Home Is Where the Art Is
Karen and Tony Barone’s larger-than-life, playful and colorful sculptures belie the traditional life in a Rancho Mirage contemporary house with immaculate desert landscaping.
Photography by Elena Ra
A photographer, a writer, and a couple of sculptors place themselves in environments that inspire and fuel their creativity
Artists, sensitive by nature, rely on ambiance. They need to work their craft in an atmosphere that makes them happy and productive. The houses of three Coachella Valley artists embody that concept and reflect their distinctive styles. Shari Applebaum, a globetrotting photographer, infuses ancient artifact and contemporary art in her cool midcentury house that bursts with bright ’60s décor. Michael Craft Johnson, whose métier is mystery novels, requires a cool, cerebral space. Karen and Tony Barone, joined in matrimony and in art, plot out their sculptures with a view, as Karen puts it, “of birds, bunnies, and the mountains.”
Hang-gliding down to her hotel in Oman, Shari Applebaum made a characteristically dramatic entrance during her most recent photo safari. “I love rough travel and I love fashion,” she says.
Her studio — “hooked onto my house, but separate from it” — hollers the juxtaposition. She fancies ’60s modern furnishings. But her large-scale 44-by-66-inch photographs often feature ancient artifacts from around the world.
“I specialize in the Middle East,” she says. “I like different cultures, because the world is becoming so homogenized. There’s nothing sterile about my pictures; I put myself on the line to get them.”
In her workspace, green, pink, and yellow clocks tell the time in Yemen, Palm Springs, and North Korea. A photograph of a “creepy-but-beautiful” red-devil Shanghai sculpture looms over her enameled white desk. A peaceful landscape graces another wall. The backdrop is mod-white wallpaper embossed with stylized Os, and the floor is neutral travertine. Track lighting snakes around the pale seafoam ceiling.
Applebaum shoots 35mm slide film and develops it in a Los Angeles lab. She edits the transparencies at the light box on her desk. Her printer operates in San Francisco. “I do six [prints] of each image and then I’m finished [with the edition],” she says.
She stores large-format prints in a converted shower stall in a space adjoining the house. An orange, cube-shaped cabinet holds the transparencies. And many furnishings are plain fun. A pink princess telephone sits on a table painted in the style of Matisse. An Aspen artist created a nailhead-studded tangerine chest. There’s a black-and-white, hand-painted stool from India and a ’60s lava lamp. A sign reads, “I’m not moody, disorganized or self-absorbed. I’m an artist.”
The stimulating scene opens to a small patio, perfect for relaxing with clients. “It’s all old Billy Haines furniture that has been powder-coated white,” Applebaum says. William Haines, the screen actor, became decorator to the stars and launched the Hollywood Regency style.
Angular glass panels back up the turquoise-cushioned Haines ensemble, and there’s also a sculptural sego palm. Applebaum cocks her head and says, “This is where I make the deal.”
Michael Craft Johnson
Michael Craft Johnson needs tranquility and order. “As a writer, I am very disciplined and organized,” he says. “I outline and research first. I am not in the school of organic fiction writers who sit down and start writing and see where the story takes them.”
Johnson wants an efficient gray area with no views, no music, no rainbow of colors. “I need silence. I need it to be like a library,” he says, “Always neat. Organized clutter.
“I prefer to write in the morning, starting with a quick edit from the day before,” he continues, “never for more than four hours. Writing is physically tiring; you need to have every neuron firing.”
The author of a dozen novels, Johnson lives in one of the few freestanding houses built by Palm Springs Modern Homes (in 2002). “Eclectic contemporary” is his term for the spare, elegant décor, fashioned by him with the help of a former partner. The colors blend gray on gray with punches of “primer” red, inspired by the hue of a large pipe-and-chain water feature outside the front door.
The office is serenely neutral. A centrally placed T-shaped, multilevel desk Johnson designed anchors the space. “LDC Designs in Los Angeles applied their design grammar to the project,” he says. “The desk is made from wenge wood, a dark African hardwood, the desktop of greenstone, with a chalkiness similar to travertine, but gray-green in color.”
Herman Miller created the accompanying Aeron chair, which, Johnson implies with a smile, is something of a status symbol. “All the TV anchors have them,” he says.
At work, Johnson faces a large computer monitor (“a wonderful luxury to use as a word processor.”) He was an art director at the Chicago Tribune from 1976 to 1986.
Johnson found a chandelier that he thought looked tailored to a den. A dramatic poster of the cover of his book Desert Winter dominates one wall. It’s his favorite jacket from a quartet of mysteries set in the Coachella Valley. Less than pleased with what his publisher initially offered, “I dusted off my Nikon and took it myself,” he says; the image shows his former condominium in Palm Desert. He also likes a curtain-call shot of the cast saluting him after a performance of his play Photo Flash at Joslyn Center theater last December. There are family photos, too, including a montage of Johnson as a toddler. A bookshelf holds “four semesters of fiction,” assigned while he earned his M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.
Taking a break from writing to get the degree was pivotal in the author’s life. “I had felt I was in a rut,” he says. Now he has left behind the leading characters readers knew so well: Mark Manning, the gay detective, and Claire Gray, the Rancho Mirage drama professor/sleuth. Cloistered in his home office, he’s mapping out a new book: a mystery set in the desert.
Karen & Tony Barone
Karen and Tony Barone’s larger-than-life, playful and colorful sculptures belie the traditional life in a Rancho Mirage contemporary house with immaculate desert landscaping. Many of their latest works depict food and utensils.
The Barones’ relationship is so close that they not only finish each other’s sentences, but also finish each other’s ideas. They don’t know who thought of what first, but they teem with creativity. Tony carries a notebook wherever they go to sketch out new projects and improve old ones. A friend jokes that this visual diary will be worth millions when he’s dead.
“The world is my workshop,” Tony says. The welding and other heavy work is done off site, but in the back of the house facing the pool patio and the mountains beyond, is their studio. “This is our think tank,” Karen says. They perch on Italian chrome hydraulic chairs at individual drafting tables. Karen operates her laptop at the front one, with her husband at her back with his old-fashioned drafting apparatus. “The natural light is the best,” she says, finding the view inspirational.
Often, their blue-point Siamese, Totu, jumps up on Karen’s worktable for company, poking Karen in the cheek from time to time with a paw. The cat completes the picture for Karen, a diminutive woman with Egyptian-like bangs, waist-length braids, and dramatic eye makeup who customarily wears sleek-fitting garments. “She’s camera-ready when I wake up in the morning,” Tony says.
Despite the appearance, Karen, a onetime paralegal, draws up the pair’s business contracts and is the computer whiz. Her strength in art is color, while Tony executes their designs structurally.
Portraits on the wall of their heroes — including Gustav Mahler, Auguste Escoffier, Julia Child, and St. Jude — inspire them. Two pairs of Tony’s baby shoes decorate the galvanized steel sidebar. There they also display their new “unitables”: small, flat, steel creations they can fit together, sometimes mix-matching pieces such as lips and hearts.
Their hot dog-shaped table on rollers sits at the front of the space. Through the back window, they see a giant hot dog sculpture — with onions. Two of Tony’s uncles were hot-dog vendors. Now a vegan, Tony doesn’t eat wieners any more, but he likes to look at them as sculptures.
Near the pool, the Barones maintain an atelier and storage space packed with large, vivid paintings. But then, the Barones are anti-mundane. They next thing they’re up to is a cheese-theme sculpture, to be named Hommage to Fromage.