Mae Brunken wanted a home with a past. And in a plot with an only-in- Hollywood ending, the interior designer and set decorator found her period piece -- one with a film noir pedigree. Perched high in the hills of Hollywood, her 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival appeared prominently in "Double Indemnity," starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.
A black-and-white still from the Billy Wilder-directed classic hung in the house when Brunken first visited in 2000. As Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck, who earned one of the film's seven Oscar nominations) stands in her foyer with co-conspirator Walter Neff (MacMurray), the curved staircase is as much a star with its graceful iron scrollwork, terra cotta steps and Monterey tile risers.
"It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago," Neff says in the 1944 film. "This one must have cost somebody 30,000 bucks. That is, if he ever finished paying for it."
Brunken asked for the Paramount Pictures still to be included in the sale, and though the film connection wasn't her only reason for purchasing the 3,200-square-foot house, she saw the opportunity to create another space "around a character and what that character would love." This time, the character was a glamorous movie star of the 1930s and '40s.
"I wanted to restore the house and have fun furnishing it as a part of the Hollywood era," she says.
In blending two styles -- Deco interiors and Spanish architecture -- Brunken chose not to interpret either genre too purely. Instead, the principal of Mae Brunken Design used vivid Art Deco colors and glossy furnishings to brighten the home's traditional terra cotta tile floors, stark white stucco walls and exposed beams.
"I didn't want a dark and heavy palette or for the interiors to be too predictable," she says. "I like my environments to be modern-day and a little playful. I love fresh and happy color. I want to mix different periods and allow the pieces to play together."
When her friend Thomas Boghossian, a retired California Institute of the Arts film historian, saw the house, he suggested that Brunken use a "Double Indemnity" poster as a decorating motif. He saw her property as a rare example of motion picture art direction because both exterior and interiors were used.
"At the time, most films were shot on the studio back lots," Boghossian says. "I could not believe until I went inside -- and then went back to the film -- that they actually copied the interior of the home exactly. Of course, since Mae lived in the home of such a famous film noir title, I thought posters with femme fatales would work perfect inside it."
Boghossian has since helped Brunken acquire an impressive collection of vintage posters with titles such as "Night in New Orleans," "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "Naked Alibi."
The two-story foyer, an octagonal turret where an original wrought-iron lantern still hangs, doubles as a mini gallery containing some of Brunken's largest posters.
"I love the graphics," she says. "This house has a lot of big walls, and the posters help to warm it up."
The space is central to the home's design, with two wings extending from it at 90-degree angles. Brunken turned the all-white ceiling into a work of art, stripping the beams to expose dark wood, painting the plaster a terra cotta hue and stenciled scrolls in a Deco-inspired pattern of gold leaf and moss green.
For the foyer floor, she designed a bull's-eye rug. "I was inspired by the movie posters to do something as a piece of Pop art," she says of the concentric circles in cabernet, eggplant, gold, cream and turquoise. Descend the "Double Indemnity" staircase, and the rug's mesmerizing pattern feels like an optical illusion.
Simply framed and displayed in almost every room of the house, the oversized posters add some not-so-serious touches to Brunken's luxe furniture in Lucite, mohair, velvet, patent leather and gilded finishes. Pieces are vintage, reproduction and custom, selected for their unexpected qualities, "so that everywhere you look there is something that draws your eye around the room," the designer says.
The poster palettes -- think gold, turquoise and red, for starters -- spill onto some of the walls, including the shell-pink dining room with a gold-leaf ceiling, the pale aqua library with gold-leaf stenciling and a flamingo-pink guest bedroom with views of the Hollywood sign.
The master suite is decorated in platinum and lavender, with a custom velvet headboard, a pale pink bench with Lucite legs and antique mirrored side tables. Six vintage wall sconces cast a soft glow around the room.
After the calm elegance of this space, the adjacent master bathroom gives an energetic jolt. Original black and yellow tiles cover the walls, and the floor is paved in a matching honeycomb tile. Small movie posters, called "window cards," are artfully arranged on the wall, but it's the bumblebee palette that makes Brunken smile.
Down the hall, a guest bath is equally stunning and perhaps more soothing with teal and black Art Deco tiles.
"Some of the bathroom fixtures, like the wall-mounted soap dishes and towel bars, had to be replaced, but I found matches at Liz’s Antique Hardware," she says of the L.A. store. The designer is no stranger to high-tech, spa-like bathrooms, because that's what many of her design clients request. "But I don't find my bathrooms inconvenient in any way. They may be a little more simplistic than modern bathrooms, but they still look great."
Only the kitchen, which had undergone an unfortunate 1970s modernization effort, called for major renovation.
Brunken found a 1950s O’Keefe & Merritt stove to replace a generic cooktop, removed layers of vinyl floor to reveal the original oak underneath, replaced old metal windows and eliminated a butler's pantry to create a seating area. Even here, the designer was uninhibited, pairing a 42-inch round table of her own design with Eames-inspired Lucite chairs. A reproduction shell lamp adds shimmer overhead, a contrast to warehouse-style fixtures above the kitchen sink. The blue, terra cotta and gold tile backsplash and counters, the bungalow-style cabinetry and a farmhouse sink seem vintage enough to feel right for the house's age.
Brunken's imaginary starlet would have felt right at home in the sunken living room, designed in a yummy chocolate-and-pink scheme. High, arched windows and French doors open onto a Mediterranean-inspired courtyard garden redesigned by Lisa Moseley. The new alfresco entertaining space is a vast improvement, Brunken says, over the 12-person Jacuzzi with rust-colored tile that once occupied the space.
The living room's brown silk drapes have pink insets; two drum-backed armchairs that the designer brought from a prior home are now cloaked in pink velvet with brown piping for a 1940s vibe. The designer also reupholstered a sofa in rich brown mohair and created a white leather ottoman with antique gold studs. A rug with an interlocking key motif in pink and dark maroon, and a reproduction mirror-front armoire with an overlay of circles, are nods to the Art Deco era. This is where Brunken, now a film noir buff, invites friends to watch movies on a screen tucked inside the armoire.
"Set decorating has changed my approach to interiors of an actual home," she says. "Because when I'm doing a set, I'm creating the character, what she would have and what her lifestyle is."