Go with the flow
At his 1954 Hollywood Hills house by architect John Sjoberg, costume designer David Norbury left well enough alone
Deanna Kizis -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Sometimes the best design choice is just to leave everything as is. That's what costume designer David Norbury did with his two-bedroom Hollywood Hills house, built by architect John Sjoberg in 1954. "When I moved in, I was all about fixing this, doing that, changing this, changing that. But a very smart contractor told me I should live here for six months first. In the end, I didn't do anything," says Norbury, who's used to making split-second visual decisions. (He styles TV commercials for high-end lifestyle products.)
As a result of Norbury's restraint, the house remains in pristine condition—so much so that, when he pulls out a Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story that ran in 1955, there's very little difference. The kitchen still has its cabinetry veneered in Japanese ash, the living area still features its concrete fireplace mantel, and the structure as a whole retains virtually the same shoe-box silhouette.
The Times article praised Sjoberg for combining "Danish design with American convenience," and his layout is just as functional in our century as in the last. The 2,300-square-foot open plan lends itself perfectly to the indoor-outdoor Southern California lifestyle that helped lure Norbury from New York, like so many East Coasters back in the '50s. One 15-foot-long section of wall, made entirely of glass, overlooks the pool and the Hollywood Hills. Eucalyptus, pine, bamboo, and Australian tree ferns lend ample privacy—he removed the blinds to have them cleaned and never put them back up.
Born in Canada, Norbury spent his childhood in Johannesburg, and the Sjoberg house brings back sunny memories. "I love the Southern Hemisphere. Even San Francisco is too strict and northern in attitude for me," he says. "I never wear shoes. In South Africa, the first thing you did when the school bell rang at the end of the day was take your shoes off for the walk home." Now he can take two barefoot steps out of his living area, and he's in the pool.
The living area showcases some of his favorite pieces. He's an avid collector of vintage Arne Jacobsen chairs, which he started buying in New York in the '80s. His dining table is by Florence Knoll, his end tables by Eero Saarinen. Having opted not to buy a sofa, Norbury invites guests to sit on cushions found at the Rose Bowl Flea Market and re-covered in velvet, canvas, and leather. He placed them around a marble-topped cocktail table purportedly owned at one point by fashion designer Halston. An exhibition print of Herb Ritts's Batman, acquired at Christie's, leans against one wall. Artifacts collected on location—Tibetan prayer beads, Ethiopian footstools—are scattered here and throughout the house.
Down the hallway are two bedrooms. The master bedroom features a custom headboard made by sewing geometric-patterned woven wool onto a foam-covered panel upholstered in black canvas. In the master bath, a previous owner's addition, the shower opens onto a small balcony, so Norbury can bathe alfresco. The guest room's stacked futon mattresses impart a Zen quality, echoed by the shojilike detailing of the guest bath's skylight.
From the living quarters, outdoor steps lead down, past a koi pond, to the office and the carport. Sjoberg chose this split-level configuration because of the slope of the site, and he bolted the house directly into the hillside, an enviable situation for anyone living in earthquake-prone Los Angeles. The pool, also added by a previous owner, was blasted out of solid granite.
Alongside the pool, the patio is paved in the same flagstones as the interior, and the slatted roof of the house extends to provide shade. Norbury furnished the sheltered space like an outdoor living room, with a custom canvas-covered daybed, Eero Aarnio's fiberglass Pastil chairs, and blue and yellow Murano-glass lighting globes. In the summer, Norbury's guests—and he always has guests—spend their time socializing and eating outdoors. "The living area becomes just a hall you pass through," he says. "It all happens outside."
Since there's a fountain both in a rock wall that surrounds the pool and at the front of the house, the sound of falling water plays in stereo. "Listen to what it's like here," says Norbury, pausing in the living area. "When you walk through the house, all you hear is the water." He pauses for a moment, then adds, "I guess the only thing I don't have is that wonderful L.A. night view of city lights. On the other hand, I can walk around with no clothes on, and nobody can see me." If that isn't good design, what is?