Veteran designer Kathy Entessar tackles a ranch house in need of a refresh. The result of her year-long overhaul is a contemporary property that retains the best of its roots while being amply ready for its 21st-century close-up.
Perched on a leafy hilltop in Rolling Hills Estates is a meandering ranch house with a low-pitched roof and rambling facade, not unlike the legions of others that dot the horsey, north side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
This one, however, had changed hands and its new owners felt it was time for a remodel, particularly since the house was riddled with the most tell-tale signs of its 1970’s vintage. Decorative wagon wheels. Copious amounts of knotty pine and faux stone. There was even a clawfoot bathtub inexplicably marooned in a stray outdoor nook.
“It looked like a saloon,” says Kathy Entessar with a laugh. Her interior and architectural firm, EIA & Company, was selected for the job after she showed off her 20-plus-year design chops in the master bathroom, where she smoothed a fussy jumble of veiny travertine into a sleek room of African Wenge wood and softly iridescent tile.
It’s arguably easier to create perfect design from scratch than to go in and surgically reconfigure what already—often stubbornly—exists.
“It can be a challenge to work within a given space, especially when a lot of it doesn’t have a good flow,” notes Entessar. “And you might think, ‘Ah, I wish that corridor wasn’t there’ or ‘I wish such-and-such was here.’ But in the end you have to make it work with whatever is existing.”
A few areas, including a front swath of the house, were born anew. Pre-remodel, guests were greeted by a jumble of stacked stone, stray greenery and competing walkways, along with a dated picture window and tiny, cloistered-in porch. This was replaced by a low wall, smoothly stuccoed, that hems in a fresh-air patio with separate dining and conversation areas.
“The client wanted a front area where he could sit down, drink his morning coffee and read the paper,” explains Entessar. Heat lamps were tucked into the ceiling and slate tiles were arranged in a tidy Versailles pattern. A wall of French doors was created to connect the patio with the house, effectively carving out a spacious indoor/outdoor entertainment area while increasing the stores of natural light streaming through the house.
Worn, stamped-concrete walkways were replaced with neat landscaping and a welcome path of stone pavers. Entessar confesses to directing the workers to lay tiles in specific patterns, owing to the curvy visual flow that comes from a well-orchestrated contrast of shades and angles.
I chuckle, imagining the scene. “The entrance is so important,” she insists with a smile. “It sets the entire tone for the house.”
Stepping through the front door, it’s easy to see her point.
Rich hickory floors—handworked with a chisel and planer—establish a polished, earthy elegance that’s light years away from the generic terra cotta tiles that previously lined the floors. “Hickory is the toughest wood you can get,” Entessar points out. “They make baseball bats with it, and it’s hard to ding or scratch.”
Throughout the house, wood dominates, but carefully. From custom cabinetry to the dining room table—a walnut slab with curved edges sourced from Alabama artist Robin Wade—there’s al-ways an ebb and flow of lines to make it compelling. A chunky rosewood console and triangular floor pattern in the foyer create plenty of eye-pleasing dimension in this pivotal space, as does the starburst ceiling fixture designed by Entessar that casts a golden glow over the entrance, “as if it were a stage.”
“When I entertain, I always see three people over here, four people over there,” says Entessar. “So I’ve created little conversation vignettes, and eating vignettes.” These thematic spaces effectively carve out islands for people to converge on, and are a great idea in today’s Age of the Open Floor Plan.
Another way Entessar distinguishes this ranch house? “Conversation pieces that are slightly unexpected and enhance the integrity of the house,” she says.
Perhaps the most high-profile of these are twin walls of custom art glass perched on opposite ends of the central hallway. Replacing a pair of wagon wheels that look like they may have been snatched off a Ponderosa set, the idea of decorative glass was Entessar’s, who designed the tasteful harmony of vibrant, geometric shapes that subtly correspond to sunrise and sunset.
For Some Things, a Second Life
This remodel not being of the unlimited-budget variety (Entessar recounts a Texas project that had her making multiple trips to Paris), the designer was careful to earmark items that could be refreshed and reused. Among them were over 100 doors that were re-finished to an up-to-date taupe that effectively dialed down the Western knotty pine to the right level of rustic.
“I don’t like waste,” explains Entessar. “If I can reuse, I definitely will.”
In the kitchen, existing wood cabinets were refinished a dusty white, their edges glazed a bit darker to enrich depth. Throughout the room, tone on tone is used to distinguish spaces, create dimension and modernize. The medium-hued wood floor visually plays against a vaulted honey ceiling, and the central island sports a light sage finish that neatly twines together the room’s dominant colors.
When asked about architectural styles she favors, Entessar answers without skipping a beat: “My style is every style.”
Attention to light, lines and balance are fundamentals for any designer, yet Entessar’s training reaches back to a past in classical ballet. This exacting art shares a designer’s focus with visual absolutes, and it’s these she enjoys bringing into perfect harmony above all, no matter the genre.
“Design is like ballet in that there’s no room for error,” remarks Entessar. “There’s no such thing as ‘a little off.’ A ‘little off’ is ‘completely off.’
“When I see a house or a space, immediately in my head I see it complete. Perfect,” she pauses. “It’s a weird thing.”
Her approach makes sense, given that re-writing color and spatial composition figured so centrally in the skillful update of this peaceful hilltop ranch. Where there were wagon wheels and cramped rooms of terra cotta, the designer saw—and subsequently choreographed—a dance of glossy woods, ornamental art and soaring, open spaces.
If you’re addicted to HGTV like we are, you’ve probably seen “home stager to the stars” Meridith Baer on the show, “Selling LA,” and on the network’s documentary series, “Staged to Perfection.” Baer is the namesake behind her company, Meridith Baer Home, the largest home staging company in the country.
Based in Los Angeles, Baer also stages luxury properties in New York City and the Hamptons, Miami and coastal Florida and Connecticut. She and her team also furnish homes in the beach cities and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Read on to learn how her career as a Hollywood screenwriter led to home staging, and find out which Hollywood celebrity homes have gotten the red carpet treatment from the pioneer of home staging.
South Bay Digs: I hear you have a colorful background.
Meridith Baer: I was born in Los Angeles but weeks later moved to Northern California. My father was associate warden at San Quentin Prison and we lived on the prison grounds. I attended a one-room schoolhouse from 1st through 8th grades. Usually I was the only person in my grade, so I was both the valedictorian and the class dunce!
SBD: Do you think living on prison grounds affected your knack for beautifying interiors?
MB: The drabness of the prison reservation perhaps inspired me to be creative. From a young age my mom let me move the furniture around the house and gave me my own plot of land for my private garden. When I turned 13, my father became the director of Corrections for the state of Iowa and we moved to Des Moines. My mom was an early home flipper, and we moved from style-to-style large homes—English Tudor to Colonial to Modern. Through all of this my mom seemed to like my furnishing ideas and took notice when I suggested which furniture to buy. I still have some of those pieces in our staging inventory!
SBD: I’m told your staging career was preceded by a stint as a writer.
MB: In Des Moines I attended a large school that used a “tracking system.” They called it 1-2-3-4, but it meant dumb, average, smart and talented. Even though the San Quentin school gave me straight A’s, this school put me in the dumb class and I proceeded to do poorly in it. One day my teacher was out sick, and the teacher from the talented class covered for her and [gave us a writing assignment]. When he read my essay, he transferred me to the talented class and I began getting straight A’s.
All of this taught me to not just follow a single path but to be unafraid to take a new road. At the University of Colorado I got a journalism degree. While in college, I also flipped houses; I wasn’t doing construction, just paint and gardening and styling.
SBD: How did the Hollywood connection begin?
MB: The week before graduation I was approached to be in a Pepsi commercial by a total stranger, a young New York City advertising man named Jerry Bruckheimer, now the most successful movie producer in the business. Doing the Pepsi commercials led me to New York, where I was hired to be an assistant to the editor of a magazine. Soon I was being asked to appear in print and television commercials—over 100—and then a movie. I did freelance writing, including writing “Passionate Shopper” pieces for New York Magazine.
Later I moved to Los Angeles and continued to be in commercials, print ads and movies. I also did freelance magazine writing but the money was in the acting, not the writing. Through all of this, my hobbies were gardening and fixing up my various apartments and those of my friends. While reading movie scripts, many of which were poorly written, I thought, ‘I can do this,’ and wrote my first screenplay. I sold it for $250,000.
MB: After years earning a respectable living as a writer, I found myself tired of writing. I was about to turn 50 and the jobs were harder and harder to come by. At this point I was renting a home in Brentwood and found myself spending most of my time gardening. I acquired over 150 pots and filled them with trees, flowers and bushes, and I rearranged them regularly. [I spent my time] searching for treasures and rearranging my furniture, even changing the purpose of each room.
SBD: How did you make the leap into home staging? Was there a defining moment that sparked the idea?
MB: At this point, the owner of my rental home came to town, saw how much time and money I had put into his home—and asked me to leave! He saw that he could make money on what I had done. Not knowing where I could store all of my plants and furnishings, I suggested to a friend who was selling a spec home that I arrange them all at his house to show the lifestyle. It turned out beautifully, in fact photos of my work were published in magazines. But more importantly, the house sold within days for a half million dollars over asking price after multiple offers. My phone started ringing. Other brokers wanted me to move my stuff to homes they had for sale. And the brokers started calling it “staging.” It was fun! I said yes, but they’d have to pay me up front. In the beginning it was pure hustle and 18-hour days.
SBD: How do you think your Hollywood connection has helped your business?
MB: I don’t think it helped me, other than I was so frustrated by the entertainment business—by how hard it was to get anything made [from my screenplays], and even if it got made, it didn’t look anything like what I wrote—that I seized this opportunity to make something happen fast and feel realized.
SBD: That must have been a big shift.
MB: Instead of dealing with show biz agents and producers, I was now dealing with real estate agents and property developers. But there was a connection to my previous career. People pointed out to me that what I was doing was staging. And I realized that as I brought rooms to life, I was imaging who would ultimately be living in those rooms. I’d always been told I had a great eye for design, but what I liked was telling stories. Now I found myself telling stories through design. Interestingly enough, many top show business people bought homes we staged, hired us to stage their homes, or hired us for interior design. We’re even asked to do movie sets.
SBD: As a pioneer in the field, how do you think this niche has evolved? Where do you see it going?
MB: What I did in the beginning and what we continue to do now is create beautiful spaces that tell a story, a story of how the buyer can live in the home seamlessly. For me it was never just “staging.” It was never just filling spaces without attention to the quality of the design and furnishings. The details of what makes a house a home are what matter. Over the years, expectations about the level of design have radically increased. Homes now need to be staged in a particular style according to the architecture, value and location. The design has to be current, what you see in your favorite magazine. Art and rugs have to be geared towards the expectations and/or aspirations of the buyer. It is not uncommon for us to put $400,000-$500,000 of inventory into a luxury home.
SBD: What—if anything—can you tell us about some of your celebrity clients?
MB: We have worked with hundreds of celebrities in music, sports and entertainment, staging their homes, leasing furniture. We also sell them design services and furniture. We’ve worked with Bob Dylan, Beck, Seal, Madonna, Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ricky Martin, Katy Perry,
Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone, Halle Berry, Brad Pitt, Gerard Butler, Mike Myers, Reese Witherspoon, Liv Tyler, Geena Davis, Kevin Spacey, Amy Adams. We also work with movie execs, studio heads and billionaires.
SBD: What are your secrets to success?
MB: Working our tails off, caring about what we do, and loving what we do. Hiring talented, hard-working staff, designers and sales people. Bringing in the best and brightest on an executive level, in fact on every level. Keeping it new, keeping it fresh. Listening to the complaints, as well as the praise!
SBD: How would you describe your business model?
MB: We provide luxury furniture and design services. Our primary business is staging, or installing furnishings to help homeowners and developers sell their real estate assets as fast as possible for the highest possible price. All of the furnishings in our homes are for sale, so the buyer or the neighbor can own a room or the entire home furnished just as it is. We manufacture much of our own furniture and source the rest. In the future, we will be making our furnishings available to the public. We also offer interior design services and lease our high-end furnishings for the specific needs of our clients.
SBD: You switched careers at age 50. What advice would you give women 40-plus who are contemplating a career change?
MB: Follow the trail of what interests you. It’s not written anywhere that you have to spend the rest of your life doing what you have been doing. Pay attention when you find yourself saying, ‘I could do that,’ or ‘this could be better,’ or ‘what the world needs is this!’ Just start doing what you really enjoy and see where it leads.
SBD: What do you like to do when you’re not staging homes?
MB: I am constantly looking through magazines and searching on the web for inspiration. I go to estate sales and flea markets and auctions looking for little treasures to use on shelves. I like to look at historical pieces and dream about how to tweak them into the 21st century. I still love to garden. Cuddle with my cat. Cook. Read. Spend time with friends and family. Laugh. Drink good red wine. And I am addicted to Sudoku—the really evil ones!