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House Talk

No. 4 - July, 2002

A Passion for Art Deco
A talk with Marilyn Ambra and Nelson Thorpe

In our continuing series about homeowners and their environments, Sheila Sabine of the Glass/Sabine team recently met with clients Marilyn Ambra and Nelson Thorpe in their beautifully restored home in Oakland’s stately Crocker Highlands neighborhood. As real lovers of the Art Deco period, Marilyn and Nelson had very specific requirements when purchasing their first home together. Here’s what the Glass/Sabine Team  found out in a recent interview.

GST     Of course I remember your focused search for the perfect home, but tell me more about where you were living when you started house-hunting.

MA       It was 1998, and Nelson and I had just become engaged.  At the time, I was living in an Art Deco apartment in San Francisco, and Nelson was living in a craftsman house in Berkeley.  We both knew what we would be looking for in a home, but as you well remember, it was not so easy to find.

GST      Right.  But tell me about your interest in Art Deco.

MA       Well, backing up just a little, Art Deco has been a significant thread in my life for many years.  I began to gravitate towards objects and pieces from the Art Deco era when I was in high school.  I became a real student of the period, and learned that there are many interpretations of the style.

GST      So, your interest in Art Deco was not something you learned from your family but rather, it came to you almost as something you had always known and loved.

MA       Exactly.  I started meeting people in social settings, people for whom Art Deco was a real passion and a focus of their lives.  When Nelson and I met, we found that we, too,  shared an interest in Art Deco.

GST      So, when you decided to start your house search, what criteria did you use?

MA       We were looking specifically for a house in Oakland not only to be close to our jobs, but because we saw that many of the neighborhoods had been developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s which is the era we focus on for our collection and décor.  So, Oakland made sense historically. 

GST      And, as I recall, you had other specific criteria.

MA       Yes.   We hoped to find a Spanish Mediterranean or French Normandy style home that had been built in the time period just after the end of World War I and before the start of World War II with as many original details as possible.  The East Bay has so many homes that are like living museums and the less they have been renovated, the happier we are!  In other words, we wanted to find bathrooms with the original tiling – no matter what the condition.  We were delighted when we saw any untouched and original building materials – wood, wrought iron, and colored tiles.  Our love of Art Deco leads us to appreciate all the beauty of that era and we blend modern conveniences in an appropriate way while maintaining the integrity of the period.

GST      How long did it take you to find your dream home?

MA       It took about one year looking every weekend.  I viewed the process as similar to shopping for antiques – when we saw the house, it was like finding the perfect piece of Art Deco furniture.

GST      What were your first impressions when you saw the house?

MA       When I walked through the house, I was pleased by the floor plan, the overall layout, and the ‘flow’ of the rooms.   And immediately, I noticed specific architectural details such as the wrought-iron staircase, the high ceilings, the archways, the carved doorway and the hardwood floors.

GST      What about the existing décor?

MA       What I saw was a 1920’s French Normandy home done in modern ethnic furnishings – completely incompatible with the style of the home.

GST      From the realtor’s experience, that is a very typical phenomenon.  In our business, we see this kind of contrast all the time.  I think what can be very inspiring to our readers is how you were able to instantly erase what you saw and visualize how all of your Art Deco furnishings could live happily in the home.

MA       Yes.  Actually, I learned to do that a long time ago in my Art Deco shopping.  For example, our living room has a great French design fireplace, and it was easy to imagine how we would furnish it.

GST      As I sit here in the living room, I see a fantastic couch that must have a story to it.

MA       The couch is from the 1920’s.  It was designed for a family in Denmark and the lines are French and Spanish, reminiscent of Norma Desmond’s grand palace in the movie SUNSET BOULEVARD.  It is a so-called sleeping sofa so both sides drop down; it took us 18 months to find it.  As you can see, we had it recovered in navy blue mohair.  It has iron finials in the shape of a crown.

GST      What about some of your other pieces?  It seems that they all have their own personalities, as though these are your children you have found and lovingly placed in your home!

MA       Each piece definitely has a story.  The grand piano is a 1929 Steinway with its original finish -  and it is also a player piano.  Another piece we really love is the table in the living room.  It came from the first-class smoking lounge on the Queen Mary and it converts from a cocktail table to a game table.

GST      And what about the window coverings?

MA       We had the draperies throughout the house custom designed using colors, designs and textures found in a 1923 home decorating book.  They were handmade into authentic floor-to-ceiling drapery panels hung from wrought iron rods.

GST      What will happen to the existing kitchen?

MA       We have great plans.  We are going to restore the kitchen using the original blueprint.  We plan to install a vintage stove and a coil-top vintage refrigerator and we’ll work with the original blue tile.  The best part is that in the garage, we found a dusty old cabinet that used to live on the wall behind the location of the current refrigerator, so of course, we’ll put the cabinet back where it was!

GST      Nelson, you’ve been so quiet, but I’d like you to talk about the light fixtures.

NT        On the last day of our honeymoon in Rome, we discovered (and bought)  the wrought-iron light fixture that you see in the foyer and then spent the rest of the day trying to act out the words for cardboard and wrapping tape in Italian!  By now, almost all of the light fixtures in the house have been replaced and rewired with authentic vintage pieces. 

GST      And what about the dining room?

MA       These pieces are French and English.  The dining room is all done in mid-1920’s French Art Deco.  We have repeated the octagonal shape in the table, the china cabinet, the sideboard - and even in our dishes!

GST      What other plans do you have for the house?

MA       Now that we’ve restored and re-painted the exterior of the house, we want to get started on re-painting the interior. The personality of the rooms are established, so now I know what colors to use.  I want to start in the living room with a soft warm honey color then move through to the other rooms with appropriate warm colors.   When we painted the exterior, I sat outside with the painters in the afternoon light for days as they blended the colors and put them up until they got just the right shades.  The main body of the house is a soft sage green with gray tones, and the bulk of the wood trim is a gray tone with brown, and the window trim is a creamy lemon.  When we bought the house, the exterior was all white but now we have emphasized all the interesting details which gives real quality to the house. 

GST      I know the readers would like to hear how you have taken your interests into your workplace.

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For further information or questions for our House Talk column, 
please contact Glass/Sabine by email:  Sheila@GlassSabine.com
or call us at 510-326-5055.

  The Glass-Sabine Team is Number One!