Some houses tell you their story from the start. Perhaps it is a long and storied history of ancient inhabitants or a clever tale woven by a thoughtful architect. Other homes are more like blank canvases, waiting for their story to be written.
In 2018, designer Alex P. White found himself in charge of the latter. A sudden life change had brought his longtime friend and client to Los Angeles for a fresh start. Rather, she had impulsively bought a house in Beverly Hills that had all the qualities she needed: privacy, closeness to family, and large amounts of airy space. The only problem? In his words, “It was a big nothing” – an LA spec house that seriously lacked personality. But she wasn’t worried at all. “I knew Alex,” she recalls the designer based in Los Angeles and New York. “I had great confidence that he could make it exactly what I wanted it to be.”
Luckily for White, personality was something his client — an art and design collector he’d known for more than a decade — had in spades. With her as his muse and an extensive collection as a starting point, he began to create a story for the house. Time was running out – she needed him ready for the start of the next school year.
The house had a few things going for it: it had great studs, a near-perfect layout, and beautiful double-height interiors. Still, White admits, “We had to completely craft the narrative.” They started with some cosmetic changes to the main room (“We call it the gallery now,” he notes.) They created an ethereal floating staircase in white oak and glass. They also remodeled a rather tiny fireplace and mantel into a two-story plaster version that he describes as “inspired by Hollywood glam Art Deco”, with a lot more seriousness.
Injecting some soul into the place began with the introduction of new materials. “I don’t think there’s a single surface we haven’t redone,” White said. He sanded, whitewashed and refinished the floors for a more weathered look and painted nearly every wall with whitewash to give the whole thing an earthy glow. “She kept saying, ‘Dry as a bone, like Georgia O’Keefe in the desert,'” White recalled. “She wanted her to feel like she belonged in Southern California.”
There are necessary nods to the history of the design: the Gio Ponti-esque perforations in the white doors fitted to the exterior and in the window shades of the master bathroom, the first-rate furnishings like a Charles Rennie Mackintosh Hill House chair and a Harvey Probber sofa. But White didn’t get too caught up in specific references. On the contrary, he and his client worked to create sensations. The staircase should look triumphant, like when Diana Ross performed in Central Park in 1983 during a torrential downpour. The living room should have an air of seduction, like this electric flirtation between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair.
Of course, there were also things she simply needed. Out-of-sight storage for her extensive collections of fashion, jewelry, art, and design (her bedroom was wrapped in built-in wardrobes), functional office space, and outdoor spaces that could function as living room extensions are all examples. For the outdoor spaces, White enlisted landscape architect Margot Jacobs of Lay of the Land to create the landscape from scratch, carving giant olive trees above the house and going into the desert and selecting stone specimens for a Roberto Burle Marx-inspired rock garden.
The new purchases followed an instinctive impulse – when White and his client were driving down Beverly Boulevard and spotted a pair of towering textile-topped Matthias Vriens lamps in the window of Atelier MVM, they stopped to grab them at the second. When they visited Minjae Kim’s first solo exhibition at Marta Gallery earlier this year, they bought her fiberglass and lacquered teak lounge chair. “I’m not driven by who’s hottest, who’s best, what’s reselling,” the client says. “I never ask these questions. If it moves me, I buy it. If I like it, I buy it. If I have a feeling, I buy it.
Pieces from current design stars – a Rick Owens chair and a custom Lindsey Adelma chandelier – mingle with time-tested classics the client had collected over the years. A 1970s metal-encrusted coffee table by Jean Claude Dresse is a stunner in the library. Elsewhere, a suite of Vladamir Kagan dining chairs from 1975 gather around a table topped with the cult trophy of early 2000s favorite design: two glittering Swarovski Tord Boontje chandeliers, purchased at the former design mecca, Moss. “I took them to four homes and said to my daughter, ‘Whether you like them or not, I’m giving them to you,’ the customer laughs.
In the process of cataloging her client’s extensive collection, White found herself – increasingly – shopping through what she already owned. That’s when they brought out the Mackintosh chair, which was perfect under the stairs. And they even came across a fabulous portrait of the client’s grandmother, who now peers intently into the guest bedroom. This portrait mingles with a serious collection of top-notch artwork by Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, Vanessa Beecroft, and even Henri Matisse.
The house, these days, is full of stories – stories about the things in it and the people who live there. As White says, “It’s a love letter to my client – a complete reflection of her.” The customer is as satisfied as she knew: “There is no room you walk into that you don’t feel at home.