By David Rosenfeld
James Blakeley does not do many interviews. Though his work has graced the pages of national magazines for the past two decades, he prefers to remain behind the scenes. Known as an interior designer to the stars, his clients are not only actors, of course, and he does in fact do interviews. You just have to ask politely. He sat down with us recently at his 4,000 square-foot 1920s era home on Rodeo Drive to talk about art, design and Hollywood.
The front door was open a crack when we approached, Blakeley on the phone as he beaconed us inside. After not working for several years and spending most of his time in Santa Barbara, Blakeley is back to business on the Westside in a big way working with realtors and architects to design some of the neighborhood’s finest estates. You can’t say a home on Rodeo Drive doesn’t make impressions.
As we come through the door, the first thing to catch my eye is the wallpaper with scenes of Asian circus monkeys playing musical instruments. Blakeley, who envisioned the concept, had the paper fabricated and treated to look vintage.
“That’s very much old Hollywood to me,” he said. “It came out of magazines. It’s an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation. Trust me, there’s nothing new.”
It’s in this way several times during our interview that Blakeley shrugs off the idea his work is unique which shows humility and an understanding of art history. Everything is custom-made of course. There’s a silk-striped bench in the corner, for instance, where the stripes are purposely just a little off-center.
“I caddywhomped it,” he said. “So in other words you’re not going to find that anyplace else. That’s basically what it’s going to come down to.”
In the dining room, custom silver-leafed wallpaper was cut into squares and buffed out to give it a rustic look. In the corner, a wooden bench is upholstered in cow hide. Another classic Bergere chair is upholstered in suede.
“That’s not the type of fabric you should put on this furniture,” he said. “I like to push envelopes. I love going completely opposite. Put the yin and the yang together and it will work. It can be a hard concept to sell the consumer. But if you try to be safe, it doesn’t work.”
The home has a stunning master bedroom suite with his and her separate dressing rooms with seating room and a fireplace. There’s a sunroom off the kitchen Blakeley calls the heart of the house. There’s a classic cabana room draped by vines beside the pool in the backyard where you could just picture Lucille Ball sipping a vodka tonic. As one would imagine, the home has been a personal canvas for Blakeley, taking more than three years to complete. And though exquisite, photos would remain for another magazine.
“All I’ve done is remodeled everything, but didn’t move any walls,” he said. “We just kept the house in its integrity because I wanted to bring it back to the old Hollywood look.”
Fourth generation Hollywood
Blakeley tried his best to avoid the family business, but when the family business is making films it’s kind of tough not to stay at least somewhat connected. He did not become an actor like his parents – his father has an Emmy, his mother a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his uncle an Oscar – though most certainly an artist. And he couldn’t help but find himself among the entertainment world’s elite.
Blakeley has been noted for years in top magazines as a home designer to the stars. Famous for his English townhouse design in Tom Selleck’s Los Angeles condo and recently his modern open-space design for a downtown flat owned by Kiefer Sutherland, Blakeley has found his way into the Hollywood lexicon nonetheless.
We have a seat in the living room on restored antique French chairs. For Blakeley the term interior design involves the entire concept of the living quarters. This holistic approach and ability to adapt styles across the ages to fit a particular space has made him one of the nation’s premier interior designers and a favorite of Hollywood celebrities.
“You get a passion for something and you just study the hell out of it,” he said to explain his success.
Blakeley serves on the Architectural Design Review Board in Beverly Hills and has held various other board positions for design groups over the years. Growing up in Beverly Hills, he traveled each year to visit his grandmother in New York City, an experience he cherished. It was this bi-coastal existence that exposed a young James to different styles and sophistications. Finding a passion for design, he studied design at Woodbury University in Glendale and taught design at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. His children aged 19 and 16 mostly stay in Santa Barbara and are looking toward attending college.
Blakeley’s connection to film and the styles of old Hollywood go back nearly to its inception. A man who married his great-aunt edited The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and both his Godparents were actors. It’s all the more reason he has a reverence for what came before in art and film.
“I just found that there’s nothing new,” he said. “Everything has a circular process. Maybe it has to do in some respect with the history of film.”
These days the concept of interior design is thrown around loosely, which in some cases just means arranging furniture. For Blakeley the art of design begins at the architectural stage or ideally a room stripped down to the studs.
Together with the client and the architect he is able to conceive an entire concept for a space including custom-made furniture and elegant molding. Blakeley calls on crews of skilled carpenters and craftsman to get the job done, but he does not accessorize.
“If you’ve done the right job, the client can put their good stuff or their bad stuff in the house and it will work,” he said. “Because if you have total control all the way through it winds up looking like a store window or a showroom. It doesn’t have any personality to it.”
By working with real estate agents before homes are remodeled, Blakeley said he can increase the home’s value and its ability to sell more quickly. In many cases, buyers pull out of deals when they discover it might need a costly remodel. Through Blakeley’s work, realtors can present the most updated looks or give the buyer a more realistic estimate on what it might take to renovate, which benefits everyone in the end.
“I look at design as though I am trying to change their lives. Hopefully when they walk inside that door, the world shuts off and they become a space unto themselves,” he said. “I try to do that with every client. Maybe that’s why every house is different.”
When he’s not working, Blakeley enjoys fine dining, drinking good wine, cooking great food and playing golf. After our interview he was on his way to have dinner with a client.
“I drink, I design and go to dinner. That’s what I do,” he said with a smile. “I think it is all part of the creative world, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some wonderful clients.”