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Postcard of a Library: Palm Trees and Possibilities

Cult film hero Udo Kier designs his homes as a set for his own toned-down thriller starring art, books, thrift store prizes, and simple pleasures.

Lisa Marie Hart Real Estate

udo-kier
In Udo Kier’s library, vignettes are both intentional and spontaneous. Black objects sit on display; patterned ties are part of his artwork in progress.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MISHA GRAVENOR

“You are right on time,” says Udo Kier, the screen legend vampire and seducer, the international traveler who speaks four languages, and the owner of the 1965-built Francis F. Crocker Library in Palm Springs where he has lived for a decade.

Punctuality is code for “bred with manners” in German, and I breathe a sigh of relief as we walk to the front door. The old book depository slot sits snug in the wall to its left; a plaque of dedication with the mayor’s name hangs on the right. Through the door, we enter Udo’s world.

The space hits all at once. Tall, wide, and free of any walls, this box opens to countless surprises. A formal walk down its middle aisle feels ceremonial.

Abundant furniture, passionately collected, rises on the right and the left. A mod chandelier dangles its colored cylinders, centered above our heads. Loosely I count three living areas, two dining sets, two desks, and four more chandeliers, plus nearly every classic midcentury silhouette of arcing floor lamp, table lamp, and accent lamp.

“Have a seat,” is a bewildering invitation, bordering on a challenge.

“I play a rich man with a beautiful wife and three grown children,” Kier says, settling into one of four Womb Chairs. Showing at this month’s Palm Springs International Film Festival is the actor’s star turn in Old Money, an eight-hour Viennese television drama that will be screened for competition in smaller segments. Udo fans who can handle subtitles won’t be disappointed. “It’s very evil, like Dynasty,” he describes. “I need a new liver and whoever gives it to me gets all my money. It’s very sarcastic and Freudian with a strange sense of humor. The German critics loved it.”

At 72, with well over 200 films in his wake, Kier calls the library home when he’s not on location. Its lines by pioneer desert modernist John Porter Clark and Albert Frey attracted him, even when a daycare center had masked the library’s signage with its own. The kiddie sitters eventually deserted the building and its monstrous green carpet, leaving the neglected place to fester like a corpse.

Instantly recognizable in any role, Udo Kier has a career spanning 50 years. Old Money is one of four projects he will appear in this year.

Over 10 years, Kier has given it the kiss of life. Timeless in style, its clerestory windows mirror the view, rising and falling like a mountain’s peak. Darkened glass panes, employed to protect tomes from the sun, are a relic of the original design. The south wall is lined with art books and an open kitchen borders the back. French doors lead to the yard space on either side. And a bedroom and bathroom are tucked away behind the scenes. Kier’s 200-plus jackets, from Valentino to Hugo Boss, need to hang out somewhere.

The structure’s intense symmetry provides an orderly canvas for improvisation. “I create myself a place I like and am happy,” says the actor who earned a cult following playing Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Frankenstein and who still attracts some menacing, if not terrifying, roles. Sculpted monkeys play on a bowl of sculpted bananas. A life-size wooden tortoise naps in a patch of sunlight on the floor. “I have comfortable furnishings, beautiful books from my friend for 40 years, Benedikt Taschen, and objects I like,” he says waving to a tabletop collection of noir curios linked only by their ebony hue. The piece that resembles a doll’s head unnerves me.

Artwork is propped against walls and creeps toward the ceiling, staggered with a maze of white space. Kier seems to favor portraits — human faces and bodies in different shapes, colors, poses, and mediums.

“I made the most erotic movie in France in 1975,” says Kier, who began collecting art while filming The Story of O. “Forget about 50 Shades of Grey. The book was forbidden in France. The movie was forbidden in England and other countries.” During the premiere of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, Kier had been in a nightclub on the Champs-Élysées with Roman Polanski when someone offered him the part. “ ‘I don’t do porno films!’ I said. And everybody kicked me under the table. Later they said, ‘Are you crazy? You are going to be on every cover of every film magazine!’ So I did the film.” While savoring the taste of certain limelight, Kier loathed the hotels’ choice of artwork. With permission, he pinned Magritte and Man Ray prints on his wall.

A Keith Haring jacket, David Hockney drawing of Kier, Gus Van Sant photography, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Martin Schoeller, and Wolfgang Tillmans all keep company under Udo’s roof.

Udo Kier weaves 13 vintage ties through each Bertoia side chair to create “Bertiea” chairs. Collectible glassware, art, and furniture make his home unique.

Though he is not welcoming to visitors who feign cluelessness and stop by to “check the library hours,” his inner circle finds him quick to offer coffee, wine, or a cocktail from his bar. A pull-down liquor cabinet that backlights the bottles is a George Nelson stunner, designed long ago as someone else’s private commission.

Of his half-dozen homes, the library is a space unto its own; it’s the place he entertains. “I like to cook, but only for friends,” he says. “For me, it’s like a ritual. I smell the tomato. I do everything myself. My friends know they have to appreciate it. Otherwise they’re not getting invited again.”

Two deer heads with glassed-over eyes fixed on the entry watch for wayward intruders. But Kier feels safe here. He knows all nine firefighters at the fire station next door, who change in shifts of three every eight hours. Across the street, his rescue dog Liza finds convenience at Victoria Park. For Kier, its vast green lawn suffices for his own.

“I love palm trees,” he says. “That’s why I planted them in my garden. There were no trees here. They symbolize, for me, vacation.” His vacation started when he moved to the desert in 1991.

“I grew up with not many possibilities. My aunt, who had a little money, sent me postcards with palm trees from Italy and the South of France. When I was 19, I saw palm trees for the first time. The fascination began. I have them now. My life went from a postcard to reality.”

Kier often tells the story of the first hours of his life during World War II, when he survived the bombing of a German hospital in his mother’s arms. A “forced vegetarian” in war-torn Cologne, young Udo ate soup every day but Sunday, when they shared a piece of meat, a green salad, and some pudding with strawberry sauce.

“It’s ironic to sit here now with this beautiful furniture talking to you about I had nothing to eat,” he says. “But it’s the truth. The good thing is that it forms you. That’s why in a restaurant I clean my plate.” To please his mother, Kier became a clerk before moving to England, where he was discovered as movie material.

Portraits of Kier hang above a wall of books that are largely on art, photography, and film.

Busts, figures, and objets d’art peek out everywhere, from atop a bar by George Nelson to the outdoor sculpture garden.

For half a century, Kier’s villainous characters have made audiences cringe, wince, gasp, and cover their eyes, in films ranging from indie art house flicks to blockbusters. He worked with the great German directors (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog) before moving to Los Angeles. His first Hollywood film, My Own Private Idaho with Gus Van Sant, led to a steady stream of work (Blade; Armageddon; Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; End of Days; Shadow of the Vampire). Kier pops up in nearly every film by Danish director Lars von Trier, from psychological drama to erotic and horror.

It’s difficult not to feel a foggy disconnect between Kier’s infamous roles and the inviting nature of Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chairs. Despite the deer statue with a bloodied, bandaged leg and the headless mannequin flung to the ground in the garden — not far from a rusted robot wielding an ax in one hand and a potato peeler in the other by artist Randall Harrington — this is a hospitable, albeit intriguing, home. After ditching digs in London, Rome, and Paris, Kier outbid three other sellers to live in this one-room library in North Palm Springs.

“There is no aggression here — and no parking meters, which is wonderful,” he says. “People are more relaxed because they come for retirement. Not me — that would be horrible — but a lot of people do. That’s why there’s no aggression. Nobody has to prove anything to anybody.”

At the 2014 Munich Film Festival, he received the coveted CineMerit Award. The next year, he was honored with the Special Teddy Award for artistic life achievement at Berlin’s fest. Kier nabbed four feature films in 2016, shot in Canada, Norway, Italy, and the U.S.: Downsizing (directed by Alexander Payne with Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz); Brawl in Cell Block 99 (with Vince Vaughn in a serious role and Jennifer Carpenter); American Exit (a drama starring Dane Cook, partly shot in Palm Springs); and Ulysses: A Dark Odyssey (with Danny Glover). The actor’s 2017 offers include the third installment in the Iron Sky sci-fi series.

Between movies, his home mirrors his pleasures. “I read a lot. I buy plants at Lowe’s. I like life, people, good food, good art, good photography. I like the museum.” Kier maintains he knows the staff at every thrift store in the desert — and they know him. “If I see something, I have to have it,” he says.

Udo Kier’s eclectic and whimsical home fascinates throughout. Vintage lighting, a deer sculpture, and African paintings somehow all make sense together.

His thrifting circuit runs from Palm Desert to Cathedral City to Palm Springs. “Then I come home and something’s in my car for sure.”

I notice a vintage brass ship by Curtis Jere, robust enough to set sail on a small pond, and a crop of clear glass sprouting from a coffee table. For a first-time guest and a novice in the art world, lines blur between the practical and the decorative, between what is a priceless collectible and what is from Angel View two miles away. Kier doesn’t collect to impress. These are just things that captivate his startling blue eyes.

“I put things on the walls for myself,” he shares. “I don’t live for other people.” He points to several paintings in the Basquiat style from Zimbabwe. “Each was $150. They’re original paintings and I like them. I don’t have to show off for other people to say, ‘He has this and that.’ Who cares?”

If Kier fretted over impressions, he might have agreed to a Modernism Week tour or historic class status. Though he jumped through city hoops to convert his former public library to a renovated residence, he eschews the idea of requesting approval for a can of paint.

Not here, nor for his other homes. His first American abode now serves as a 1950s pied-à-terre in Echo Park, ideal for strolling LA’s museums and film premieres. He owns an Alexander down the street from his library in Palm Springs, purchased long ago at a reasonable price, and a 60-palm-tree “paradise” in Morongo Valley, where ranch decor reigns, complete with a life-size plastic horse and the former daycare’s old swing set. He rarely sees his East German schoolhouse home, built in 1860, but he works two days a week on restoring an old barn in Yucca Mesa and filling it with thrift store scores. He dreams of a penthouse by the ocean, minus the price tag and threat of tsunamis.

“I bought the library for my furniture,” he admits. “You can’t put a George Nelson couch against a wall. You need to move around it. It’s beautiful from every angle.” To the north, Kier’s double lot displays more furniture, a curious blend of sculpture, and a lap pool. “I measured it exactly so two people can swim laps without disturbing each other, side by side or the opposite direction,” he notes.

Kier has much in common with the library’s namesake, Francis Crocker. Crocker was an electrical engineer who prodded the city for 30 years to build a tram, then rode it every Sunday once he got it. “I’m a person who, if I want something, I’ll do anything possible to get it.

“People have offered me a lot of money but I would never sell this. I did the wood on the walls, and the zebra rosewood veneer in the kitchen. I’ve put so much of my own hands here. No one can pay me for that. The idea that somebody buys it, rips everything out, and puts some horrible furniture in here … it would be like destroying my past.” Like tearing up a hard-earned and much-loved postcard of palm trees.

“There is nothing more important than my own space. I walk on my own land and it’s a beautiful feeling when the trees are yours. The first thing I always do when I have been away a month or two is I take the hose and water each one to say I’m back.”

The dog sitting at my feet stands up. She may have a German internal clock. “So there you have it,” Kier says on cue. “I talked to you just the length of a movie: one hour, 20 minutes.” He sends me off with a warm hug, not a neck bite. “Now I am going to have my coffee and go to the thrift shops.”