“I wanted the home to be whimsical and have a sense of humor, but be calming and timeless at the same time,” says designer-builder Nicole Sassaman of the Century City penthouse she reinvented for herself and her young daughter. Known for her comfortable modern style and top-to-bottom renovations, Sassaman envisioned her own home as the ultimate sanctuary—with a twist. The apartment was previously owned by the Handler family—creators of Mattel’s iconic Barbie doll—and that backstory helped inspire Sassaman’s playful approach. “I wanted to honor the history of the home,” she explains.
Before she could move forward, however, Sassaman had to step back, starting from scratch in order to maximize the penthouse’s scenic setting. “This unit is all about the views,” says Sassaman, who raised the ceilings and put in floor-to-ceiling windows to create a glassy panoramic frame for the cityscape outside. “It’s always more attractive to open the view and eliminate breaking it up with a wall.” To further improve sightlines and offer greater design flexibility, she worked with architect Earl Rubenstein to make changes to the floor plan, including taking down a wall between the kitchen and the living and dining areas. “I wanted to leave room for the home to evolve,” says Sassaman, who also added a third bedroom and fourth bathroom to the unit.
When it came to furnishings, Sassaman favored an eclectic approach. “I wanted to take some risks,” says the designer. She was able to lend both style and depth to each space by juxtaposing unexpected items—such as a wooden horse statue she found in Bali and an antique dress form— with streamlined furnishings, including the living room’s custom Minotti sofa and a sleek four-poster in the master bedroom.
To keep things light, Sassaman scattered oversize jacks by Vermont sculptor David Tanych around the home. “The jacks are meant to appear as though there’s a game being played throughout,” she says. “Design is about having fun and not being too serious.” High-tech elements, including movie screens that retract into the living room and master bedroom ceilings and bathroom mirrors that sport mini television screens, also abound.
Art was another major consideration for Sassaman. “I wanted the art to be able to speak for itself,” she says of her sizable collection. It’s safe to say that it does. A commanding piece by Sarah Ashley Longshore hangs in the dining room, while a Greg Auerbach mixed-media work, featuring the likeness of Bill Murray, proves to be a conversation starter in the living room. Barbie also makes an appearance in a piece by Ce´cile Plaisance.
Sassaman took an equally artful approach to the lighting. “I tried to make sure that each fixture was like a little work of art,” says Sassaman, who selected all of the decorative fixtures and worked with lighting designer Saul Diaz-Acosta on planning the lighting channels and recessed fixtures. A custom design made in Italy hangs above the dining table, and Sassaman adorned an Ingo Maurer piece with Barbie images to hover above her daughter’s bed.
Sassaman’s attention to detail continues in the showstopping kitchen, which she designed with Kathy Manzella of Illinois-based de Giulio Kitchen Design. “Their quality is phenomenal, and Kathy and I hammered out the whole thing,” Sassaman says of the sleek space featuring a custom La Cornue stove and a rolling ladder that provides access to ceiling-high storage. These types of innovative touches, in the kitchen and throughout, helped Sassaman realize the bold and whimsical residence just as she had imagined. “It’s nice to have a vision and see it through,” she says. “I wanted people to walk in and say ‘wow’ because they haven’t seen these elements before and they won’t see them again.”