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Elements of Style

While New York has its clannish brownstones and San Francisco its overplayed Victorian veneer, Los Angeles is a deliberate fracas of residential styles or, rather, a collection of self-realizations from individuals who happen to share the same streets. From Mission Revival to Arts and Crafts to Modernism, the city celebrates its eclectic legacy. Perhaps no one does this more than Nancy Heller.

A native Angeleno who attended local public schools in Hancock Park, Heller began her ascent as a fashion designer at the age of 21. After creating a rhinestone-studded T-shirt and wearing it to a Bette Midler concert, Heller was stopped by Herb Fink, the owner of Theodore, who asked, “How many of those can you make?” Within a year, some 75,000 had been sold. Heller’s garment business—which eventually featured casual T-shirts and cashmere for men and women—grew into another California success story, garnering her many awards, including LACMA’s Designer of the Year. While she was building her business, Heller began buying and selling homes on the side, notably Howard Hughes’ old Hancock Park hacienda.

When real estate grew into a passion that rivaled her garment venture, Heller managed to juggle the two successfully, but in 1998, she traded her sewing machine for a laser level to focus solely on home design. And a new career was launched. “Producing a home is not unlike producing fashion. You envision it, sketch it, pick the fabrics, approve it, then manufacture or build it. That’s why I think the crossover worked for me.”

Clients have included mogul Peter Guber and his wife, Lynda Guber, and Italian producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, who hired her after one visit to her Brentwood home, where he said, “You see this? I want this, but I want it twice the size, with a view of all of Los Angeles!” And Heller was happy to oblige.

Built by Hotel Bel-Air architect Burton Schutt in 1960, Heller’s own low-slung Brentwood home was a much more modest hunk of modernism than it is today, with its sweeping floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors and feral landscaping—a steady nod to the indoor-outdoor tradition of L.A. architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, who strived for a continuity of space that is sympathetic with the terrain. “The house had no glass and no trees,” says Heller. “I came here, and I just ripped it apart—the Nancy way.”

Heller’s way is less a methodology than a series of instincts working in harmony. “I have an intuition, that’s all. I can walk into a room and feel what it should be. When my husband and I go to hotels, I often find myself moving the furniture around.”

The approach to the home is over a sodded driveway flanked by lush flora featuring queen palm, floss silk and coral trees, all punctuated with the trickle of fountains. A once-over conjures a richly cloistered Balinese landscape. Heller is inspired by the exalted beauty she found in her travels to Hawaii and the Caribbean, but for her, Bali was the primary muse.

“I got turned on in Bali. You get moss everywhere, and it’s damp, and your skin is beautiful, and the people smile from ear to ear.”

Inside, the home breathes in the outdoors. One can easily imagine the house fully illuminated by a harvest moon. Still, the interior is not totally submissive to its surroundings.

It has its own eclectic pedigree. Artwork runs the gamut from titans Miró and Picasso to 17th-century Italian mannequins and photographs by Elliott Erwitt and Helmut Newton. The diversity pushes harmony to a discordant edge but never breaches it.

Visitors are assured that no matter where their eyes land, there’s something to engage them, whether it’s Gio Ponti chairs or sunflower heads floating in bronze bowls. “I’ll have deco furniture, Herman Miller—anything goes, as long as it goes together,” says Heller. In fact, she usually makes first-timers a drink and leaves them in peace to wander about.

“I’m a hunter,” says Heller, “I don’t go to boulevards, I go to alleys.” Nothing in the home exists for any reason other than to provide an emotional connection for Heller, including an elaborate bronze clock of Notre Dame near the bedroom, found in a dusty antiques store outside Palm Springs. Her office desk—made of lithe macassar ebony—was formerly the work station of L.A. civic icon Eli Broad. She was so taken with it that when she made an offer on Broad’s former Brentwood residence, she had only one caveat: “I’ll take the house if I can have the desk.”

Heller shares the home with her husband, CAA agent Fred Specktor, whose own burl-inlay wood desk is tucked below a sweeping Frank Stella. The couple also has a passion for closets. Heller’s, the size of some bedrooms, has a chaise and another desk and houses a collection of masterpieces, from ethnic finds to her own cashmere. Specktor’s, meanwhile, seems to hold a thousand impeccable suits—all dark. He has a passion for threads, exhibited by rows of Purple Label Ralph Lauren and Armani suits, along with custom shirts from Capri. However, colorful novelty socks are his signature whimsy—all rolled in a perfect grid in his drawer.

Inspired by a love of friends and family, the couple hosts a barbecue each Sunday, where Heller claims to have perfected the french fry. In winter, the party moves indoors to the dining room, where a simple French farmhouse table is encircled by Jean-Michel Frank chairs and adorned with Italian blackamoors. Heller found them at an antiques warehouse in Prato, Italy, and was obsessed enough to bring them onto the plane herself (before the two-carry-ons rule went into effect).

But it’s not all revelry for Heller, as she has forged a kind of monastic renewal in her master bath. A marble tub sits on an Indonesian wenge-wood floor facing a tranquil pocket garden. The garden’s custom-built wall consists of Frank Lloyd Wright tiles around an antique Chinese medallion. With bamboo trees and more fountains, the meditative benefits are quite clear.

“I’m wild and crazy, and I can be spiritual and alone,”Heller says, “but I think what makes this house special is the people who come through our lives.” While most glass homes conjure a kind of coldness, she succeeded in making her own space warm and comfortable.

“I want you to feel like you can put your foot on the table,” she says. “When you come to our house, you live in our house.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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