Ellen DeGeneres: Architectural design maven

New York Times News ServiceApril 27, 2014 


In an undated handout photo, Ellen DeGeneres at Warner Bros. Studios. DeGeneres, a hit on television and Twitter, will host 'Ellen's Design Challenge,' a design show on HGTV this summer.


Oh, to be Ellen DeGeneres’ decorator. Or her architect. Or her real estate agent. Or even her movers.

When the economy is still sputtering and the housing market hasn’t fully recovered, these are boom jobs.

In the last few years, the comedian and talk show host has been in home-renovation overdrive, buying and redoing more than half a dozen homes in Southern California. Built by renowned architects and filled with fine art and vintage Danish and French decor, many of the houses reveal a design sensibility that is more Architectural Digest than HGTV. Although DeGeneres can do low as well as high: This week she announced “Ellen’s Design Challenge,” a six-episode design show to air next year on that network in which contestants will compete to build furniture.

Her name appears so frequently on real estate blogs that one of them, Curbed LA, called her a “property hound” and wrote of a recent transaction that she was “at it again.” One imagines a bat phone in DeGeneres’ living room — a direct line for Los Angeles’ top brokers to call with exciting new pocket listings. DeGeneres practically confirmed as much, speaking by phone recently from her office at Warner Brothers.

“I somehow manage to find out what’s on the market everywhere,” she said. “People come to me. I like looking whether I’m buying or not. I love real estate.”

Waving away the notion that she is a calculating house flipper, DeGeneres added: “I’ve never bought to sell. I always say: ‘This is it. I’m never moving.’ People laugh at me now.”

Hollywood is a town filled with boldface architecture buffs. Diane Keaton has bought and sold several historic properties, including a home designed by Wallace Neff and two built by Lloyd Wright. The actress Kelly Lynch is a well-known aficionado of midcentury design and owns homes by John Lautner and Richard Neutra. And Brad Pitt is so enamored of the craft he teamed up with Frank Gehry to build affordable housing in New Orleans and tried his hand at making furniture.

But DeGeneres, 56, has taken her passion for architecture and design to another level. The homes she has purchased and renovated with her wife, the actress Portia de Rossi, 41, are wildly diverse in style, period and setting, and with each project her tastes have become more sophisticated, her ambitions grander.

It was in 2007 that her real estate activity seemed to really kick into high gear. There was the house in Beverly Hills, built in 1963 by the celebrated firm Buff & Hensman for the actor Laurence Harvey. DeGeneres and de Rossi renovated the main structure and bought two adjoining properties, creating a three-acre compound with two guesthouses, an underground parking garage, a pool, a fitness center and a garden with a koi pond.

That project was followed two years later by a 26-acre ranch in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Built in the 1920s for the actor William Powell, the estate had become a shabby equestrian facility; under DeGeneres’ enthusiastic direction, the main house was redone, a yoga pavilion and tennis court were added, and the property’s eight cabins were decorated in various styles, brimming with rare French fixtures or vintage Danish furniture.

Then, in quick succession, she bought a pied–terre in Beverly Hills; a home in the ultrachic Trousdale Estates neighborhood that was designed by Hal Levitt and had been photographed by Steven Meisel for a Versace campaign; and a 1960s Malibu beach house owned by Pitt.

DeGeneres no longer owns any of those homes. In some cases, she sold them soon after renovations were completed and a spread ran in Architectural Digest or another shelter magazine — the celebrity renovator’s equivalent of a trophy pelt. In the case of the Malibu beach house, the scent of new carpet hadn’t disappeared before DeGeneres relisted and sold the place, seven months after she bought it.

Tommy Clements, a partner in Clements Design, a Los Angeles firm that has worked on several projects for DeGeneres, including the Hal Levitt house, said her serial house-jumping suggests not a restless spirit but a creative one. “She’s constantly looking to be challenged,” Clements said. “She’s constantly looking for that creative process because it’s something she enjoys doing.”

Jane Hallworth, another Los Angeles designer and gallery owner who has worked for the comedian, said DeGeneres enjoys getting creative people to work together. “She brings us in and has these different collaborations,” Hallworth said. “In the end, each house gets better and better.”

DeGeneres’ latest home may be her crowning jewel. In January, she paid $40 million for the Brody House, built in 1949 for Sidney and Frances Brody, wealthy art collectors who commissioned a huge Matisse ceramic for the enclosed courtyard.

Situated on 21/2 acres in the lush Los Angeles neighborhood Holmby Hills, the house represents the coming together of a trifecta of legendary design talent: A. Quincy Jones, a noted midcentury architect whose reputation has soared in recent years; the celebrity interior designer William Haines; and the landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who designed the grounds, with an expansive lawn and elegant coral trees that resemble massive bonsai plants.

In the view of Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Brody House is one of the top five homes in the city. “It’s an amazing house,” said Dishman, who toured its glass-walled bedrooms and living spaces before DeGeneres bought it.

“What makes it so amazing is the architecture — it’s about volume and space — and the way it’s sited on the lot,” she said. “You see hills. You see the San Gabriel Mountains. You feel like you’re in a very special place in Los Angeles.”

The home’s new owner couldn’t agree more. “The light quality is incredible,” DeGeneres said. “Even in the hallways. Jones put in skylights so there are no dark rooms.”

She added, “We feel like custodians to an important piece of architecture.”

If ever there was a house that could keep DeGeneres and de Rossi from moving again, this may be it. Hallworth, the designer and gallerist who was brought in to advise on the renovation, said she doesn’t see how the couple could possibly scale up from here.

“It seems like all of those other houses were steppingstones to the Brody House,” she said. “In each one they acquired a few beautiful pieces, and now the Brody House has an unparalleled collection of furniture and art.”

Asked if she had finally arrived at a permanent home, DeGeneres responded affirmatively - as she has in the past.

“My answer is yes,” she said. “I think there’s nowhere to go from here. It’s the best house I’ve ever lived in.”

She added, perhaps rhetorically, “Where would I go?”

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