Foundations of Fame

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am

SUE WONG STANDS at the doorway of her home, resplendent in embroidered turquoise silk, jewellery draped around her neck and dripping from her ears. It might be 8.30am, but Wong is no slouch, any time of day.

'Welcome to The Cedars,' she says, shutting the door behind her.

Granted, 'The Cedars' could be a name for a rustic bed-and-breakfast in New England, or a cosy restaurant off the Californian coast. But here in Los Angeles it is the name of Wong's majestic hilltop mansion.

Fashion designer Wong, who is based in LA, escaped communist China with her family in the early 1950s and lived in Hong Kong before moving to the US. She is best known for her glamorous gowns which can be found in Harvey Nichols, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus, as well as shops in about two dozen countries, and she is revered in the industry, particularly by retailers, for making couture-quality clothes at relatively affordable prices.

Aesthetically, she mines other eras for her collections, everything from Victorian England to 1930s Shanghai. But whether she's designing a simple blouse or a full-length gown, Wong is all about the details.

So it's not surprising that The Cedars, her home for the past few years, is all about the details: opulent, princely and soulful details.

'It's really the quintessential Hollywood home,' says Wong of the 10,000-sq ft place that dates back to 1926 when it was built for film director Marcel Tourneur. It has had numerous incarnations, including as a home for silent screen star Norma Talmadge.

'So many famous people have crossed through these rooms,' says Wong. 'Movie star royalty, rock stars. It's had so many lives.'

The Cedars ended up in the possession of a psychology professor, who used it as a vast, personal library. While he owned it for 40 years, says Wong, he barely lived in it, instead stacking books as high as the six-metre ceilings and leaving them there for years on end.

About five years ago, the house came on the market, and while Wong was intrigued by it, she was on her way to China and didn't have time to see it.

'I had heard about the Hollywood grandeur of the place, the colonnades and beautiful frescoes. But by the time I came back from my trip, the place had been sold.'

Two years later, it was back on the market - but this time in a far more livable state. The previous owner, Xorin Balbes, is a developer and designer who specialises in buying, restoring and selling historically and architecturally significant houses. And while he updated components such as the plumbing and electric wiring, he paid little attention to the original frescoes, now faded, all over the house, the crumbling fireplaces, the gleaming gilded arches.

Wong, who has a home in Malibu, a condo near her office, a studio in downtown Los Angeles and a home in Maui in Hawaii that she calls her 'spiritual centre', wasted no time in buying The Cedars, and then spent two years restoring it. 'I travelled the planet to procure furnishings for it, and I designed a lot myself,' says Wong, who worked with LA-based Zoltan Papp, among the world's premier restorers and recreators of fine art, antiques and interiors.

'I wanted to stay period-appropriate to the house,' she says. 'I wanted to be faithful to the style of home from the golden era of Hollywood in the Twenties'.

The mansion has six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a gym, wine cellar, TV room with adjoining loft, and a separate guest house decorated like the main home. The grounds are landscaped with fountains, koi ponds and waterfalls, and the view looks out onto busy Los Feliz Boulevard below, and downtown Los Angeles further out. Inside, it is reminiscent of a grand Venetian palazzo.

On entering the house and walking down a hallway, its walls warm with gold, visitors are standing squarely in a formal living room/ballroom, a visual and tactile delight with its tones of burnished red, copper and gold. The walls in the cavernous space, which also includes a solarium, were painted a delicate pale orange. Papp restored a magnificent bronze screen fireplace, as well as some of the original Corinthian columns and extravagant mouldings. Reclining above the fireplace is a golden lion, one of 140 lions in the house. Wong says the creature is representative of the MGM big cat. A wrought-iron chandelier - also original to the house - is suspended overhead. There are modern touches too, as in a painting called Three Goddesses - Creativity, Abundance and Wisdom by American artist Jayme Odgers.

Wong also wanted to put her design skills to use in the space, creating an Art Deco-influenced sofa, round banquette and club chairs. She designed the drapes - extravagant floor-sweeping burgundy silk swathes of fabric that are reminiscent of one of her gowns. Otherwise, everything else in the room was handpicked by her: throne chairs from a Middle Eastern palace that ended up in a museum in Montreal from where they were shipped to a French antiques dealer. When Wong found them, they were in poor shape: broken frames and torn fabric. But she enlisted the help of Papp while she designed the new embroidered upholstery.

The adjacent solarium looks like the kind of place that once hosted star-studded soirees. A suite of four dark green velvet Art Deco chairs from the luxury ocean liner, the S.S. Normandie, and a table with gilded legs is covered in gleaming Madagascar ebony wood - something that appears frequently in the house.

Wong converted one bedroom into what she calls the Jimi Hendrix room (the rock star reportedly spent plenty of time here), done up in a plush Twenties Moroccan style. Wong says African/Moroccan influences were popular in Europe in that era. Here, they abound in the painted cabinetry, low brass inlaid tables and rich royal dark red furnishings. The attached 'Pompeii' bathroom has a beautifully tiled ceiling. Another guest room has handpainted ceiling frescoes with gold leaf detailing, its bed - like the others in the house - covered with a mass of embroidered cushions, shams and sheets. Wong says this room in particular was among the most challenging to restore, owing to a fire decades ago that left the ceiling covered in ash. Now, you can read the tongue-in-cheek sayings penned on the ceiling, including 'Never Trust a Man In a Time of Need' or 'When The Candles Are Out All Women Are Fair'.

Given the innumerable amount of pieces - small and large - in the house, culled from different parts of the world and countless sources, Wong had to be methodical in her approach.

'I went shopping everywhere and took photos of things that caught my eye,' she says. 'Then I started putting pieces together, imagining what would go where, and then made all my purchases. But I work quickly, and I found this came very easily and naturally to me.'

Her bedroom features paler shades; a striking four-poster canopy bed is covered in yards of sheer pleated fabric and a pair of Thirties slipper chairs in silvery silk damask had been sitting in storage for two decades until Wong found a place for them.

While Wong says The Cedars is her 'dream home', she has another project awaiting: 14 hectares of oceanfront property in Maui, Hawaii, where she wants to build a lush, sprawling and majestic home.

'But this house has such a lot of magic,' she says, casting her eyes over a ceiling in the library that depicts a chariot race. 'It's like a museum.'