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Star Quality

The magic that's conjured up when you pair a movie star with a starchitect is celebrated in the captivating new book, Hollywood Modern: Houses of the Stars.

Lawrence Karol Current Digital, Modernism, Real Estate

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Dolores and Bob Hope, shown here with their interior designer, Arthur Elrod (center), hired architect John Lautner to design their home at the top of Southridge Drive. According to Launter, Dolores Hope loved the house he'd designed for Elrod, which is located just down the hill from the Hope's site.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE ESTATE OF BOB HOPE

People have always loved getting a peek inside the homes of celebrities, and their appetite has been further whetted in the age of high-end shelter magazines, the internet, and Instagram. In their new book, Hollywood Modern: Houses of the Stars, authors Michael Stern and Alan Hess not only provide entry into the rarified world of some of Tinseltown’s most beloved personalities, but also explore the fascinating intersection of celebrity and design.

Casual, little seen portraits of the stars appear alongside photographs of the homes, including ones in Palm Springs, designed for them by some of the best-known architects of the 20th century

Recently, Stern spoke with Palm Springs Life about the book and how its stories weave together the lives of great architects with those of their famous clients to tell a tale of “film, fashion, architecture, and the everyday lives of legends.”

In the book’s promotional materials you note that, “these houses edit, rearrange and direct our point of view much like the carefully composed version of reality we see in motion pictures.” Would you elaborate on that notion?

For a star, the presentation, the image, the glamour they project on the screen is critical to their stardom. The craft of moviemaking [and acting] is geared to perfecting that image, using all its tricks: the placement of the camera, the direction of the light, the elements included or excluded from the picture frame. Then the editing process further insures that the most desirable features of the scene and the actors are highlighted and controlled.

In the same way, in many of these houses, the stars’ architects worked to create the perfect desired image, suitable for a star, for the way they lived. The dramatic staircases designed to spotlight attention as the star made an entrance to a party, the swimming pools and gardens as a setting for a life of luxurious leisure, the architecture of a futuristic setting of steel, glass, and chrome that set the star apart from the average person — these details were all as carefully crafted as an exalted setting for the stars as the settings they inhabited in the movies. Stars set the ideal of living for their fans on the screen and in their lifestyles.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RIZZOLI NEW YORK

Hollywood Modern: Houses of the Stars features 25 homes designed by well-known architects for their larger-than-life celebrity clients. The home E. Stewart Williams built for Frank Sinatra in 1946 is on the cover.

The combination of a well-known architect and a famous client sounds like it could be potentially volatile. In what ways do you think the design of these homes was influenced by the fact that there were two big personalities in the mix?

These homes were generally built by people of means who were sophisticated in their tastes — their choice of architects was not limited by budget so they could select the architects who were most compatible with the style they were seeking. They also had the opportunity to have greater sway with the architects because of their celebrity status — good PR for the architects. Even Frank Sinatra, who originally wanted a colonial (or something similar) for his house in Palm Springs, was convinced by the architect that modernism was the more appropriate style for the desert and was very pleased with the modern house in the end.

Are there particular aspects or commonalities among the 25 houses featured in Hollywood Modern that may have come about as a result of what you’ve dubbed, “the intersection of celebrity and design”?

Two things that you see that are very consistent is the mixture of glam and comfort. Many of these houses do have an aura of glamour but comfort is also a critical ingredient. These people worked hours beyond words to attain and maintain their star status so it was very critical that when they came to their own homes they could retreat to a comfortable environment.

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© J. PAUL GETTY TRUST. GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, LOS ANGELES (2004.R.10)

Frank Sinatra originally wanted a colonial — or a similar architectural style — for his house in Palm Springs. E. Stewart Williams convinced him that modernism was a more appropriate choice for the desert.

Could you talk about some of the Palm Springs area homes that are featured in the book?

If you are talking modernism in Southern California, the road leads to Palm Springs. Hence, about a third of the projects in the book are located in the desert. [The Twin Palms Estate owned by] Sinatra, obviously, being the cover photo. The Bob Hope House is a very extended chapter — and my personal fave. The photos were taken when most of the Hope’s furniture, etc. was intact so it offers a different glimpse into the house than what subsequent real estate photos show. Steve McQueen — the house was as sexy as he was, and Lucy and Desi’s house in Thunderbird, to name a few.

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PHOTOGRAPH © STEVE KING

Steve McQueen’s house on Southridge Drive was designed by Hugh Kaptur in 1964.

How did the desert setting and lifestyle affect the design choices made by the celebrities including, perhaps, their choice of architect? And do you think the architect-client relationship was imbued with a different dynamic for the homes that were built in the desert?

The desert does inspire design choices. Obviously, the “in season” climate was a major factor in the design, and the natural beauty of Palm Springs inspired several architects, who were not local and built very few buildings in the desert, to create some of their most iconic buildings — for example, the Kaufmann House, the Elrod House, the Hope House. And, of course, most of the desert homes were second homes, and people are a lot looser with their second homes than they are with their primary residences.

Which of the desert home designs was most daring for its time?

The Elrod House and the Bob Hope House. Their architect, John Lautner, was a true visionary — and, in my humble opinion, the greatest architect that Southern California has produced. His work is expressionistic, complicated, and he was very much about pushing the envelope of what was possible in a work of architecture. Even though the Bob Hope House had many subsequent revisions, and some very questionable interior design decisions, Lautner’s vision for the house is so powerful that it reigns above all.

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PHOTOGRAPH © STEVE KING

John Lautner’s design for the Hope residence includes an enormous oculus facing the sky. Hollywood Modern notes that Hope couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, at least when they come down from Mars, they’ll know where to go.”

Do you have a personal favorite among the portraits of the celebrities?

Unequivocally, the photograph of Lucille Ball that opens the chapter on her house. It literally explodes off the page and even if you are taking a light, breezy flip through the book, that one will stop you in your tracks. It is electric.

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© J. PAUL GETTY TRUST. GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, LOS ANGELES (2004.R.10)

The Rancho Mirage home of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz was on the 17th fairway of Thunderbird Country Club. It was designed by Paul R. Williams in 1954.

What was the most surprising thing you came across while researching the book?

I noticed that people on both the political right and the left were united in their love of the modern aesthetic — design transcends politics, who knew?

Author Michael Stern will sign copies of the book from 1-3 p.m. Oct. 20 at Just Fabulous, 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Visit facebook.com/events