7 / 7
David A. Keeps: Ocean blue starts at the front door and flows all the way through the house. Was that inspired by the colors of the bay?
Peter Dunham: Well, the house is on Lido Isle in the Newport Beach harbor, and it does face the water, so I’d be crazy not to make the most of the view. But mostly I was celebrating the color of Susan and Spencer Croul’s eyes. They both have the most amazing blue eyes. You should always have accents in the room that magnify the color of your eyes, because it’s the most important part of the face. The eyes are what you connect with. You have to flatter the house and the people who live there. Spencer is a big, strapping man, and no one had ever talked to him about matching the decor to his eyes, but that’s where my mind goes. It gives him something to laugh about with his surfer friends when he has them over to the house.
Keeps: So he’s a California surfer boy?
Dunham: He’s passionate about it—he rides the waves all over the world. He’s a cofounder of the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente.
Keeps: What did the house look like originally?
Dunham: Sort of a pseudo-Italian villa. It was stucco, with a red tile roof—that’s the general vibe on Lido Isle. They didn’t want that model-home look. They’re much more drawn to the old beach cottages of Newport Beach. The first time I saw the house I thought it needed to feel like a modern version of a luxurious 1920s yacht—mahogany floors, paneling on the walls, elements like rope and brass. But not using them in a thematic, nostalgic way, glopping it up with a coffee table in the shape of a ship’s wheel. I wanted to do it in a clean, lean way.
Keeps: So this was a major makeover, then.
Dunham: A makeover is my favorite type of endeavor. It’s much more interesting to take something that’s kind of a dog and make it really special than it is to do a house where the architecture is great and you just have to decorate. I love walking in and sizing up a space: Where do you want the kitchen? Where do you add windows? Then you start figuring how the architectural details are going to work, where the cabinetry belongs, where the lights should be, where the TV is going to go.
Keeps: What were the biggest changes here?
Dunham: I collaborated with Scott Laidlaw, who is really good at this type of beachy, lean coastal architecture. Paneling was added to the exterior and interior to give it a seaside character, an architectural distinction it desperately needed. The porch was incorporated into the living room. Two bedrooms were combined to make a master suite, and the ceiling was popped up over the bed for drama. It’s not the biggest front hall, so we scooped out a section under the staircase where there was a closet and put a settee there, so you don’t just float through. And we added a skylight to brighten the dark space. The banister was inspired by the one in David Hicks’s house, the Grove, in Oxfordshire. His front hall was small, but the banister made a big statement. It’s a modernist version of Chinese Chippendale fretwork.
Keeps: Why did you create this big, open living space?
Dunham: I always try to reduce the number of rooms and make them function better. I’m just not into these trophy dining rooms that have no life. This room, with the open kitchen, feels like a loft. It’s a modern way of living where everything is open.
Keeps: That might be the longest dining banquette I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Dunham: It makes it feel like a dining area, and not just a conference table floating at the end of the main room. And like a destination, where you can read or have coffee or do your taxes. It’s covered in Sunbrella, but it looks like it could be silk. When you tuft a common fabric, it elevates it.
Keeps: You use a lot of wicker, rush, and abaca.
Dunham: Interaction with natural elements is grounding. I love simple things that show how a lot of labor and love were put into them. The fact that the whole house was paneled from pieces of wood, over months, gives you a feeling that it has always been there, that it belongs. It’s contrary to the idea of slapping up drywall and calling it a day. People love the feel, the touch, the handiwork of wood. We instantly put soul in this house because we literally went around and did all the paneling by hand. It adds character and dimension, like wrinkles on a face, and gives it a sense of gravitas.
Keeps: So you like old things, I gather.
Dunham: I like things with patina. It’s against my nature to do a room that’s all brand-new; my shoulders start hunching up. I’ve got to bring in some stuff that makes you feel that you and this house existed more than three weeks ago. Even if it’s just a vintage floor lamp. Ideally, when I’m buying vintage stuff, if I can keep it in its original condition, I will. Why buy pieces that are 50 years old and then try to make them impeccable? I prefer a well-preserved beauty, not a face-lift.
Keeps: What else do you like?
Dunham: I like the eye to be charmed. I like things that your eye lights on and that make you dream, like those striped chairs in the living room that remind me of beach awnings in the south of France. I like a lot of varied sources of light. I like it to be above—on the walls, from floor lamps, from table lamps—to create a balanced, warm glow. I really don’t love a great big chandelier with a million bulbs. It’s like lighting a movie set. You don’t want the actors to have bags under their eyes. I love those three-way bulbs. Being a single man, trust me—quite frequently you need to keep them on the lowest setting.
This article first appeared in House Beautiful. Interview by David A. Keeps. Photography by Victoria Pearson.