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With the deaths this year of Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale, the generation that dined, danced, and defined 1980s Republican chic at Sunnylands—Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s great estate in Rancho Mirage, California—has lost two of its giants. Golf skirts and Balmain gowns, Sinatras and secretaries of state: It was a moment we won’t see the likes of again, all made possible by a house. America’s midcentury modern answer to the English country house, Sunnylands was the product of two of California’s most important style makers, the architect A. Quincy Jones and the interior designer William Haines, working with the headiest of clients. The Annenbergs’ lives began at the pinnacle of media and Hollywood, continued to the Court of St. James’s and the White House, and never slowed until their deaths (Walter’s in 2002, Leonore’s in 2009). But their desert home, some 29,000 square feet on 200 raw sandy acres turned immaculately green, was their real work of art. To mark the 50th anniversary of its completion and the publication of a lavish new book, Sunnylands: America’s Midcentury Masterpiece (Vendome Press), Peter Schifando, the owner of William Haines Design and one of the few surviving links to the house’s origins, talks about life at Sunnylands and the Haines point of view. It should be noted, many of his answers began with a nostalgic sigh.
Stephen Drucker: What was your first visit to Sunnylands like?
Peter Schifando: It was the day before Thanksgiving 1988. I came to work at 8 a.m., and Ted Graber [Haines’s successor] said we had to go to the desert and that this experience was going to be like nothing I had ever seen. As we approached the property on Bob Hope Drive, he pointed to a pink wall. It seemed to go on for a mile. Then we turned on Frank Sinatra Drive and I thought, Where on earth are we? We drove through a manicured golf course past massive olive trees to a magical-looking pink building with lakes surrounding it and herons on the water. As we walked to the entrance, the doors opened and the house manager stood smiling. The room was massive, with a Rodin sculpture in a sea of bromeliads. Mrs. Annenberg soon appeared, as I was taking in the most astonishing French Impressionist paintings I had ever seen in a private collection. Of course the house itself was big and impressive, but to see the walls hung with those paintings, to see every simple painted tabletop dripping with bejeweled objects—the most extraordinary Chinese export porcelains, Cartier mystery clocks, Tang ceramics, cloisonné birds. And not just collections: Everything was curated by experts. I was completely overwhelmed. We were there to discuss recovering pieces of furniture and freshening up others for the season. Mrs. Annenberg asked us to stay for lunch. We were served a simple and simply perfect meal, on a table decorated with silver and ivory, by three footmen.
Did you ever meet Haines?
No, I never met him. Haines died in 1973. But Ted always described him as a great Virginia gentleman, with a huge actor’s personality. When he entered a room, everybody turned around.
Can you sum up the Haines style in a phrase?
I can do best by quoting Ted. He called it “soft modern.” It was never edgy or glitzy, but rather a modern, transitional 20th-century evolution. Haines furniture was not made to stand out in an interior. It was designed to showcase architecture, vistas, collections, and especially personalities. And it was always custom-made. That is the single most important aspect.
What were some of the trademarks of a Haines room?
His interiors were architecturally driven. The idea was, if the room was right, the furnishings would make sense. But there were some elements you’ll see in many projects. Biscuit [or box] tufting was used often. It was done to give tight upholstery a more architectural look. Loose cushions need to be plumped constantly and can look like a frumpy bed. Biscuit tufting keeps things neat and tidy. He also used trapunto, the Italian technique of quilting fabrics. He had it done at Getson’s, an embroidery shop used by the film studios. Marlene Dietrich had her gowns beaded there. Liberace had capes made there. You cannot imagine how labor-intensive trapunto is. It’s like making a dress. You create a design and then draw it. Everything has to be measured precisely. The drawing is transferred to a pattern, which has to be stenciled on the fabric with “invisible” chalk. Then a special light is used to make the chalk glow, so the stitching holes can be cut. And then the yarn is inserted, with a special needle. The seating group by the living room fireplace is quite special. Haines was concerned with using design to make people look their best. How’d he do it? Low furniture. The seat height was often just 15 inches. It put people in a lounging posture while making the room look taller. It made everybody look more glamorous.
What aspect of running a house was most important to Mrs. Annenberg?
Perfection was everything. And I mean everything. Mrs. Annenberg could look around that huge living room and see a flower that was about to wilt. The staff didn’t have to be told to adjust a pillow. Everything was so perfectly kept all the time. In a way, Sunnylands was an extension of Winfield House [the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London] and the graciousness Mrs. Annenberg had shown there.
What should a visitor look for when touring Sunnylands?
Sunnylands is what American midcentury design can be. Look at most midcentury houses—you’ve seen hundreds of examples of the furniture. It was all manufactured. Everything at Sunnylands was custom-made. The quality is extraordinary.
What’s easily missed when a visitor tours Sunnylands?
Most people cannot relate to what the house was meant for, to what was needed to receive heads of state, presidents, politicians, and royalty in a manner that was befitting and respectful. I remember getting my first pair of Gucci loafers, with the horse bit, when I was 20, and going to New York for the first time and seeing other people wearing Gucci loafers and thinking, Aha! Sunnylands was created for that time, when the right clothes, the right tie, the right haircut enabled people to recognize one another. It was an environment that signaled “people of similar stature” to its guests. It put them at ease.
Did you attend any of the parties there?
Not a house party, but I did attend a dinner party with President and Mrs. Ford. It was a table of eight or ten, outdoors, a very special night, all world-events kind of talk. President Ford was on my left and Mrs. A was on my right. I sat very upright.