Time travels

Black-and-white kitchens like Ron Bernstein’s were typical of Vienna Secession. The table and chairs are circa 1910; linoleum squares were hand laid. (Béatrice de Géa / LAT)

Playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote reappears in the kitchen of Ron Bernstein's Hollywood bungalow, where a few other friends of the film-rights agent collect around a table composed just so with voluptuous fruits, delicate French pastries and Sauvignon Blanc ordered directly from the Loire Valley.

"You can leave me that screen in your will," says Foote, whose slew of major awards in a six-decade career includes two Oscars, an Emmy and a Pulitzer. "Wonderful thing."

Which screen, Bernstein wants to know, oh, the one behind the bathtub? Well, now, that was a find, hand-painted metal, spotted in Glendale, had to have it, had to, snapped it up and all the while thinking this is madness. Where to put it? Still, you can't pass up pieces like that. "They're looking for you as much as you're looking for them," Foote suggests in his amiable, often amused, manner.

Mad, nutty, crazed, obsessed — Bernstein has called the nature of his collecting by all those names, and himself "a strange and exotic creature," but an impulse buyer he is not. For years he has searched the world with a mathematician's precision for exactly the right furnishings to realize his unorthodox vision: — creating fin-de-siècle Vienna in the heart of Hollywood.

In the mid-'90s he was offered a trip to anywhere in Europe by a grateful client whose book he had sold to the movies for a big, fat figure, a negotiating skill that, along with his literary taste and instinct for hot properties, has propelled Bernstein to the summit of his profession at International Creative Management. (As the West Coast head of the book division at ICM, he represents Foote, Cormac McCarthy, Patricia Cornwell, Carl Hiaasen, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Hoffman, Margaret Atwood, Candace Bushnell, Mark Bowden and Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, among others.)

"I don't know why," Bernstein wonders, "but I chose to go to Vienna." And there, he fell in love — with a style and a philosophy of design. Bernstein was caught in the spell of Austrian Art Nouveau, otherwise known as Vienna Secession. Its hallmarks — the simplified shapes and surfaces ("no foof, no frou") the geometric patterns, the superior workmanship and materials — appealed at once to his sensibilities.

By the time he returned to L.A., he'd made the decision to go Viennese in his classic 1915 bungalow, a decision startling for its turnabout given the stature of his Arts and Crafts collection. So perfected was Bernstein's aesthetic that a photo of the living room had been used as the cover shot for the book "American Bungalow Style" by Pasadena-based architectural historian Robert Winter, an authority on Arts and Crafts, and photographer Alexander Vertikoff. His carefully honed collection of furniture and decorative arts, amassed for 15 years and including rare pieces by Stickley, was "fabulous," says Winter. "Everything he had was museum quality."

When, in the fall of 1999, he rid himself of the whole lot, Craftsman Auctions devoted the first 18 pages of a catalog to "The Ron Bernstein Collection." Scores of his items were sold: textiles, tables, paintings, prints, leaded chandeliers. "Ah," Winter sighs, "they should have been in the permanent collection of the county museum. He had the variety, and fabrics nobody else had."

Bernstein had grown disillusioned with Arts and Crafts even before he traveled to Austria. "Once done, I didn't like it," he says. "I thought it was boring even though it wasn't just brown furniture in a brown room like a lot of people think. I reinterpreted it with color. But Arts and Crafts had also become overly familiar, cheapened. And I'm too iconoclastic to do what everybody else is doing." Besides that, he had come to realize a fundamental fact about himself: He wasn't the cozy, cottage-y type. "I like high style. Vienna Secession is the highest of high style."

In fact, Vienna Secession is a logical extension of Bernstein's Arts and Crafts phase. ("Arts and Crafts was my off-Broadway run. This is my Broadway run.") The Secessionists were a collective of progressive, disgruntled artists and artisans led by the painter Gustav Klimt, who, in 1897, broke with the traditional academy because of its fogyism, its strict embracing of the past. They wanted to look to their own age for new art and new design styles.

Bernstein's particular interest is in the works created by the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), a direct offshoot of the Secession formed in 1903 by Josef Hoffmann, an architect, and Koloman Moser, an artist known as "the master of Viennese Modernism."

Its idealistic aims in some ways echo that of the utopian Arts and Crafts movement: to save society from the soullessness of inferior mass manufacturing by creating household goods of fine craftsmanship and high-quality materials. Its motto: "Better to work 10 days at one piece than to manufacture 10 pieces in one day."

The workshop strove to integrate fine arts with crafts and to "reflect the spirit of the times in a plain, simple and beautiful way," as Hoffmann and Moser wrote. There was no reason that the functional should not also be exquisite.

Like the earlier Biedermeier, the Wiener Werkstätte style was a total design concept — from architecture to furniture to dishes to hardware to bookbindings — meant to permeate and thus enrich everyday life. Everything would be consciously designed to produce a unified environment.

It's that unity of expression that Bernstein is after, not by designing and creating products but by buying them and reinterpreting the aesthetic 100 years after the fact. What interests him is the totality, how it all comes together and relates, and that's what he believes is missing from the current Arts and Crafts show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "I don't think it gives you the real sense of the aesthetic," he says. "That's why I'm always disappointed with these shows — this piece in a case, that piece in a case. They failed to connect any of it to today."

Bernstein buys only what he thinks works and only what's pragmatic. For that reason, and because his eye is drawn to furniture and the decorative arts, he hasn't bought much fine art. "You can't sit on a Klimt," he says. But since the recent gift from Handler of an Egon Schiele pen-and-ink drawing ("You don't give Ron Bernstein a cheese basket," explains the writer) he's rethinking this "great weakness" in his collection.

He is attempting his own version of Vienna Secession, and he's had to teach himself "through poring over picture after picture in book after book that I can't even read," he says, getting up to retrieve one written in German.

"Love that kitchen! Black and white, that was the look," he exclaims, flipping through the yellowed and musty pages. He finds a photo of a brass fire screen that he hired a Pasadena metalworker, Matt Saunders, to duplicate for the living room, where it's as dramatic a focal point as a large diamond necklace setting off a strapless dress.

"I'm concerned with how things interrelate and integrate, and I'm concerned with getting things right. I care about the emotional impact, meaning how you connect to design — the id of design." Um. Has he been in psychoanalysis? "Every neurotic Jew has blabbed his head off to a therapist at some point," he jokes.