The temptation of Spanish Colonial Revival homes is often to lay on the period furnishings to make them feel “authentic.” But going the whole Iberian nine yards—with the style’s love of all things dark, formal and heavily carved—can sometimes feel ill-suited to the casual-contemporary living that attracts people to California in the first place. That was especially true for designer Mona Hajj’s clients, an empty-nester couple from the East Coast. “Having worked with them several times in the past, I found that we all share the fact that we don’t like to take anything literally,” says the bicoastal Hajj. “We try to mix it up while always respecting the architecture of the house.” In this case, the home in question was a 1920s abode in Beverly Hills the clients had tasked architect Marc Appleton with refreshing and restoring.
“The house was done with a certain amount of detail and charm,” says Appleton, who worked with senior associate Andrew Scott on the project. “Everyone wanted to keep the original architectural flavor intact.” But what Appleton initially walked into was hardly original: a pink- walled stairwell with black risers, fussy wallpapers, a concrete patio out back, decidedly un-Spanish sliders leading to the pool, and even several doorways whose Spanish arches had been made level. “They had tried to make it modern,” says the wife of the home’s previous owners. “But we’re not retro ’70s people. We always want it to look classic but feel timeless and fresh, elegant yet simple.”
Appleton’s task involved bringing a cosmetic hand to renovations, repainting everything white, lightening floors and the original ceiling beams, and stripping down the stair railing (“We took the folly out of it,” explains builder Doc Williamson of the rail, which had been overcomplicated with floral ornamentation). And because, Appleton says, “We all wanted to bring more light into the house,” the project took a much more ambitious turn. Beyond liberating the imprisoned kitchen by opening it to the family room, the plans called for cutting a large window into one wall and adding a fenestrated breakfast bay. He also replaced the family room sliders with generous, more graceful arched French doors that now open onto a new loggia.
Outside, Appleton collaborated with landscape designer Lisa Zeder. For his part, he swapped in concrete for new pool coping, laid fossil creek stone in an ashlar pattern under the loggia and around the pool, and—between the house and a garage-guest cottage (which also got a complete makeover)—placed a fountain surrounded with limestone pavers neatly defined by grass borders. Zeder says, “I designed the horticultural components of the garden, choosing plant materials that were true to and complementary to the architecture while bringing in the softness the client was seeking.” She also incorporated varied shades of green with subtle infusions of color for a rich and interesting palette.
Hajj took on the interiors, working, as always, instinctually. “When I put color schemes together, it’s not about matching,” she explains. “In the family room, for example, one sofa has a William Morris fabric and the other a textured dark blue material. The Tabriz carpet has nothing to do with either, but it feels good.” In the same room are a French gilt-metal chandelier, a Buddha atop a dairy table and blue-and-white pottery in niches around a built-in television cabinet. Interspersed are antique textiles, some Turkish, others English and American. “When I travel I always collect antique textiles,” she notes, adding, “I love mixing cultures. It’s calming for me.”
Likewise, the living room pulls together unlikely characters that nevertheless get along famously: A 19th-century William and Mary-style sofa’s serpentine back and turned spindle legs and stretchers read vaguely Spanish, while the collection of vintage ceramics hints at the historic cultural exchanges that have happened in Spain. Yet we also find, surprisingly, custom Hajj-designed Art Deco-inspired chairs, a table rich with chinoiserie details, Khotan and Sultanabad rugs, and an English side table and antique Irish consoles. “There’s a common thread, with the architecture referring to Spanish Colonial and some of the leg styles and dark woods acting as references,” says Hajj. “But they’re not literal.” A similar mix appears in the rest of the house, with a combination of Italian, English, American and Spanish furnishings accented by textiles and accessories from several stops on the Silk Road—Persia, Turkey and the like. Because this was the couple’s second home, Hajj also paid particular attention to her clients’ desire to capture an easy California lifestyle, with seating placing a premium on comfort. “It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful,” says Hajj of the furnishings. “If you can’t sit on a chair and enjoy it, it won’t be in their house.”
In the end, against Appleton’s reinvigorated canvas, which took a tired 20th-century home and turned it into an elegant and classic residence suited to the 21st century, the results are layered and thoughtful, with Hajj achieving a careful balance in the furnishings that skews neither literal nor hyper-modern. For the designer, the process and the result are equally compelling. “I love creating,” she says, “and I love seeing it come together in the end.”
—Jorge S. Arango