Pamela Skaist-Levy infused some much-needed levity and playful irreverence to her historic Beverly Hills estate.
“I was so scared of this house,” says Pamela Skaist-Levy while sitting in the media room of her expansive 1930s home. Built by noted Los Angeles developer Burton E. Green, who also constructed The Beverly Hills Hotel, the estate appears on the local register of historic properties, and occupies a sweeping corner lot bordered by a towering hedge and concealed by a massive gate. Beyond the imposing stone façade, the seven bedrooms and grand public rooms within are every bit a construct of formal scale. “It was so dark and intimidating. There were three layers of curtains on every window. And it was in Beverly Hills.”
Its history is as dramatic as the two centauride statues that flank the front entrance. Merv Griffin was a former owner, and it’s said that the proper garden on the north side of the lawn was one of Nancy Reagan’s favorite spots for clipping roses. Skaist-Levy, 50, whose long, blond hair has ends expertly dipped in blue dye, is Southern Californian to her very core, but she and the former First Lady don’t exactly share the same tastes. Skaist-Levy is one-half of the founding duo behind Juicy Couture and now, Skaist-Taylor. She and Gela Nash-Taylor have been business partners and best friends since they met working at L.A.’s trendy Diane Merrick boutique in the late ’80s.
“We were filling in for a friend who happened to be in rehab,” she says, drily. “How’s that for an L.A. story?”
Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor started Juicy in 1995, and their popular velour tracksuit, replete with its signature logo on the tush, has been credited with putting California casual on the map. Though the brand was acquired in 2003 by Fifth & Pacific, formerly Liz Claiborne, Inc., the friends (who are often spotted wearing matching over-the-knee boots and micro mini-dresses to events) still embody the Juicy legacy. Skaist-Taylor, the pair’s newly launched collection of affordable dresses and separates, is a mature incarnation of their style, more grown-up glam than laidback loungewear. The brand represents their personal evolution from fun-loving party girls to successful businesswomen.
Skaist-Levy grew up as a “kooky kid” who worshipped surf and skate culture. She found work as a costume designer on small projects and independent films before Juicy. She’s unapologetic about her eccentricities—particularly her love of the ’70s in the San Fernando Valley.
“I do. I love the Valley. I loved growing up there,” she says. Her husband, director/producer Jeff Levy, grew up on the other side of the hill. “He’s from Beverly Hills, so buying the house was his idea.”
Skaist-Levy agreed to take the risk, realizing that the topography of the lot surrounding the estate was unusual and special. “It’s so green here because there’s an underground stream,” she says. “And even though the house was terrifying, I knew the forest would save me.”
The greenery to which she refers to is a stand of pine trees at the back of the lot that provides shade and privacy (both luxuries in high demand here). Tucked among those trees is a small cabin with a wide deck. Original to the property, the redwood structure currently serves as the family clubhouse—site of an occasional yoga class and a more than occasional gathering. Its very existence negates the potential stiffness of the main domicile.
“They entertain here a lot and the parties are always very elegant, but never formal or stuffy,” says Peter Dunham, the English-born, West Hollywood-based interior designer the Levys hired to help with the decor.
“I was talking to Hamish Bowles at Vogue about the house—how intimidated I was by it—and he was the one who told me to call Peter [Dunham]. He knew [Peter] was the only one who would get it,” says Skaist-Levy of Dunham’s ability to navigate the two worlds—contemporary and traditional—with equal ease.
Dunham, who had considered the property for a previous client before the Levys purchased it, realized the home’s floor plans were stashed beneath his desk when Skaist-Levy called. The two of them masterminded an aesthetic that Dunham has described as Duchess of Windsor-meets-Iron Maiden: ornate and ladylike with an irreverent spin. Skaist-Levy has a strong sense of style, but Dunham’s most critical contribution was his ability to make the sprawling rooms feel more intimate. [Correction: Prior to Dunham, interior designer Irene Lipsey had also contributed to the decor.]
Before the couple moved in, Levy suggested that they have the interiors painted a clean, uncomplicated white and remove all those heavy curtains in an attempt to “open it up” and make sense of the scale. But even then, a design scheme proved elusive.
The family’s previous home, in the Valley of course, was dramatic, modern and not entirely child friendly. The couple’s 12-year-old son, Noah, was four when they decided to move.
“I mean, there was a pool under the living room,” laughs Skaist-Levy, explaining, “you could swim from the living room to the kitchen. I’m sure the other parents were a little wary of sending their kids over to play.”
And even though Skaist-Levy has an allegiance to Southern California-cool, she also has a not-so-secret girlie side, and has been acquiring antiques and accessories like candelabras and pedigreed vases on Friday afternoon shopping trips with Nash-Taylor.
That meshes well with Dunham. “My English side comes out most in my design work in what I call the ‘architecture of furniture,’” he says. “I like the room to have different areas, if possible. The goal is to create destinations that pull you in. It lends a sense of mystery as the room unfolds more slowly. It can make a big room more warm and inviting, and can make a smaller room seem bigger.”
Dunham introduced Levy to the world of wallpaper—hand-painted de Gournay in particular. Skaist-Levy scrapped any and all rules about proportion and balance. She hung two giant Julian Schnabel paintings in the living room; she installed a Baccarat chandelier over the dining table.
“Everyone told me it was too big for the space, and I didn’t care,” she says. “I don’t think about size or scale; if I like it, I make it work.”
The result is a celebration of exuberance, if not excess, that’s studded with dozens and dozens of Cire Trudon Trianon candles (a blend of rose, cyclamen and galbanum flowers—Marie Antoinette’s favorites). This feat was accomplished without a single demo’d wall or gutted bathroom.
“From the beginning, I said no construction,” she says. “I had been there, done that too many times. It was too stressful, and just not for me. I just couldn’t do it to such a proper old house.”
Nearly 10 years later, Skaist-Levy has adjusted to life in these grand rooms. In a sense, she’s growing into them. That doesn’t mean she spends serene evenings wandering the gardens gathering roses.
“We still throw so many wild parties here,” says Levy, “and all of them end with Jacqui Getty jumping in the pool.”
Written by Christine Lennon
Photographed by Lisa Romerein