LA Times Interview: Barbra Streisand Furnishes Her Design Taste.
October 10, 2009, 7:00am

The singer-actor discusses her evolving interests as she auctions many pieces.

LA Times Interview: Barbra Streisand Furnishes Her Design Taste.

Barbra Streisand, a well-educated student of antiques and vintage decorative arts, has finally declared a major: “Eighteenth century American furniture and the design of the architects Greene and Greene are my special love,” she says.

Think of it as a stylistic downsizing. Because her current three-house compound in Malibu is devoted to these particular genres, Streisand is auctioning nearly 500 items from other periods and styles — Louis XV and XVI, Georgian, Art Nouveau, Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright and Art Deco — that once furnished homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Manhattan but have long been in storage.

Proceeds from the Oct. 17 and 18 Julien’s Auctions event will benefit the Streisand Foundation, a nonprofit that supports environmental and women’s health programs. A free public exhibition of the pieces runs from today to Friday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.

The legendary singer-actress-director, who recently released her 63rd album, “Love Is the Answer,” phoned from Malibu to discuss her lifetime of collecting. That design journey has included a “Hello, Dolly” chair, a Victorian table that nearly became a sink, and paint colors that she says are as indescribable as “the taste of an avocado.”

How did you get started as a collector?

When I was a teenager in New York, I was buying antique clothes. I still am. Of course, when I was buying them then, beautiful beaded leather shoes were $4. Now, they are $400. I don’t know why I am so drawn to the designs of the past — I must’ve lived before — but I love when something stands the test of time, when it is so beautifully made you just have to stare at it. I remember thinking, “How could I ever have spent $45,000 for a Tiffany lamp?” But you look at it, and that just cannot be duplicated today. God is in the details, to me.

So do you consider Art Nouveau divine?

It has flowing lines, and women with flowing robes and flowing hair. It’s like music. I will always love Guimard, the greatest French architect who did the Art Nouveau Metro signs outside the subway stations in Paris. In my new house, I built a street of little shops in the basement, and one of them is decorated in Art Nouveau.

You are selling some beautiful glass pieces in that style. What exactly are epergnes?

They’re for flower arrangements. They have a group of delicately blown colored glass vases for showing off flowers with little baskets at the base, where you can either put more flowers or little candies. I think they are French in origin. Obviously the name is.

The auction catalog describes Lot 16 as “a Victorian Rococo papier mâché arm chair with mother of pearl inlay, gilt and paint decorated details.” Where did that come from?

When we were making the film “Hello, Dolly” in 1968, they asked what kind of furnishing did I want in the trailer. I said I wanted [legendary actress] Sarah Bernhardt’s railroad car. And, boy, that’s what I got.

Is it hard parting with possessions that have so many memories that light the corners of your mind?

I have had some of these things in storage for so many years, it’s ridiculous. They were things I loved and didn’t want to get rid of it. And then I thought, “If you really can’t use it, why not let someone else enjoy it?”

What was your first big decorating project?

In 1964, I moved from a cold-water flat with a bathtub in the kitchen on 3rd Avenue in New York to an apartment on Central Park West. I had it for around 35 years, and in that time, it went from French to English and finally became Americana. It also had a Stickley office and Josef Hoffmann furniture from the Viennese Secession.

The first session of the auction will feature furniture from your home on Carolwood Drive in Beverly Hills. What was that home like?

It was built in 1929, and it was Mediterranean. I don’t like Mediterranean architecture, unless it’s in the Mediterranean — put it that way. The living room was really a library; all the walls were books. When I bought the house, it was a hodgepodge of a room. And then I designed the room around an Art Nouveau lamp that I thought was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

So you create interiors around an object rather than a theme?

Oh, yeah, I do rooms around things. My living room now is done around a pair of pillows I bought 25 years ago.

Those must be some pillows.

They are this beautiful shade of green. How do I describe it? There’s no way to say. I love things that are indescribable, like the taste of an avocado or the smell of a gardenia. This green has the right amount of yellow, of gray, in it. I’ve never liked primary colors, except for red with black and gray. I love pink and burgundy. Wherever I live, I always seem to do a burgundy room.

Would you say you’ve been around the color wheel a few times?

I’ll see a celadon green room in an 18th century New Hampshire house and just fall in love. Colors stay in my head. I just found a swatch of wallpaper from my 1964 apartment in New York, and it’s the same color I just painted a room in my new house. I have a room in my new house called the root cellar that is filled with things I show to my painters — old drawers where the paint is worn away by time and love and people handling it with the oil on their fingers around the knobs.

How did that gorgeous red sofa and chairs by George Smith end up on the auction block?

They were in my New York apartment. They started off in off-white damask trimmed with a pale yellow cord and fringe. Then I had them done in red silk velvet, which was $200 a yard, that fabric, with mustard trim for the burgundy den. Later, I saw a BBC drama which had a blue paneled room, which I decided to do in my new house. When I did that, I realized that the red was wrong.

You have a lot of turn-of-the-century parlor-style wicker, but what’s the story behind Lot 246, the gothic black Victorian table with the carved sphinxes and urns?

I was doing a bathroom based on a lamp that had a matte black glass base, so I found this table with a marble top. I was going to make that into the sink vanity and even had a back splash made to fit the back. Then I found something better, so I never used it.

The back piece cost $500 to have made, on top of $3,500 for the table, plus I paid to have it repainted. I don’t know what they’re selling it for, but someone is going to get a bargain.

Lot 250 is a Victorian wedding globe with flowers and ribbons under a glass dome that looks positively of-the-moment for fans of the neo-Baroque.

Really? I’ve had it for a long time. It was made with little mementos for brides to celebrate being married, and I think it is so beautiful, but I don’t have anywhere to put it. All my shelves are filled with antique dolls and miniature things for them.

When did you become interested in American Arts and Crafts?

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, I decided to get rid of the flowery Art Nouveau things. There was too much color going on and that’s when I switched to Arts and Crafts. I had a Frank Lloyd Wright desk from the Bradley House [in Kankakee, Ill.] and a beautiful copper Dirk Van Erp lamp. In the dining room, I had a Stickley Director’s table with eight chairs on an incredible rug with this beautiful blue-gray color. I loved that color so much I had drapes and Heath pottery pieces made to match it.

The Arts and Crafts style isn’t very girly or romantic, is it?

Things in that period were textured and a little bit crude. They used linens instead of satins and velvets. So I put rose color velvet on the masculine wooden furniture to feminize it. It’s the tension of opposites that gives it balance.

You are selling a Gustav Stickley tall-back rocking chair that is estimated to fetch between $12,000 and $15,000. What makes it worth so much?

That’s a really rare find. That’s not regular Stickley. It’s designed by Harvey Ellis, and his pieces are very special because they are inlaid with copper and pewter. That’s a hard one to give up, but you have to let things go.

Did you ever sit in it?

I sat and rocked in it all the time. I love rocking chairs.

You had also had a love affair with Art Deco, right?

Oh, yes. I bought an original Art Deco town house in New York and decided that I wanted to live in L.A., but I kept the light fixtures and architectural wall trim. Then I built an Art Deco house in California. I decided to do it black to gray and rose to pink, and nobody looked good in it. You couldn’t walk in that house wearing turquoise. The whole project took five years, and by the time I was done, I didn’t like Art Deco anymore.

Is that why you are selling those pink Deco vanity lamps?

And all that tin molding, and the pink mirror medicine chest where I displayed all the iridescent shells I found on the beach in Malibu. I kept maybe four things from that house. They are in a little sweet shop that I have in my basement because they go with the stainless steel frozen yogurt machine.

Maybe Art Deco is just too modern for you. Do you like anything contemporary?

Modern leaves me cold. It just doesn’t grab me. Anything old is always better. I did go to the Bilbao museum by Frank Gehry, and that was quite astonishing. So far it’s the only thing I’ve liked that’s modern.

How would you describe your design sensibility these days?

You know I am making a book called “A Passion for Design,” which will come out for Christmas 2010. It will document the last design project I did, my house in Malibu, which took 5 1/2 years to build. Everything is based on architecture in 1904. I used old beams and floors and furnishings from around that period, whether it’s by [Scottish Arts and Crafts designer] Rennie Mackintosh or Greene and Greene, which is more rare and complicated, made from mahogany and cedar with ebony pegs. It’s a mill house and a farmhouse around a pond with a water wheel and vegetable gardens and a chicken coop so we can grow our own vegetables and have our own eggs.

Do you still go antiquing?

I love New England. We drive up the coast and go up to all these wonderful shops, but I don’t buy something unless it is very special.

Do you get a good deal because you are Barbra Streisand?

That works both ways. Sometimes people will see that I like something, and even though I’d be happy to pay for it, they insist upon making it a gift. And other times, there are dealers who think they can charge me double because they know I can afford it. That usually doesn’t work for them because I have a pretty good idea of what things are worth.

[email protected]