigid at times, so we introduced blurred boundaries.” Along one wall of the living area, they installed wood paneling at contrasting vertical and 45-degree angles in homage to Horace Gifford, the architect of many in-demand historic homes in the Pines. On the ceiling, a fresh coat of glossy white paint reflects aquamarine from a saltwater pool set into the front deck. The only areas left unchanged were the twinned bathrooms, with their royal blue tile and voyeuristic ribbed-glass wall, through which the adjacent showers are foggily visible to one another.
From the beginning, Cohen knew he wanted a mural behind his dining table. Langberg — whose luminous oil-on-canvas scene of two men reclining naked in bed together, “Lovers at Night” (2023), was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art — had never painted one before, although he soon began experimenting with diluted acrylic, which would be less vulnerable to the island’s heat and humidity. Last summer, over the course of a single day, he completed an ethereal beach scene, depicting a view toward the sea from the Meat Rack, which adds a nearly eight-foot expanse of roiling colour behind the round wood Harbour table. As Langberg says, “There’s something quintessential to the Fire Island experience of witnessing either moonrise or the sun coming up in the early hours of the morning after a night out.”
The mural keeps company with pieces by several other artists, many of them island regulars. A watercolour by the 38-year-old painter Stephen Truax, depicting a man tanning on the beach, hangs on the living room wall. At the back of the house, in the well-shaded primary bedroom, two early works by T.M. Davy flank the bed. One’s a 2012 painting of a single lit candle; the other a 2006 portrait of his partner, Liam Davy, the owner of the Pines-based landscaping company Gay Gardens, who planted the edges of Cohen’s property with native summersweet, blue vervain and hibiscus, some of which made their way into Langberg’s landscape paintings.
“Each person that shapes Ilan’s house is also someone who’s close to him,” the artist says. Dvir and Rauchwerger, whose clients are mostly L.G.B.T.Q, were especially proud to leave their mark on their favourite queer idyll: The project was their first in the Pines, and now they’ve begun work on their sixth. “You can’t take this place for granted,” Dvir says. “This renaissance we’ve seen in the last six or seven years has to do with people mortgaging their future and buying a place here knowing all of the complications.” During the AIDS epidemic, many residents of the Pines and neighbouring Cherry Grove died, then the region became less popular in the late 1990s — there were simply too many ghosts lingering. Yet if the crowded bars and boardwalks this summer are any indication (not to mention last year’s “Fire Island” film), the vacation destination is busier than ever. This resurgence has come even as storms and rising sea levels have washed away much of the beach this year, portending an uncertain future.
Through it all, Cohen and his guests are holding steady. Langberg returned this summer along with other artists, including the painter Louis Fratino and the sculptor Oren Pinhassi, who all found time to dream up new work or just take a break. Come what may, art will always have a home here.
In the living space of the artist Sarah Kaye Rodden’s home in Kent, England, a wood-burning stove and an antique oak coffer topped with objects including dinosaur bones and a concrete bowl by the designer Philippe Malouin. Photograph by Sian Davey.
It isn’t unusual for a passer-by to mistake the home of the British artist Sarah Kaye Rodden for a shop. The 15th-century house sits on a bustling high street in the English village of Brasted, in rural Kent, and people are often lured inside by the distinctive objects she keeps near the entrance:a 1930s Belgian oak drawing board, a slatted chair by the Danish Modernist designer Grete Jalk and several of the artist’s own minimalist constructions made from paper, rubber and leather. “I have to tell them that this is my home, and then they back away sheepishly,” says Kaye Rodden, 48. Completed in 1430, the original timber-frame building, which once served as a medieval meeting hall, was in fact repurposed as an antiques store in the 19th century, and its large Victorian front window still seems to promise that rare treasures might be found inside.
Kaye Rodden bought the three-story 2,200-square-foot home nine years ago with her husband, John Rodden, 49, an executive at the film production company Studio Canal UK. They had been looking to move from their one-bedroom maisonette in London’s Battersea district to somewhere with enough room for their two children, Aoife, 12, and Naoise, 8, to run around. Kaye Rodden, who comes from several long lines of makers — her paternal great-great-grandfather was a tanner and harness maker; her maternal grandfather was a carpenter — also wanted to set up a studio. In 2012, after working for years alongside acclaimed British designers including Thomas Heatherwick, Ilse Crawford and Faye Toogood, she began focusing on her own multidisciplinary art practice. She envisioned a space where she could experiment without restraint.
“The minute we walked in, it was, ‘Yes please,’” she says of first seeing the house. She was immediately taken with the light-filled 387-square-foot front room and chose it for her work space. She also liked that the place didn’t have what she jokingly calls the “ye olde” feel typical of many 15th-century structures. In the 1970s, the home’s previous owners had added a double-height extension with a mezzanine at the back of the building to create a modern living area. The mix of different periods embodied exactly the kind of raw imperfection that Kaye Rodden seeks to capture in her pieces, which range from tabletop sculptures made from blocks of 3500 B.C. bog oak to striking geometric assemblages of leather, book cloth and wood that can be hung from a wall.
Undeterred by the dusty pink carpet that covered every stair tread, the couple set about making the home their own. “There was no big renovation,” says Kaye Rodden. “It isn’t the sort of house where you strip everything back to redo it in a traditional way; we worked with what we had and preserved everything.” They kept the pre-existing fraying hessian wall coverings in the main living space and relished the contrast between the home’s timeworn original oak beams, Piranha pine stairs and ’70s-era golden-brown parquet floors.
The mishmash of styles also provided a complementary backdrop for the couple’s wide-ranging furniture collection, which includes both British antiques store finds and midcentury classics by designers such as Marcel Breuer and Vico Magistretti. They appointed the front room minimally, with just a few of Kaye Rodden’s favourite pieces, including a black Hans Wegner rocking chair and a simple pine stool by the contemporary Finnish furniture brand Vaarnii, for which the artist recently designed a series of Brutalist wall hooks. And the large, hall-like living area is likewise defined by arrangements of pieces from different periods. To the right of a Victorian oak trestle table in the dining area is a white-painted Arts and Crafts-era settle with a towering back. To the table’s left, almost like a shadow, is a smaller, curved black settle from the 1840s. And at the head, in stark contrast with both benches, is one of Toogood’s ultra-minimalist solid aluminium Spade chairs.
While downstairs the house exudes the richly textured, lived-in British warmth exemplified by the modernist home and art gallery Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge — a frequent source of inspiration for Kaye Rodden — the three bedrooms upstairs are more spare. In the primary bedroom, a hand-carved oak bed is flanked by a pair of simple antique wicker chairs. The two children’s bedrooms are similarly subdued but imaginative: Kaye Rodden has pinned sheets of paper to their walls and covered them with drawings of animals, including the family dog (a longhaired Bedlington whippet named 4B, after the pencil).
Just as Kaye Rodden’s work helps set the tone of her home, the place has come to inform her practice. Arranged on seemingly every surface within the house are thoughtfully assembled collections of objects — in the sitting room, Hellenic Greek pottery vessels stand on an 18th-century oak coffer alongside Neolithic-era flint tools and an ice age elk toe bone — and Kaye Rodden will often sketch still lifes of these small tableaux. “Then forms are extracted from those drawings,” she explains, “and become larger abstract shapes which I arrange into an artwork.” For her recent piece “Just hanging” (2021), she draped several such abstract shapes, cut from paper, over a wire nailed to her studio wall. This summer, variations of the composition, these made in pencil-shaded vellum, debuted in an exhibition of her work at Francis Gallery in Los Angeles. “The house is full of the things I want be surrounded by,” she says. “I think it’s good to interact with art in a physical way — to hold it in your hand.”
A pair of benches, known as settles, and, behind them, a 19th-century Tiffany mantel clock and a trio of etchings, two by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Photograph by Blaine Davis.
Susan MacTavish Best is a consummate host. In pre-Covid times, she held regular salons for anywhere from 50 to 150 attendees at her loft in Manhattan’s SoHo neighbourhood. Knowledge of the gatherings spread largely by word of mouth, and MacTavish Best, 46, sent invitations freely. “They were eclectic, not exclusive, events,” she says. At the end of the cocktail hour, she’d ring a bell or tap a sterling silver goblet with a piece of cutlery to let the guests know they should fill their plates — set on the 18th-century Georgian oak dining table would be an array of dishes, cooked by MacTavish Best herself, such as quail lollipops with quince, rum and honey roasted cayenne-cumin carrots and cauliflower and Taleggio baked pasta — and find a spot among the upholstered 17th-century benches, contemporary walnut and ash stools or various throw pillows and trunks spread atop an assortment of antique rugs in the living room. She’d then interview a chosen guest, perhaps an athlete, scientist, actor or C.E.O., about their profession, life and beliefs. Especially memorable was a night last holiday season when the celebrated trumpeter Bill Williams fielded questions before he and four others performed brass-heavy renditions of Christmas carols.
This is all a rather joyous form of work. In 1997, MacTavish Best founded PostHoc, which now functions as an experiential events company that partners with organisations to create these talks. The hope is to generate ideas and connections, and past projects have included a discussion (co-hosted with Better.com) with Conor Dougherty, author of “Golden Gates” (2020), on the housing crisis, and another (co-hosted with The Financial Times) with Rana Foroohar, author of “Don’t Be Evil” (2019), on big tech. And so a wide range of people are relatively familiar with MacTavish Best’s 2,500-square-foot Broome Street loft, which she moved into in 2018, having fallen in love with the neighbourhood and the unit’s kitchen — which has marble floor tiles and a large central marble-topped island — and knowing, instantly, that it would be a great place to entertain. Upon walking up a single set of stairs and through the front door, visitors find themselves in MacTavish Best’s living room, which, in addition to the various seating options, is filled with all manner of art, antiques and books. The floor-to-ceiling bookcases, which hold several signed first editions by Mark Twain, can’t help but inspire browsing, though by late evening, guests were more likely to be dancing to a D.J. set by Aku Orraca-Tetteh (who’s in the band Florence and the Machine) and the music curator Nikki Kynard.
Then, of course, came the pandemic and the resulting moratorium on large gatherings, especially those held in cozy confines. Hoping to preserve some piece of the culture and camaraderie of her events, MacTavish Best, like so many others, took the show online, and viewers from all over the world began to tune in to her live-streamed interviews. “Technology isn’t a replacement for human interaction,” she says, and yet she has found the response heartening. The past eight months or so have also forced her to reacquaint herself with solitude, and to engage with her home in a new way now that it is less of an entertaining space and more of a private retreat. This might have been difficult for such a social being, and yet the rooms of MacTavish Best’s home and the things that fill them are so memory-laden as to feel a bit like company. “I actually love wallowing in the quiet of my house,” she says. “It’s this warm blanket of a living space that provides a sense of belonging among the hurly-burly of New York City.”
The bookshelves were built by a friend of hers, for instance, and there are more than a few nods, from the blue-and-green plaid wallpaper in the guest bedroom to the wingback chairs covered in the MacTavish family tartan in the living room, to her family’s Scottish and Canadian roots. Hung in the bathroom is a newly minted $100 Canadian bill featuring an image of a man and his microscope that signifies her grandfather’s involvement in the discovery of insulin. Nearby is a 1957 notice from the Canadian House of Commons commemorating her father for being one of its youngest-ever members. And the 1930s-era baby grand piano tucked into a corner of the living room is stacked with sheet music that’s been passed from one generation to the next.
MacTavish Best also seems to have inherited her predilection for collecting. She was born on Prince Edward Island to a politician, geneticist and cattle rancher father and an art appraiser mother, but left Canada as a toddler, just before her father’s death, and grew up between Connecticut and Scotland. “I vividly remember being 9 and walking into Galerie Maeght in Paris for the first time,” she says. “They had paintings by Walasse Ting up, and I fell in love with his work. I vowed to save up to buy a piece of his and, when I was 35, I did.” Instead of toys, her mother gave her art for her birthday, which is how MacTavish Best acquired a Frank Stella lithograph and a watercolour of St. Andrews Castle in Scotland (where MacTavish Best attended boarding school at St. Leonards) by Mary Hunter, a family friend. “I can tell you I appreciate those a lot more now than when I was a kid,” says MacTavish Best. Her collection has since grown to include pieces by American artists including Alexander Calder, Andrew Wyeth and Helen Frankenthaler. She also loves ancient art and jewellery, but her most prized work is a vibrant 1969 Abstract Expressionist canvas by Sam Francis that hangs in a minimalist silver frame in her living room. Below it stands an antique medieval German knight’s suit her mother found in a Montreal gallery in the early ’80s and shoved in the back seat for their car ride home.
In fact, it was MacTavish Best’s passion for collecting that led her to start her salons. In 2014, when she was living on Grand Street in a mid-1800s building designed by the architect John B. Snook, she opened a pop-up shop in the retail space below. There, she sold the contents of her prior home in San Francisco, along with objects she’d found on trips and at auctions. “I sort of made my life for sale,” she says. At night, she hosted parties in the space and discovered that, in a way, it was also possible (and more meaningful) to accumulate people, to seek out and celebrate their stories.
These days, MacTavish Best splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, where she has a loft in the Arts District Downtown, though she keeps her more historical objects on Broome Street. “I love both places,” she says, “but New York appreciates the old, so it just makes sense.” When she’s in SoHo, she works from her home office, appointed with a 1915 Wells Fargo banking desk, as well as orchids, golden pothos, ferns and other plants. In addition to planning more virtual talks, MacTavish Best is also writing a pilot for a TV show about Silicon Valley. Now, a night among friends might mean cooking dinner for neighbours or a very small group of loved ones, but someday soon MacTavish Best hopes to be able to welcome others back into her home. She’s thinking she might serve a roast rack of lamb and can already imagine herself chatting with a guest, fizzy gin cocktail in hand, as she garnishes the dish with lavender and prepares to join the rest of the party.
In the sitting room of the gallerist Margaret Bakke’s home in
Arlington, Virginia, a Mario Bellini sofa, a repainted antique side table, a Thomas Barger coffee table and chairs and a footstool that she inherited from her grandmother. The bowl on the table is by Francesca DiMattio. Photograph by Jared Soares.
On a quiet residential street in Arlington, Virginia, one garage is not like the others. Clad in white corrugated steel, the structure is tall and thin with a sharply peaked roof, suggesting a giant pencil poking up through the earth. And while its neighbours might house minivans and power tools, on a grey December afternoon the door to this one, which is not really a garage at all, opens to reveal a cross-shaped plywood table set,
as if for a meal, with brightly coloured wares. At the centre of the spread are a pair of ornately dimpled pastel-glazed earthenware vases by the French ceramist Saraï Delfendahl, each the size and silhouette of a baby elephant’s foot. A chubby-armed sky blue ceramic chandelier by the New York-based artist Braxton Congrove hangs from the ceiling. The 12 unique place settings feature, among other items, an orange tumbler with three spiky legs by the New York-based artist and tableware designer Grace Whiteside and a clay oyster plate inlaid with shells by the ceramist Michele Mirisola of Brooklyn. Surprising even the gallerist Margaret Bakke, the curator of this exhibition, some of the artists had taken her concept of a dinner party-themed show several steps further by contributing unsolicited additions, including two punch bowls and a poodle-topped butter dish.
Bakke established this place, which she named Friends Artspace, in 2021 after unexpectedly discovering that her long-held desire to run a gallery dovetailed with a local zoning law. She and her husband, Jesus Canales, were building a house for themselves and their family on a modest corner lot when they learned its footprint could be expanded, as she recalls it, by erecting a free-standing garage on the property. The two-storey structure they envisioned, some six metres away from their new home, would, Bakke realised, enable her to fulfill her dream of exhibiting artistic work in a familial environment. She inaugurated the 30-square-metre gallery space with a group show comprising 14 fantastical one-of-a-kind mirrors and, though she has a background in fine art — she studied at Columbia University before working at the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, the school’s nonprofit print shop, and later became an art consultant in Washington, DC — the exhibitions she’s mounted since then have mostly emphasised collectible design, often by emerging talents. “Design is so approachable and easy to love,” she says, “because we all benefit from it.”
Despite her training as a painter and printmaker, Bakke prefers seeking out the work of others. As a result, her house — a stark but inviting rectangular box with a black stucco facade and large rear windows overlooking a neat yard — is filled with unusual creations sourced from vintage stores and art collected over the years, often from other small galleries. “I just love objects,” she says, sitting on a bulbous pink velvet-upholstered Mario Bellini sofa in the compact parlour — just off the home’s 65-square-metre, open-plan living area — where she meets with clients, usually over tea. “In a way, the gallery is an extension of my love of collecting, because I don’t want to be a hoarder,” she adds with a laugh. Her home, in turn, sometimes accommodates overflow inventory: on a recessed shelf behind her, arranged among several antiques shop vases, are a pair of delicate candy-coloured ceramic cake stands by the New York artist Francesca DiMattio waiting to be shipped to clients. “People can’t believe kids live here,” says Bakke.
But the couple designed the house as much for their three young children as for themselves.It is just one storey, and thus toddler friendly. A playroom, strewn with spill-concealing patterned Moroccan rugs, sits between the living room and the three bedrooms. The tropical-print sofa in the main room, which Bakke bought on eBay for about $750, arrived already lightly stained. And while her collection contains valuable pieces — a large mirrored one by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, with whom Bakke worked at the Columbia print shop, is securely fastened to a wall behind a powder blue resin Sabine Marcelis dining table — she tries not to be overly precious about them. In front of the living room fireplace, which is framed by a Brutalist limestone mantelpiece, is an eight-legged coffee table by the Brooklyn-based designer Misha Kahn, whose work Bakke has shown, made from scraps of stainless steel inset with jewel-like glass discs the size of dinner plates — a room-transforming artwork strong enough for her children to dance on, as they sometimes do.
On a practical level, Bakke’s practice of blurring the boundary between work and home allows her to run Friends Artspace; when necessary, her children can be with her during appointments. But the endeavour is also part of her larger vision of a more humane art world in which institutions recognise that creativity can be a collective endeavour strengthened by the ties of family and community — one that, importantly, needn’t take place in a major city. Bakke eventually wants to have a studio above the gallery and a place for artists to stay. For now, though, that dream is most fully realised at her openings. Increasingly, neighbours stop by along with artists and collectors. And there’s always sidewalk chalk for the children, who cover the paved driveway with works of their own.
In the living room of the interior designer Nicholas Obeid’s Greenwich Village apartment,
a Jean-Michel Frank-style sofa upholstered in bay leaf-coloured mohair with Pierre Frey jacquard pillows, a vintage wrought-iron lamp with a brown-paper shade, a custom Equis table in iron, glass and natural leather from Casamidy in Mexico and a T-back chair with button-tufted linen cushions. Photograph by David Chow.
Five years ago, at the San Telmo flea market in Buenos Aires, the New York-based interior designer Nicholas Obeidsaw a midcentury chandelier in perforated red metal that he admired but didn’t want to carry home on the plane.
A year later, he was still thinking about that chandelier and, on his next trip, he was surprised to find the $100 piece right where he’d last seen it. (Obeid’s mother was born in Argentina, and he visits the country whenever he can.) Now rewired, it hangs in the kitchen of his Greenwich Village apartment, above a stainless steel baker’s rack. “I saw something similar on 1stDibs for thousands of dollars,” Obeid says. “Almost identical.”
The fixture is emblematic of Obeid’s approach: the designer, who’s in his 30s, scours the globe — in person and online — for deals on well-made, unconventional vintage pieces. (“The objects I’m after have spirit,” he says.) He then juxtaposes them with idiosyncratic furnishings in a variety of heavily textured materials (“silk, mohair, metal, glass, leather, wood, more wood, a different shade of wood, marble, shearling”, as he puts it), within his own 53-square-metre apartment and those of his clients. Over the past five years, he’s also designed dozens of his own pieces, reimagining everything from sprawling leather modular sofas to cement side tables to ebonised oak lamps and brass wall sconces.
Often, he conceives of these while workingout of his rental, which he moved into in 2020 and has since transformed into a calming refuge. Located on the third floor of a walk-up apartment block, above the poster shops and piercing parlours that fill the blocks just south of NYU, the compact space — the kitchen serves as a vestibule for the bedroom and living room — is united by a colour scheme of butter and walnut. In the bedroom, there’s a whitewashed bespoke night stand made from bleached acacia wood. Above it hangs a framed 1975 charcoal drawing by the San Francisco Bay Area artist Laura Lengyel, the matting of which he had cut to mimic the lines of the tubular task lamp beneath it — another Buenos Aires find. The ivory-painted wall opposite the low, minimalist bed is blank. “My mind races,” Obeid says. “I need serenity.”
That sense of tranquillity extends to the seven-by-four-metre terrace stretching the length of the apartment. There’s enough room for a dining table, which he often drapes in olive green linen and, near it, a sitting area with vintage wicker hoop chairs where he starts his day with coffee, he says, “reading in the dead quiet with the sun hitting me”.
Obeid grew up in Troy, Michigan, where his father, a trauma surgeon, had emigrated from Syria for a medical residency. The designer recalls spending Sunday brunches — when his aunts, uncles and cousins would gather in his home for eggs and manousheh — immersed in design magazines and sharing his discoveries.
After college at Michigan State University, Obeid turned a summer internship at the New York office of the potter and designer Jonathan Adler into a full-time job, in which he ran the creative services department and produced photo shoots. He stayed there for seven years; during his off hours, he created spaces for friends and family, before starting his own firm in 2018. The following year, he began working with CB2, which has since released more than 40 pieces of his furniture, lighting and objects.
Increasingly, his home has become a showcase for these works, too, positioned alongside his custom furnishings (a coverlet made from two different linens, one by the nearly 150-year-old Spanish textile house Gastón y Daniela) and vintage finds (the rattan settee on the terrace, which he found at a Michigan flea market during the pandemic). Every piece, he says, has meaning. “When you love your home, you are obviously happier,” he adds. “You can go about your life with clarity and confidence.”
The entryway of a Los Angeles home reimagined for the actor Anastasia Graff by the designer Frances Merrill. The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Crimson Red, the vintage ceiling light is from Silvio Piattelli and the banquette is upholstered in Dedar fabric. Photograph by Joyce Kim.
By her own admission, the actor Anastasia Graff is a maximalist who loves “girlie things,” so it’s not altogether surprising that she wanted a periwinkle kitchen for her 1930s-era West Hollywood home. Still, such a bold choice could send some interior designers into a tailspin. “It’s rare,” admits Frances Merrill, who Graff enlisted to refurbish the 2,600-square-foot house, “that you have a client pushing you to be more colorful.” Since founding her firm, Reath Design, in 2009, she has become known for her elegant use of unexpected palettes and patterns. And so, “when she said purple,” Merrill continues, “I was like, ‘Hell yeah.’”
From the outside, the two-story three-bedroom house, set in the hills just above Sunset Boulevard, is more restrained than flamboyant. Clad in white-painted wood siding with a wide porch, it had appealed to Graff because it reminded her of the traditional wooden homes on the East Coast, where she grew up. But it didn’t hurt that the place is part of local lore: It once belonged to the Russian-born composer and conductor Igor Stravinsky, who lived in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1969, while he conducted the L.A. Philharmonic both downtown and at the Hollywood Bowl. During that time, he also made inroads in the film industry, notably allowing his 1913 masterpiece, “The Rite of Spring,” to be used in the 1940 animated Disney feature “Fantasia” — a history that inspired Merrill to decorate the home with alternating notes of gravitas and whimsy. “You realize in Los Angeles, there’s a story behind every house,” says Graff. “That’s how they sell you. They’re like, ‘Marilyn Monroe’s ghost walks the property!’”
Graff had long been saving images with a view to one day create her dream home and sent them to Merrill for inspiration. There were pictures of classic American diners and screenshots of Slim Aarons’s louche, glamorous photographs. She also cited the work of the print-loving American decorator Dorothy Draper and of the designer David Hicks, a master of British eclecticism. Graff wanted to avoid the austerity of the many white modernist boxes that populate Los Angeles and instead lean into the grandeur of old Hollywood design — a vision that naturally aligned with Merrill’s preferences for saturated colours and lively juxtapositions. When the pair’s collaboration began, during the early days of the pandemic, “it was like having a pen pal,” says Graff, to whom Merrill would send packages of paint swatches in the mail.
In the kitchen, Merrill manifested the purple Graff had requested in the form of mauve cabinets with softly rounded corners that suggest both the glossy futurism and laminated lunch counters of the 1950s — an effect heightened by a scalloped stainless-steel oven hood. Their color is offset by a traditional checkerboard linoleum floor and an orange leather banquette where the family share their meals (Graff and her husband have two young children). Vintage lights, one shaped like an orange and another like a lemon, add some California kitsch, and a 1970s-era poster for the French release of “Fantasia” is a tribute to Stravinsky.
Graff and Merrill also found common ground in their shared love of wallpaper, choosing a dense floral pattern — pulled from the archives of the 226-year-old French company Zuber — for the dining room, and a Pierre Frey panther print for the powder room. “But we wanted the house to be coherent, and not go too crazy on the eye,” Graff says. So, in the former room, the busy motif is tempered by the streamlined silhouette of an oval lacquered wood table by the Swedish architect turned designer Gustaf Westman. That table is, however, bubble gum pink — “like Barbie in space,” she says.
Jewel-box shades of purple and pink are another through line. There’s the hyper-feminine, almost camp, salmon pink closet and dressing room just off the primary bedroom, where a Murano glass pendant in the shape of a heart — a light fixture fit for a Disney princess — hangs above an island with a scarlet crystal quartzite countertop. Directly adjoining is the primary bathroom, which contains a free-standing porcelain tub and a shower lined with amethyst purple tiles. And downstairs, the main foyer is a moody shade of rosé pink complemented by a banquette upholstered in a striped coral pink Dedar textile.
But Graff’s favorite space, the family room, is — at least in contrast to the rest of the house — relatively subdued, a reprieve from all the ebullience. A hand-painted silk de Gournay wallpaper in a tranquil shade of pistachio is illuminated by an Eos ceiling lamp that resembles a fluffy orb of exploding feathers. And while there are a few other florid gestures — including a chair with a daisy-shaped back by the London- and Milan-based Artefatto Design Studio — the room was designed with relaxation in mind, its layout centered on a pair of custom shell pink velvet couches, placed back to back. “It’s just a soothing and beautiful space,” Graff says.
For Merrill, though, an arrangement of subtly contrasting pieces in the living room best represents the lush, collagelike feeling of the house. Between two windows stands a vibrantly colorful Fratelli Levaggi chair — a reproduction of a classic 1950s turned-leg style that Merrill had repainted in vivid shades of cornflower blue, marigold and Kelly green — beneath an angular modern dark green glass sconce. Just as Los Angeles’s mishmash of architectural eras results in moments of unexpected beauty, the home’s clash of periods and styles is somehow harmonious — and, most of all, joyful. It’s a wide-ranging approach to design that Hollywood has long shared. Indeed, not long after the house was finished, Merrill and Graff caught word of the traveling exhibition “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” which charted the animator’s little-known obsession with Rococo French design and how it influenced the look of everything from his cartoons to his theme parks. “When we saw that,” she says, “we were like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we were doing!’”