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What is Hollywood Regency Design?

Low curves and and exotic paisley would be right at home in Old Hollywood.
Elsie sofa - low curves and and exotic paisley would be right at home in Old Hollywood.

HOLLYWOOD REGENCY is getting all the buzz in interior design nowadays; it’s a style that looks fresh and can incorporate modern pieces, with some old-fashioned wit and vintage flair thrown in. Hollywood insiders know it when they see it; the movie industry not only permeates every aspect of the city’s culture but has directly influenced furniture and interior design for decades now. The glamorous looks of Hollywood set and costume designers have long trickled out of the studios, into the imaginations of designers and magazine editors, and eventually into retail shops across the country. For those outside the Hollywood culture, however, it can be difficult to recognize. What are the elements of Hollywood Regency design? To know this, we must first look back at Hollywood’s heyday.

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Hollywood Regency incorporates the glamour and personality that movie stars displayed in their homes at a time when their stardom depended heavily on their personal image. Stars had to be seen at parties and having parties. Centered on entertaining, in particular the cocktail party, the style focuses on clean-lined, small-scale furnishings that let the people in the room stand out.

Draper Damask slipcovered wing chair
Petite Vintage Wing Chair with Draper Damask cotton slipcover, $1299 at Posh Living

Elegant, simple sofas and chairs are often outlined against window walls of soft velvet or silk drapery. The rooms are punctuated by unexpected artifacts; antiques, heavily ornate mirrors, Art Deco fabric patterns, Chinese vases, and bamboo accents. Some of the accessories are very theatrical – such as extra-tall white plaster floor lamps with palm fronds, or mirrored dressing tables and fainting couches covered in satin or velvet. Lacquered and mirrored surfaces sparkled. While it is not apparent in the old black and white movies, the interiors were often brightly colored.

Large scale Chinoiserie lamp with sculpted flowers

How did all of this glamour and theatrics end up in private homes? It seems to have begun with an MGM Studios leading man named William Haines. A popular movie star, he also dabbled in set design and in 1930 opened an antiques shop in Hollywood. Being friends with many of the era’s leading ladies, he was soon helping them with their interiors. He had terrific taste and was influenced by Modernism, so his interiors used clean-lined upholstery.

Chairs by the legendary Billy Haines used in a modern room.

But because he loved antiques and dramatic gestures, clients were treated to Chinoiserie lamps, bold colors, glossy lacquered pieces and Neoclassical elements. He loved to use interesting objects from all over the world to make a room unique and display the sophistication of its owner. The interiors he created for the Hollywood elite were photographed and copied by designers all over.

Another designer of the day also had a big influence. Dorothy Draper’s exuberant interiors at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia featured hugely overscaled and brightly colored versions of classic traditional rooms. Giant white plaster moldings are set off by walls in bright blue, coral, yellow and green. Wing chairs with huge flowers and giant camelback sofas dance on a black and white marble floor. The effect is splashy and fun, yet old fashioned, all at the same time. The Resort has been restored, and it is worth traveling to see. Dorothy Draper’s design advice focused on how to live in the home and entertain, and like Billy Haines she had a flair for the dramatic. Both designers used interior design to make a dramatic impression and to show off the people in the room, and that’s what Hollywood Regency is all about.

Dorothy Draper's floral curtains, bold floor and bright colors at the Greenbrier
Dorothy Draper's floral curtains, bold floor and bright colors at the Greenbrier.

Growing up in California, I was surrounded by elements of Hollywood Regency in some of the area’s finest old homes, and eventually pieces became available in thrift and antiques shops. Sofas and chairs copied the simple, elegant, and traditional English Regency antiques from the early 19th century. Neoclassical elements like the Greek Key design were popular in the 19th century (ancient Greece was being excavated at the time). Billy Haines copied them for his Hollywood style; it is the Regency outlines of the furnishings that give the style its name. It was so common around California that we didn’t really have a name for it, but it was always collectable because it had such flair; even a thrift store piece could add a bit of swank to an apartment. It was under-appreciated then; but it reflects a glamorous era that we long for as modern life becomes complex and less refined.

What should we look for to get that Hollywood Regency look?

First of all, we want to see color – Chinese red, yellow, apple green, turquoise. Add some shine with lacquered paint finishes on furniture or walls. Furniture shapes should be simple, but have some fun feminine curves. Look for interesting outlines and create graphic contrast by putting white or black furnishings against a brightly colored wall. For a crumbling Old Hollywood feeling, rich-but-faded colors like peacock blue, tomato red, pale gold and indigo recall the exotic interiors of the old mansions.

Lombard and a fantastic wall sconce, 1936
Carole Lombard and a fantastic wall sconce, 1936

Second, we need a touch of fantasy. Chinoiserie patterned wallpaper (that’s a word that means “in the Chinese taste”) with bamboo, parrots or pagodas is perfect. Fretwork should feature prominently. Add bamboo and cane chairs painted glossy white or even bright yellow or green; divider screens in a Morrocan style with bright white paint, and cartoonishly large ornate French style carving on mirrors and lamps that are bright white or silvered.

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Third, don’t forget pattern. A room full of plain surfaces will look too modern. Do a chair in a huge floral print or pillows in a graphic design. PillowFolly.com has a great selection of graphic, movie-set worthy throw pillows:

Pattern and color for a dramatic bedroom, 1945
Pattern and color for a dramatic bedroom with Lauren Bacall, 1945.

Dining chairs could have a patterned back with circles or Chippendale woodwork. An Art Deco abstract rug can really complete the look.

Fourth, go big. Really big. Mirror a whole wall, and hang a huge carved mirror right on top. Drape a wall with velvet, but keep the style simple without swags or tassels. For easy cocktail conversation, build a banquette that extends the length of the room and pile it with exotic pillows.

Finally, keep clutter to a minimum. Don’t overdo the pattern on fabrics or wallpapers – one wall or a chair is enough. Think back to the highly edited rooms of classic movies, where starlets relax languidly on long, low sofas and men in smoking jackets mix cocktails before lunch. Carefully stage directed, these rooms were created purely as sets for movie stars, and stars’ homes copied the same look. Furniture was arranged purely for conversation, not watching television, with a lot of small movable chairs and cocktail tables. A bar cart, set with glassware, liquors and mixers (or Pellegrino if you don’t drink liquor) is a welcoming touch. Look for high quality accessories, and avoid mass-produced imports. Lamps made of antique Oriental porcelains are classics. Foo Dogs and plaster busts can really glam up a mantel.

A Hollywood Regency room is exactly the opposite of mass-market decorating. It should look like the homeowner (or a fabulous set-designer friend) spent years scouring antiques shops and tag sales to find objects of true interest and enduring value. After all, you are creating a set for a life that is rich and full and interesting just like a movie star!




© 2008 Kerry Ann Dame. May not be reproduced without permission.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Figilis November 22, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Really enjoyed your feature on Hollywood Regency and design.
Please log onto our website all about Billy Haines, http://www.williamhaines.com to view both vintage and newly re-issued designs. Thank you.

John Hogan November 25, 2008 at 2:21 pm

Kerry Anne,
I just loved your very informative article “What is Hollywood Regency Design.” Recently I have been noticing such terminology when looking at some dealers websites when describing Chalet and Murano glass from the late 1950s up to 1980. People like to sling around terms without explanation or illustration. This is refreshing when one comes upon a writer such as yourself who writes with confidence and clearly illustrates and explains of which they speak.
Bravo! I commend you for your informative writing.

Little Red July 2, 2010 at 12:17 am

This is actually helpful. Thanks.

Jamie Hernandez February 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm

I just happen to run across this artical from another blog. Thanks for all the great information on this design style. I have long been a lover of this style but never really knew what the name of it was until recently, because it’s a style that seems to have been founded on the West Coast, but not limited too. I love it! Thanks

Cele mai tari haine online March 2, 2014 at 12:49 am

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Terry Bolo March 14, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Wonderful article, but how can you not mention John Elgin Woolf?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Elgin_Woolf

webmaster March 17, 2014 at 8:11 pm

Thanks for the link – fascinating! I’ve dealt primarily with furnishings and decor, but being familiar with some of these homes it’s very enlightening to know about the architect. Appreciate the comment – Cheers! Kerry Ann

Loretta W. June 18, 2014 at 11:10 am

Informative and well done, thank you!

Timothy Payton September 7, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Thank you for your great explanation, I am considering using Hollywood Regency in my new place and you have given my new insights into what I thought it was.

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