The most frequently used terms to describe the work of interior designers Thomas Allardyce and Illya Hendrix are lush, eclectic, romantic, and Mediterranean. For more than two decades the Los Angeles-based duo has championed a quintessentially Californian esthetic: lavish but comfortable, generously proportioned, classically minded but stylistically diverse, with a touch of the exotic and more than a hint of Hollywood glamour. The Hendrix Allardyce signature is less a style than a sense of opulence, which the duo conjures up for a blue-chip clientele in residential projects as far afield as Australia and Saudi Arabia.
After apprenticing with other designers and launching solo practices, they became partners in the late 1970s. "Our earliest work was more modern in style, because that's what clients at the time preferred," recalls Allardyce. (He notes that during this period the pair shared a modernist house with contemporary furnishings, adding, "While I still appreciate and admire sleek modernist spaces, their formality can be difficult to live with and maintain, and they quickly look cluttered.") As modernism waned and postmodernism waxed, the designers and their clients renewed their appreciation of traditional styles. "That really took off around 1984 and 1985," Allardyce says. "The dollar was strong, and people were going abroad and discovering the charm and comfort of great European hotels and interiors. We were traveling more too, not only with clients on buying trips but for our own pleasure. We got to know the best dealers and see their homes. It greatly affected our approach."
At the same time, they were assembling a large library of books on historical architecture and design and becoming familiar with the prewar legacy of grand, traditional-style houses built in California's poshest communities by such architects as George Washington Smith, Wallace Neff, and Addison Mizner. "You find their houses today in the most beautiful neighborhoods," says Allardyce. "What better inspiration than this glorious past?"
Influenced by film make-believe, free-wheeling California—especially Los Angeles—displayed a more fanciful approach to traditional home styles than the East Coast, with its strong English and Early American heritage. The first half of the last century gave rise here to a marvelous variety of dwellings: Tudor-style manors, Arts and Crafts bungalows, modernist villas, Cape Cods, and more. But history and climate produced an enduring preference for California's earliest architectural style, Spanish Colonial, and its geographical cousins, compatible styles that the designer calls "variations on a Mediterranean theme—Italian, French, Moorish, Portuguese, Moroccan, and so on." Hendrix and Allardyce are masters at synthesizing elements of traditional style to create interiors that are luxurious yet livable, with a strong Mediterranean flavor. "Everyone is so busy today that the home has become, above all, a sanctuary," Allardyce observes. "We are concerned with creating warm, inviting spaces." This is no simple task—their average project runs 15,000 to 20,000 square feet, and they've done houses in excess of 50,000 square feet. "The average is bigger than when we began, but we grew into it," he notes, giving credit to the capable staff that bustles quietly about the firm's own quarters—a former medical office building transformed from drop-ceiling sterility to skylit openness, with wood floors and exposed brick. The two partners collaborate on design decisions, although Allardyce tends to focus on project management and dealing with contractors and suppliers, Hendrix on client relations (it is not surprising to learn that, before shifting into design, the former studied business, the latter psychology).
"To create a feeling of intimacy in grand spaces, we work with proportion and detail,"explains Allardyce, who cites Palladio as a recurring inspiration. "We have four draftsmen on the staff who render plans for all our designs, which often include extensive architectural detailing, but no structural work—though we make recommendations." The designers often retrofit new houses with old-fashioned flourishes—elaborate moldings, ornate metalwork, coffered or vaulted ceilings, wood paneling, patterned flooring, and the like—that add character and mediate between human dimensions and the Piranesian scale of many rooms in today's pumped-up homes. Their dramatic lighting designs serve much the same purpose. Allardyce says, "You can put furniture anywhere—it's the background and the architecture that create the warmth."
In a newly built Ventura County home, they tamed a huge living room by adding custom, carved-stone window, doorway, and fireplace surrounds bearing Moorish and classical motifs and a coffered ceiling with ornate corbels. They furnished the room with a large 19th-century Aubusson carpet, an 18th-century Belgian tapestry, and a mixture of antiques and scaled-up reproductions in French, English, and Italian styles; a smattering of Asian pieces and a Moroccan lamp or two added the whiff of the exotic that is a Hendrix Allardyce hallmark. The blend of styles makes a room that seats 40 or more seem almost cozy.
"Most of our projects do have an exotic flavor," says Hendrix. "We like pieces that are unusual or whimsical." The layering of influences in their work can invest even a new house with a romantic past, hinting at what screenwriters call a "back story." An unfettered example is the spacious villa they designed for themselves in Palm Springs. Opening to lush gardens through high French doors, it incorporates Victorian cast-iron exterior moldings, Art Deco window grilles and chandeliers, green-glazed roof tiles, and palm-fringed fountains; inside are 18th-century Chinese doors, relief panels from the Warner Bros. prop shop, marble sinks and mosaics, and furniture in styles ranging from Italian Baroque to Anglo-Indian. The disparate elements mingle with remarkable ease, and it is not hard to imagine a fictitious owner—a cultivated European out of Somerset Maugham, say, who roamed colonial outposts before coming to rest in a desert oasis.
Too often, Allardyce explains, he encounters costly interiors that are not evocative but dull, such as an architecturally important house they were recently hired to redo. Another firm had filled it with "mostly new furniture, second- or third-generation copies with inferior finishes and proportions," recounts the designer, who did an inventory and advised the clients to donate most of the furnishings to charity and take the deduction. "If homes are too correct they can look like an expensive hotel," he says. "Eclectic interiors are more interesting but they require an educated eye. Some styles and cultures are harmonious and some are not." Confronted with a bland, Mediterranean-style house on the peninsula south of San Francisco, the duo redesigned the exterior and gave the interior French detailing with Italian accents, which set the tone for the furnishings. (Notes Hendrix: "The French say that if you have a French room, you have to have an Italian piece to make it work.")
Many clients share what Allardyce terms "a nostalgia for a refined way of life." (To judge from their design for Rod Stewart's house, for instance, the rock star is at heart an English country gentleman.) Early on, the designers meet with clients to discuss possibilities, drawing from their encyclopedic trove of books and materials, in what Allardyce calls "a kind of Socratic dialogue, in which there are no wrong answers." Their task, he says, is to help clients realize their own vision of the good life. "Every design starts with the client's taste and the architecture," states the designer. "We don't impose a style and we strive never to repeat what we've done before. Our job is to educate clients, to expose them to possibilities and edit what they already have." Sometimes, he adds, that means educating them to embrace imperfection, in the form of pieces that are, or appear to be, old, "so a scratch just adds to the patina." In a typical project, everything from hand-glazed walls and ceilings to wood and stone flooring to leather upholstery is given a convincing patina of age. "We mix new and old things, but want the new to be as interesting as the old," he adds. "It should all look as if it aged naturally. There's nothing wrong with simulation as long as it feels authentic"—a Californian credo that works equally well elsewhere, particularly since, as Allardyce notes, "This country today has all the trades and craftsmen to create whatever we design. Anything is possible."
That includes the 70-piece collection of furniture they'll be introducing by the end of the year at showrooms in major cities. "The line reflects what we think is missing in the market," says Allardyce. "They're designs scaled for comfort and mostly based on antiques we've bought." Needless to say, the pieces run the gamut of styles and will be crafted to look old, using elements such as distressed Belgian leather and Breccia marble from a historic, newly reopened quarry.
In keeping with the varying tastes of clients, the firm's work ranges from refined to rustic (as in a current project, a hacienda-style ranch house in Santa Ynez Valley), although the latter is more in the manner of a princely hunting lodge than a humble cottage. "But in most of our designs, there is a room where you could hang out and play poker with the boys, though we don't usually photograph it," Allardyce says. "The overall trend has been toward less detail than we saw in the eighties—designs that are more about form and shape than embellishment." For modernists and minimalists, Hendrix Allardyce interiors will always be de trop. For others, however, their combination of architectural enhancement, stylistic panache, and atmospheric lighting makes them bravura settings for luxuriant living. "Our interiors are designed to be uplifting," says Allardyce. "When a client comes home, it should put a smile on his face."
Hendrix Allardyce Design, 8721 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048; 310-659-8721; fax 310-659-8765.
Jeff Book wrote about Palm Springs modernism in Departures' last issue.