Real Estate

Who Mark Ruffalo and Natalie Portman Turn to When Designing Their Homes

Designers to the stars embody an energetic West Coast perspective that ignores most of the rules of what used to be called good taste.

"I really hate the word 'eclectic,' but that's what we do," says Todd Nickey who, with partner Amy Kehoe, has designed homes for Mark Ruffalo, Natalie Portman and Jeanne Tripplehorn. The duo's brand of warm minimalism with a bit of Parisian flea market thrown in is practical, down to earth and reflective of the owner's personality.

Never afraid of the grand gesture or theatrical statement, industry clients are taking risks in the way they are mixing color, fabric and style to create something really fresh. Patterns don't have to match but all the colors should work together and they should be all different scales. "I'm noticing colorful geometric jacquard, luxurious patterned velvets in citrine and raspberry, hand-woven silk and wool area rugs that are island inspired," says Tracie Butler, who recently completed Eva Longoria Parker's home. "Of course, a touch of the classic animal print is always a crowd pleaser."

Balance is essential for any sort of mix and match. Consistently ranked one of House Beautiful's 100 Top Designers, Mary McDonald tends to use a palette of just two or three colors placed evenly around the room. "I can't say there's any rule about colors that go together. It's more about the value of a color, its tonality," says the former milliner who recently refurbished Buster Keaton's legendary villa and whose first book, "Mary McDonald: Interiors, The Allure of Style," will be published by Rizzoli this month. "You have to strive for balance, so if you're going to make it clash, make it clash evenly. Balance also applies to upholstered furniture vs. lighter and leggier pieces, antiques vs. newer items."

According to Nickey, while industry clients appreciate and respect the artistry and craftsmanship of a pedigree piece, they like to mix things up and throw in some inexpensive treasures as well. Juxtaposition is played to maximum effect. Maybe it's throwing a really great mod geometric on a more classic transitional piece. Or maybe it's taking a '60s modern chair and putting a bold classic floral on it.

Designers are picking through thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales for tired looking pieces with nothing but a great leg or a nice line, and then turning them over to high-quality upholsterers, painters, lacquer experts and wood carvers. The trend called "gramma chic" began with designer David Serrano at Downtown, a furniture showroom in West Hollywood. Serrano painted a large unspectacular desk chartreuse and sold it to the celebrated interior designer Kelly Wearstler. The desk appeared in House Beautiful and Serrano began getting requests for similar pieces. He says part of the reason the trend began in L.A. is the extraordinary pool of craftsmen who have moved to the city from Mexico and South America during the past decades.

Experts agree that California's light, space and mood play an important role when designing a home. A sunny room can handle a myriad of styles. Organic elements will often become the focal points with a view, fireplace or water element taking center stage.

No matter the client, style or space, interior designers share a common goal: to create a warm, comfortable and inviting environment. "We want to create a collection that has value and that doesn't look designed," says Butler, echoing the sentiments of designers overall. "It should look like a random mix of items that have been collected over time." 

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