Reading Ellen, a Review

Home by Ellen DeGeneres
Publisher: Grand Central Life & Style, New York, 10/27/15
304 pages, 213 full-color photographs, 9.4 x 1 x 11 inches

Celebrity homes typically don’t hold much appeal for me—too glitzy and sterile and overdone. But I could slip into any of the homes profiled in Ellen Degeneres Home and feel as if I’d been there all my life.

But unlike Ellen, I would have stayed. In each one. Much longer. My favorite was her “Birdhouse” in the Hollywood Hills. Of it she wrote,

While the house is by no means tiny, it’s one of the more manageable homes we’ve ever lived in. I really think there’s something to be said for owning a home you can inhabit fully, a home with rooms you actually need and will use, and nothing more. The energy feels really right here; the home feels full. 

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I would, in fact, probably have found Birdhouse sooner and stayed there. Forever.

Ellen and Portia’s Birdhouse living room.
Most of what I’ve read about this book has been nothing but press release blah-blah. I know everybody loves Ellen (me included), but I also know PR claptrap when I read it because I’ve written enough of it in my lifetime. To my knowledge, no one has actually evaluated this book as a contribution to interior design AND its value as an engaging read. I want to remedy that.
Portia’s Birdhouse dressing room.

 What it’s all about

Ellen profiles through photography and narrative seven of the homes in which she and wife Portia De Rossi have lived. Besides the voyeuristic appeal of peeking into the life of a famous couple—we see a pretty impressive shoe closet at one location and more than one bathroom with serious spa quotients—we also learn how well-chosen furnishings work in many different settings.

A reading corner in the Beverly Hills home, where Ellen and Portia married.

The homes include a sprawling Beverly Hills compound, a 26-acre horse farm in the Santa Monica mountains, a midcentury ranch home in Trousdale Estates, a Tuscanite villa in Santa Barbara, the ultra-modern Brody House in Holmby Hills, two high-rise condos in Beverly West, and a modern ranch home in the Hollywood Hills she calls “birdhouse” for its vista of downtown Los Angeles.

A Birdhouse bedroom. All the woodwork and built-ins throughout the house are walnut.
Ellen admits to moving a lot but says it’s how she experiences life. Homes, it seems, share a lot in common with the people she interviews on her talk show, and she has fun getting to know both.
Ellen’s traveling flock of Lalanne sheep, shown here at Trousdale Estates.

Of the Villa, she said it feels as if it just may be she and Portia’s “forever home.” But I say, baahhh, as I’m sure those Claude Lalanne sheep she’s been lugging around would bleat if they had voice boxes.

Much to like

Views and kitchens don’t get much better than this one at the Villa.

All that aside, the homes are beautiful. I love Ellen’s taste, her whimsy, her sense of proportion. Her quirky personality shines through in the choice of furnishings and art, as well as in their arrangement. Though she sells many of her homes furnished, there is a cadre of items that travel with her, and it’s interesting to see how the same furniture, art and accessories look in different spaces, even differently functioning rooms.

I also like that about a third of the book is devoted to friends and collaborators—LA style mavens, if you will. Eight such people are profiled, many of them art and furniture dealers and/or interior designers. Ellen also profiles 12 stores where she gets much of her “good stuff,” some owned by said collaborators. I found it fascinating to see also how these people live and thus gain insight into their personal aesthetic and how it developed.

‘What this house has taught me’

The first of eight cabins Ellen renovated at the horse farm. The property was built in the 1920s by actor William Powell and includes four barns, all of which Ellen furnished and decorated.

At the end of the section on each house Ellen includes a summary entitled, “What this house has taught me,” which sometimes seems simplistic but was actually quite helpful as a guide for going back and looking at the photos again to see how she put each admonition to work. One in particular—“Books really help warm up any room, even if you don’t have bookshelves”—decided for me what photos to choose to use in this post. I love books, and using books is pretty basic decor. But I wanted to put a microscope on how it fit into Ellen’s design sense, so each of the photos included here use books in some way, shape or form.

The living room is from the same cabin as the previous photo.

Some of her best tips:

  • Start with a key piece in each room and design around it.
  • If the room is odd-shaped, divide it into different areas.
  • Group collections in a way that allows for free space around them.
  • Trim trees and hedges to reveal the sculptural quality of the plant. “Highlighting what the beauty nature has to offer can be just a matter of editing.” (An idea that works inside as well!)
  • To mix ideas, periods, price points, look for common threads that unite—color, finish, shape, proportion.
  • Maximize views and play to the room’s natural light.
  • Work your way around a room and make sure there’s always something beautiful to look at.
  • Decorate with negative (empty) space in mind.
  • Pay attention to patina and appreciate the story within the imperfect.

Key insight

The Brody House, designed by A. Quincy Jones, was built in the early 1950s for philanthropists and art collectors Sidney and Frances Lasker Brody.

I’ve often thought it would be neat to live in an ultra-modern house like the Brody House. Something with lots of glass, a crisp and clean silhouette, and cool angles and sight lines. Ellen says the Brody House has all this and more, that it is, in fact, “perfect.” Then she adds,

But as we all know so well, perfection can be a double-edged sword, because perfection isn’t always that accommodating. The home had a rigor, a restraint, and a meticulousness that was really difficult to maintain: It is a house that conceals nothing. It is a house of terrazzo and glass where you see everything—every speck of dust, every tumbleweed of pet hair, every smudged wall, every bit of hedge or lawn that might be growing in a bit haphazardly…We felt, a bit, like we were living in a museum. And ultimately it was too much.

A corner of the “dark, moody” office in the Brody House. I love the clerestory.

I hadn’t before thought of a home as either demanding something from me I couldn’t give or as helping me conceal (or not) the imperfection of everyday life. But now I intend to pay more attention to this idea and see if my home and I can learn to work together for our mutual benefit. Seriously.

Best advice from Ellen’s pals

A vignette in the Beverly Hills home. Ellen collects artist’s models,
including this beautifully patinaed portion of one from the 19th century,
which ties in niclely with the eyeglasses on the stand below the art.

From Ray Azoulay, owner of Obsolete in Culver City:

  • “Don’t coordinate. Great design isn’t about matching periods and styles, it’s about creating a conversation between objects, in an entirely new context.”
  • “Don’t cover up an object’s imperfections or story—age often makes everything better. It can be hard to suppress the idea that something is precious, particularly if you paid a lot for it, but use it, touch it, let it be destroyed a bit by everyday life. It deepens its story and adds soulfulness.

From David Cruz, co-owner of Blackman Cruz in LA:

  • “I really believe in ‘good ugly.’ There are many things that I buy that I really like, that are really ugle. They’re confrontation, they’re interesting, they’re often surprising.” (The “good ugly” things he buys that take a while to sell often find their way home with him, “so they’re not humiliated,” he says. Sweet.)
  • “I like a little neglect: Nothing is precious.”

From Tommy Clements of Clements Design:

  • “I am very influenced by fashion…like a great collection, a home should have an incredible narrative.”
  • “I have a difficult time with people who overanalyze design. Style is instinctual; it comes from the heart.”

From interior designer Jane Hallworth: “I love the thought of having a firm plan and then deviating from it.” For example, in her own home, a Santa Ynez farmhouse built in the 1970s, there isn’t a simple straight line anywhere, and that’s what she likes about it. “Because I can’t fix it, I can actually relax, enjoy filling it, and love the flaws.”

Room for improvement

In the Villa media room is “a deconstructed ottman by Clarke & Reilly.” Looks like duct tape holding down a tattered cushion to me. Not something my allergies or my aesthetic could live with.

I got bored with the seemingly endless list of designers and sources in captions. Writer that I am, I feel that captions, as well as the main text, should tell a story. In the caption’s case, it should be the story of the photo, including some tidbit that wasn’t in the main text. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Who designed something and where it was purchased is such a superficial part of that story, and the captions in this book left me feeling a bit lost, a lot intimidated, and certain that the only way I could achieve a similar look and feel was to have lots of money like Ellen.

The library at Trousdale Estates.

However, I do like to learn (when it’s made fun and interesting), and I would have welcomed the chance to learn about the artists and designers she name-dropped, why they created what they did, and why they appeal to her. In other words, what’s the “secret” life of each item? And since many of her objects are folk or ethnic pieces, more information on their original purpose would have helped.

The book has little of that. We may learn Portia gave Ellen a certain chair for a certain life event, or Ellen gave Portia a certain light fixture, but not why. Why the gift was meaningful? If that’s too personal to divulge, then don’t write a book inviting us into your private life.

A living room in one of the Beverly West condos.

An appendix at the end with a brief history of each designer mentioned would have been great, as well as an index, including a separate index of illustrations. Sources could have been listed separately (at the end) and then included in the general index, especially considering each one already had at least a two-page spread.

A display in the Beverly Hills home, which was built originally for actor Laurence Harvey.
Like books, Ellen says, tongue-in-cheek, “Emmys really warm up a room.”

Before a book is anything else it needs to be a BOOK. A full book with all the requisite parts. That’s part of its story to tell, years from now when someone in another century pulls it from the bottom of a stack in a dusty old shop and wonders, Who was Ellen and why did she move around so much?

Will I look at this book again? Again and again, as I mentioned, using the “What I learned…” ideas as search engines.

Would I buy this book again, knowing its flaws? Absolutely. It’s a beautiful book. And in Ellen’s words,

“Beauty is flawed, and realizing that makes everything that much beautifuler.”

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