With its curved walls and 1940s mural by an Oscar-winning designer, this home pays homage to the early days of Tinseltown
ow light makes you focus. It forces you to look closer, hear better. We are a few minutes into a tour of the Kenans’ Hollywood home when London-born director Gil Kenan stops. “Who’s barking? It’s not our guys,” he says, referring to their two dogs. “That’s not usual,” adds his wife, artist Eliza Kenan. “There are a lot of coyotes in the hills right now.”
We are standing in their dimly lit bedroom in Los Angeles’ Bronson Canyon, not far below the Hollywood sign and from where Hollywood ends. It’s a warm evening, and while the rest of the city is reaching for the last of the day’s rays, we’re shaded by hills. The house was built upside down, with the bedrooms below the living area. “It’s cave-like, and that works for us,” Eliza says.
Situated on a corner, the house is ship-like from the outside, with an imposing curved, grey facade, smallish windows and a flat roof. It was built in 1937, in the early days of Tinseltown, by Hungarian émigré Joseph Babolnay, for himself and his wife. Babolnay was an interiors architect who worked on the Pantages Theatre, an art deco Los Angeles landmark. “There are pieces of wood used around the house that look like they were taken from sets,” Eliza says.
Today it’s home to the Kenans and their 10-year-old daughter, Una. Eliza has a background in architecture, and describes how their home mixes the industrial lines of streamline moderne design on the exterior with an art deco warmth in the interior. The couple’s bedroom, like much of the house, is hand-decorated with thin panels of Philippine Lauan wood. In a section on the ceiling, original accent lights peep through it on to artwork and a pile of folded quilts – some collected, some made by Eliza. “We have a problem with piles,” she says, referring also to the books on their bedsides.
Although there are three main levels (basement, bedrooms, living area), every room is offset by a few steps; this layout gives you a sense of exploration, reinforced by hidden nooks. The Kenans have made a curved concrete staircase a place to linger, by painting the walls a charcoal grey and adding a gallery of images, including pieces made by friends, oil paintings from junk shops and travels, and a framed copy of their wedding invitation.
The pair met through a friend in 2003 and subsequently worked together on films, Gil as director and Eliza in the art department. First came Monster House, a children’s comedy-horror animation about an anthropomorphic house, followed by adventure film City Of Ember, set underground. “Our space inspires both of us,” Gil says. “We’re emotionally connected to where we live, and it affects how we work.”
When the couple first viewed the house in 2004, what they saw when they got to the top of the staircase persuaded them to buy it: a large mural handpainted on hessian across the interior curved wall of the lounge, telling the story of Wagner’s The Ring cycle. “We turned right and lost our breath,” Gil says. “It wasn’t on any of the listing pictures. And we were so excited, because it’s classic Hollywood style but also uses animation language.”
What particularly grabbed their attention was a warrior plunging his sword into the neck of a dragon, with its blood spraying up and coming down to become a river. “It’s a little bit gruesome and dark,” says Eliza, “which is [Gil’s] taste.”
Through research and information handed down with the house, the couple learned that in exchange for room and board from the Babolnays, the mural was painted in 1941 by a young artist called John DeCuir. DeCuir went on to win Academy Awards for production design on The King And I, Cleopatra and Hello, Dolly! The Kenans believe the mural was a gift from Balbonay to his wife, Olive, who was a music lover and teacher (they found her 1937 teaching log book tucked in a convertible desk). “We’re so grateful no one’s ever stuccoed or painted over it,” Gil says. “We partially feel like we’re caretakers for the house now.”
The living area is filled with things the family have created. The wall adjacent to the mural is covered by a bookshelf Eliza handmade in the garage. “We needed that because our wedding list was all books,” Gil says. Their approaches to belongings differ: while Eliza says they need to get rid of some books, Gil says they just need to find more space.
Running under the mural is built-in seating the couple made together, which holds records and magazines. Perched atop is a cast of Kathleen Turner’s hand that was used in Monster House. Further along sit three sculptures made by Eliza of masonry bricks wrapped in quilt batting and covered in bright linens and silks (sold at days-la.com). And on a vintage velvet sofa from eBay is a heart-shaped cushion that Eliza helped Una embroider when she was five, saying, LOVE UNA.
Turning left at the top of the stairs, you’re in the dining room. Over a table found on Craigslist is a painting by Los Angeles outsider artist Blitzstein. Last year, the couple wanted to continue the use of primary and secondary colours through the room, and reupholstered vintage dining chairs in red, green, blue and orange to match it. Four of the chairs sit around the table, the other two in the lounge. And everywhere there are more piles, stacks and collections.
“Every little object has meaning to us,” Eliza says. “Even things like pine cones that friends have given us have become treasures.” A shelf at the top of the stairs displays carefully arranged shells, stones and intricate metal trinkets. “I think if a burglar were to come in here they would just be very confused.”
Interiors style? Eliza: Personal and layered over time.
What book’s on your bedside? Eliza: Many, but always John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing.
What would we never find in your house? Gil: Meat.
Best thing about the neighbourhood? Eliza: Living in between hours of empty trails and Hollywood, with its chaos and craziness.
Favourite design feature of the house? Gil: The ship theme and the curves.
Biggest extravagance? Gil: After buying the house, a Vitamix.
Design hero? Gil: Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
Pet interior hate? Eliza: Hiring a designer to buy tchotchkes for you.
Most treasured possession? Gil: The mural and the library.
What are you saving up for? Eliza: To replace the 90s bathroom.
Last house guest? Eliza: A group of women artists I meet with once a month.