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Publication Date: 2014-03-11

House Tours

Once Upon a Time in the West

On 90 acres above the Pacific, Ruthie Sommers creates her own vision of the good life.

Written by Melissa Goldstein | Photographed by Coral von Zumwalt

Produced by Sarah Storms

The drive to Ruthie Sommers’s ranch north of Santa Barbara, California, conjures numerous encounters with the natural world: glimpses of vertigo-inducing ravines, up-close-and-personal parlays with drowsy, slow-moving cows. But perhaps the most notable occurs in the rustic driveway when you come face to furry snout with her border collie–shepherd mix, Bear—the puppy who appeared with Sommers on the cover of the 2005 debut issue of Domino and is now, at 10 years old, a canine elder statesman.

For design lovers of a certain ilk and era, Sommers and Bear are the frozen-in-time poster couple for a decorating revolution. As the initial face of the much-loved, game-changing magazine, Sommers embodied a shelter-world version of Carrie Bradshaw—an aspirational yet relatable high-style champion, whose infectious energy and penchant for mixing modern with vintage and classic inspired a legion of readers to dream, I can do that too.

Sommers, of course, is no fantasy character; in fact, with her charming non-sequiturs and unquenchable thirst for conversation, the Los Angeles designer makes a case for truth being more interesting than fiction. Sitting in her immaculate kitchen, nibbling on a raw cacao macaroon (which, she assures you, has an aphrodisiac kick), you’d be hard pressed to keep up with her rapid jump cuts among such topics as the Congolese war, the Arctic as travel destination, and the merits of rose face oil—all while Sommers is pruning wildflowers in a 1950s floral dress and dancing with her papier-mâché-masked eldest daughter. “My [professional] process involves massive ADHD,” she says. “But I get a great sense of satisfaction from the fact that my clients feel safe with me.”

Much has changed in the eight and a half years since that pivotal cover. Sommers closed her beloved West Hollywood store, Chapman Radcliff Home, to focus on her burgeoning client roster; married surfer-boyfriend turned media exec Luke McDonough; picked up countless editorial accolades and celebrity fans, including Drew Barrymore; and became mother to three daughters, six-year-old Eloise, three-year-old Bailey, and two-year-old Posey. These days, her work pace is purposefully slower; she takes on select long-term projects—one or two spanning two to three years each. It’s a move toward cultivating a well-rounded life that leaves plenty of time for family, second-career voyeurism (she’s currently studying pediatric nutrition), and hobbies such as painting and photography. There’s also her forthcoming lifestyle blog the Honest Hypocrite, in which she plans to expound on design, entertaining, environmental concerns, and health, among other subjects. “I want to look at juxtapositions—I talk about living with less, and yet I have a ranch. I won’t give my kids sprayed strawberries, but I had four cigarettes the other night,” she says. “It’s about poking fun at myself but also staying informed.”

Two years ago Sommers and McDonough purchased their 90-acre coastal spread, seduced by the prospect of a weekend getaway with surfing potential not far from their full-time base in L.A.’s Hancock Park. “It’s been a life changer, and it’s just my speed,” Sommers says. “This is our chance to take a step back and be with family and friends.” The setting has an enchanted sleepaway-camp atmosphere thanks to a self-imposed ban on electronics; an artesian well and apricot orchard; and the girls’ daily activities, which range from games of Nature Spy to theatrical productions with titles like Bobcats and Owls. There’s a halcyon quality in the crisp air, a bit like the beginning of the film version of Atonement (if the story had taken place on a California ranch).

A wood-shingled house serves as the family’s main living quarters. Step inside and you’re greeted with an Axel Vervoordt–style tableau in the living room consisting of a gilded antique mirror over a linen sofa by Brenda Antin and a stone fireplace topped with a vintage painting of a pair of whippets. Downstairs, the family shares a two-level sleeping area; McDonough and Sommers’s minimal bed sits next to Posey’s crib and a decadent shag Lanvin rug, while Eloise and Bailey’s light-filled bedroom below is a celebration of girlhood innocence, with rose-colored tufted velvet stools picked up in Paris, an array of wildlife prints, and a dress-up wall stocked with millinery ranging from feather headdresses to psychedelic berets.

“I work on so many houses where people think they need this shoe closet or that double-island kitchen or perfectly decorated bedrooms for each of their children. My girls just need to be together,” says Sommers with her trademark conviction. “As someone who’s been in the design world, I want to help alleviate that stress. I’d like to be the calm voice that tells clients, ‘It’s okay,’ instead of someone who says, ‘Aubergine and bright green are great!’ ”

Entertaining is ingrained in the architectural blueprint here, and spaces for visitors abound, each reveling in its own visual concept. In the guesthouse, a screened patio with wicker furniture opens onto a master bedroom whose suzani spread plays off an ornate painted Italian screen. An adjoining kids’ room with wraparound windows has a storybook flavor, with floral bedding that seems snatched from the set of Anne of Green Gables next to old-timey wooden toys and an array of owl-centric artwork. “I have grandiose memories of my own camp experience, so I’m trying to translate it here,” Sommers says.

A stand-alone bedroom with a whitewashed Hamptons sensibility sits at the highest point of the property, offering a honeymoon-worthy view of the landscape, while a two-level barn on lower ground provides yet another hosting venue. There, a ground-floor bunkroom oozes a far-flung Tony Duquette influence with a riot of embellished, Indian-inspired bedding and a ceramic turquoise genie bust Sommers picked up in Palm Beach. The apartment upstairs testifies to Sommers’s self-proclaimed “old-lady” tendencies: a French toile screen, a stately four-poster bed from the L.A. store Hollyhock, and a corner vignette with a period portrait of a Hitchcockian blond beside a three-tier midcentury lamp and a lounge chair upholstered in a muted Peter Dunham print. “Isn’t it so World of Interiors? Couldn’t you just die?” the designer murmurs.

But Sommers’s true pride and joy lies next door in the barn’s spacious main room, where houseguests gather under the pitched roof for late-night hang sessions of the backgammon, poker, and acoustic-guitar-sing-along variety. There are multiple places to lounge—including an oversize Moroccan ottoman picked up at Hollywood at Home—and several tongue-in-cheek nods to man-cave kitsch, such as mounted deer antlers and vintage copies of Playboy.

“Websites like Pinterest might make you think, ‘I’ll just copy Bunny Williams’s fabulous barn in Westchester! ” she confesses of her original plans for the space, lighting up as she speaks of Art Deco wallpaper and diagonal-patterned wood floors. “But none of the house looks like what I had originally envisioned—it came together with what I found and what I could afford. And then you’re happy with what you did, and it’s all fine,” she explains with a shrug. Her surroundings are what Sommers credits for driving this particular perspective home. “It’s so authentic here, and it helps me realize what’s most important. I feel like my design mentality is going in reverse,” she says. “To me, this is enough.”

Written by Melissa Goldstein | Photographed by Coral von Zumwalt | Produced by Sarah Storms


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