IN the design empire of Los Angeles, where Modern is king and where clean lines and empty spaces have come to define so many castles, it's something of a surprise to see a resurgence of frescoes, murals and other painterly effects. But sure enough, Cher is working with designer Martyn Lawrence-Bullard on new interiors that will include dozens of Buddhas and scenes of ancient India painted on the walls by Kelly Holden. Oliver Stone hired artist Nancy Kintisch, who cites Bette Midler and Candice Bergen as clients, to transform his dining area into a deep red, East Indian-style affair. Hutton Wilkinson, who carries on the work of legendary designer Tony Duquette's studio, is embarking on a five-year overhaul of Sophia Loren's former home in Thousand Oaks for a young British couple, who are considering a western theme with hand-painted elements.
Think of the trend as a sequel to the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when, despite the rise of midcentury Modernism, Los Angeles witnessed the creation of some of its richest interiors thanks to the likes of designers William Haines, James Pendleton, Billy Baldwin and the most opulent of all, Duquette — all of whom incorporated murals in the homes of the rich and famous. "The whole idea back then, as it is today, is to encourage a kind of daydreaming," artist Bruce Tunis says. "It sparks creativity, which is something people have always responded to in L.A."
Today, that fantasy isn't bound by Tuscan landscapes, trompe l'oeil and other traditional works that may make Modernists cringe. In some cases, clients are asking for fresh interpretations of classic motifs and techniques. Artists are delivering bold, abstract statements and unconventional color. The result is not so much the revival of an old art form but the reinvention of it.
Holden, for example, was trained in ancient fresco techniques in Italy, but she and Lawrence-Bullard recently brought a contemporary Indonesian touch to Cheryl Tiegs' house. As with Cher's project, Tiegs' wall paintings aim to find the delicate balance between the casual and sophisticated.
"They're both absolutely mad designs," Lawrence-Bullard says. "You could say they're both flights of fantasy, very romantic and very personal."
IN the early days of Hollywood, figurative wall imagery was common throughout the homes of the well-to-do.
"Adding original, hand-painted elements to the home was a big deal in the 1930s and '40s," says veteran interior designer Ron Wilson, who has an Asian-influenced scene painted in his dining room in Beverly Hills. "And that's mostly to do with Hollywood, because the stars lived in homes that were generally Spanish, Italian or Mediterranean, and those homes lent themselves very well to stenciling and hand-painted touches."
Those decorative elements quickly evolved into large-scale artworks, says painter Darren Waterston, who believes the origins of wall murals here can be traced to the movie industry's penchant for storytelling and the desire to give spaces a pictorial narrative.
"There was a definite relationship between murals and theatrical sets," Waterston says.
The movie colony routinely hired the same scenic painters who worked on movie theaters and set designs to create picturesque imagery in homes. Anthony Heinsbergen, whose commissions included Los Angeles City Hall, the nearby Biltmore hotel and virtually every movie theater downtown, carried the highest profile.
But there were others — scenic artists such as Hugo Ballin, who went on to direct classic silent films including "Jane Eyre" in 1921; Kay Nielsen, whose 1930s sketches for "The Little Mermaid" were inspiration for the 1989 film; and Haldane Douglas, who went on to be the art director on "The Glass Key" in 1942 and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in 1943.
Many of their residential projects are lost — diminished by time or demolished by the ignorant. A stunning example remains at the Cedars, the Beaux Arts-meets-German hunting lodge built in 1926 in Los Feliz. The home was built by Maurice Tourneur, the French director of "The Poor Little Rich Girl" with Mary Pickford, according to Fred Massarik, the UCLA professor emeritus who owned the property for 35 years. Tourneur brought in movie company technicians by the dozens to create intricately painted ceilings, figurative studies and gold leafing.
"The one person who was definitely involved in creating the murals was Mack Harris," he says, citing the late painter who helped shape an array of rococo finishes, including playful love scenes on the dining room ceiling and printed phrases in the original master bedroom, including, "Never take advice from a woman in difficult times."
It's no wonder the mansion has drawn creative spirits — rockers Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed and Arthur Lee, and actor Dennis Hopper. Fashion designer Sue Wong purchased the home in 2005 and brought in a mural conservationist to "brighten them up." She says the extraordinary richness of the interior inspires her work.
"I'm a detailist," Wong says. "So this is a house that's very appropriate to me because of what I do."
WONG would have been right at home among Hollywood's early elite, many of whom were besotted with all that is rich, grand and sensuous. When Cary Grant moved into Norma Talmadge's Santa Monica beach house in 1935, he tried to re-create Paris' famed Maxim restaurant in his dining room and bar, complete with exquisitely hand-painted murals. "If I can't go to Paris," he said, "Paris must come to me."