Kelly Wearstler brings fearless graphic flair to everything from hotels to scarves—and now, as Hamish Bowles discovers, to her own Hollywood manse.

Fragrant with the smoky scent of eucalyptus massed along a canyon, an octet of stately magnolias flanking formal terraces, an arc of tapered cypress trees bracketing the pool, and wisteria twined in knotty antiquity around a tennis-court pavilion, the rolling acres of the storied Beverly Hills estate were redolent with a heady aroma of Hollywood’s golden age when decorator Kelly Wearstler first fell under their spell. The property had once belonged to Hobart Bosworth, a silent–movie actor, director, and producer who built a Spanish hacienda on the land and was reputed to have ridden Cameo, his white Arabian, along the bridle path of nearby Sunset Boulevard. In 1933, the estate was sold to William Powell, the urbane leading man who was then married to the supremely glamorous movie goddess Carole Lombard. The house Powell created with the architect James Dolena was the last word in Hollywood chic, a perfect setting for a silver–screen power couple (even though they divorced before it was finished). Through the last four decades, Cubby Broccoli, the producer celebrated for his James Bond franchise, and his wife, actress and novelist Dana Wilson, kept the house’s luster intact, hung drifts of oyster taffeta at the windows, and arranged Continental antiques to create a subtle background to movie–screening evenings.When the estate came quietly to the market five years ago, a pair of prospective buyers wanted to demolish its exquisite house. Enter Kelly Wearstler, a vivacious and astonishingly pretty brunette with a deadpan sense of humor, a brace of droll and highly opinionated boys (Elliott, five, and Oliver, seven), and a whimsical sense of personal style (she was named to Vogue’s Top Ten Best–Dressed List for 2007). In a decade or so, Wearstler has put her imprimatur on a whole new school of decorating that sometimes defies description. “Whether decorating or dressing,” she told Vogue’s William Norwich in 2008, “always mix, never anything that is one look, from one source, one period…my goal always is to create a sense of adventure.” Wearstler boldly goes where few have dared to go before, but many now follow, concocting dramatic residential, retail, and hotel environments that play daringly with color and scale.
Wearstler’s decorative schemes evoke by turns the aesthetic of the Memphis Group, who defined eighties postmodernism; Piero Fornasetti, who brought graphic art and playful surrealism to furniture and object design in fifties Italy; and an indeterminate flavor of Vegas–Miami kitsch that suggests nothing so much as the environments in which Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone’s character in Casino) might have indulged her incontinent shopping and drug habits. “When I walk into a room, I want to feel an emotion,” says Wearstler. “I want there to be a lot to take in and look at that’s interesting.”

Wearstler and her husband treasured Dolena’s graceful architecture, as did their architect, Brian Tichenor (of Tichenor and Thorp). Wearstler and Tichenor preserved the elegant Art Moderne bathrooms with their spindly pilasters and exotic marbles, and the dainty Directoire and Carolean paneling that Dolena installed. Instead of removing the Louis Seize staircase that sweeps up to the bedroom floor, she used it instead as a foil to a characteristically madcap mix of Wearstlerisms—a seventies chandelier of tangled Lucite rods hangs above a stair carpet woven in jagged black-and-stone zigzags, and the wallpaper is hand-painted with bold scrawls in Pepto–Bismol pink. (“People think my boys did it!” Wearstler says, sighing.) “Her color sense does dance on the edge of Neapolitan abandon,” says Tichenor. “She’s fearless that way.”

“I always loved color,” says Wearstler, who even a decade ago could declare, “I never did a job with white walls!” and exult in the color scheme of her L.A. rental apartment, with its chartreuse–yellow living room and deep–mauve–and–persimmon dining room. In her latest tome, Hue, to be published next month by Ammo Books, Wearstler focuses on seven very different ventures—including the Beverly Hills house and the family’s Malibu beach house, residential projects for clients, and signature commissions such as the BG restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman and the Tides hotel in Miami—but arranges the stories by color rather than by project, for “more of a surprise.”

In the new house, even the shoes and vintage hats in her enviably appointed closet are scrupulously color coded—and so are her sons’ bedrooms. Elliott’s room is burnt apricot, with a bird’s-eye maple four–poster bed and faux–crocodile wallpaper, while his brother, Oliver, has Memphis chairs in his cerulean–blue bathroom and a Tiffany–blue tufted sofa. (Wearstler has claimed that her proudest decorating moment was when “my sons told me how much they loved their bedrooms.”)
But Wearstler’s palette can be subtler, too. In the den that resembles a pickled–oak humidor, she has created a setting for a Roger Moore–era James Bond, complete with horn–legged tables, black-lacquer–and–brass furnishings and objets, ebony leather Chesterfield sofas, and an alarmingly over scaled nude sculpture (torsos, busts, and other statuary abound in the house; “There are a lot of other people living here!” she says, laughing).

Wearstler, who admits that, “the furniture is a little unusual,” scoured the globe for idiosyncratic pieces. “The whole process is organic,” she says. “I was shopping all over—Paris, London, New York, Miami, L.A., through dealers in Italy, and getting things at auction. It’s so emotional.” Wearstler was working on a hotel project in Mexico with the architect Ricardo Legoretta and told him that she “was crazy for the work of Pedro Friedeberg,” the artist and designer. It turned out that Legoretta was a friend of Friedeberg’s. “All of his furniture is so fantastical and whimsical, so bizarre,” says Wearstler, handing out her highest compliments. She promptly commissioned Friedeberg to create the gilded hand table in the entrance hall, an eccentric touch that sets the tone for the decorating to follow.

Wearstler’s bravura statements are all a far cry from the cozy Americana that filled the “very modest country household” in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where she grew up. However, she still believes that “accessories give a room its personality,” and while she may not share her mother’s passion for folksy advertising images, she does share her predilection for dense assemblages. The Wearstler dining–room table is so solid with sculpture and objets, there isn’t room to place a saucer, and her dressing table is so thickly paved with jeweled, stone, and shagreen boxes, she would be hard–pressed to slot in a mascara brush.
After studying graphic design at the Massachusetts College of Art and New York’s School of Visual Arts, Wearstler experienced a career–shaping epiphany as an apprentice to Milton Glaser, the legendary graphic designer from the Pop Art sixties Push Pin Studios, who worked on everything from Bob Dylan’s concert posters to the I ♥ NY logo. She credits her experiences with Glaser for the vivid, graphic impact of her work, which is dramatically showcased in her new manse.
Chez Wearstler, the sound system is perpetually set to the XM First Wave channel, and the rhythmic strains of eighties groups—Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Culture Club, Duran Duran—play all day long. In her wardrobe hang over–the–top vintage Ungaro and Victor Costa creations from the same refulgent era—the sorts of clothes that inspired Marc Jacobs’s collection this season. In her decor, Wearstler also playfully embraces the decade, from high (original Memphis Group pieces) to low (Miami Vice).
The sunroom off the master bedroom was originally a bedroom—a wonderful tree house embowered in the waxy leaves of a giant ficus tree whose roots coil above the land like a basket of writhing snakes. Wearstler has commandeered its original en suite sitting room—far more grandly scaled—as the bedroom. An imposing door, an element in the room’s stately Georgian woodwork scheme, opens onto a perfectly intact copper–lined bar, a touch suggestive of the “intimate entertaining,” as Wearstler puts it, the grand seductions and sybarite silver–screen life for which this room was created. Wearstler’s insane eighties bed, seemingly fashioned for a GoodFellas drug lord, with its Lucite ram’s-head volutes and black leather headboard, is spread with satin sheets the color of molten chocolate and a lippi–cat throw, suggesting that the house’s present chatelaine is quite able to hold her own in the glamazon stakes.
When Wearstler established her design company, KWID, in 1994, she had a staff of two. Today, her seventeen–strong team juggles projects as diverse as china (for Pickard, the porcelain company) and bed and table linens (for Sferra). In 2010, Wearstler is venturing into fashion with a line of scarves and accessories—these are in addition to a solid portfolio of residential interiors and ongoing retail and hotel projects. She finds all these areas complementary. “An interior–design project could inspire a piece of jewelry,” she says. “I love working on residential projects. You can get so detailed and refined, and that carries over into the hotels. You want it to be dramatic even if it’s done in a simple way. All my residential clients are interested in some type of art or architecture, and you are always educated by those clients—it trains your eye. And in a hotel everything needs to be very organized, everything has its place. So they definitely influence each other.”
Wearstler is currently installing her second–generation design for the Avalon in L.A.—the hotel developed by her husband in 1998 that first brought Wearstler’s unique aesthetic to a broader audience. She is moving on from the classical mid–century American interiors she originally conceived into something she describes as “more Italian mid–century, with a little Gio Ponti flair” that mixes furniture from the sixties through the eighties.
“I absolutely love what I do,” says Wearstler, “because I keep falling in love every day, with new things we design, with new projects. It’s like a love affair—it keeps it all churning!”