At home with art world heavyweights Sylvia Chivaratanond and Philippe Vergne
When Philippe Vergne, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), and his wife, art consultant Sylvia Chivaratanond, decided to move out of their apartment in Hancock Park to buy their first house two years ago, they dreamed of finding the perfect midcentury modern gem. “I wanted it to be more minimal than minimal,” says Vergne, “and have right angles everywhere.”
What they found after a year of hunting was a house that had none of those attributes, but was so unique that they fell in love with it immediately. Built in 1926, it was designed by one of L.A.’s quirkier architects of the last century, A.F. Leicht. From the front, the 4,300-square-foot residence, located in the Hollywood Hills above Chateau Marmont, appears to be wholly a classic Mediterranean with stucco walls, wrought-iron details and a turret. Inside, there’s barely a right angle anywhere in sight. Every room has either rounded corners or is circular in shape. “It fits like a snail. I’m French and I live in a snail,” says Vergne, standing in the foyer near a dramatic winding staircase that connects the four stories.
During the golden age of Hollywood, Marlon Brando called the place home. “There’s a room downstairs that was a tiki room for him,” says Chivaratanond. “He’d play drums and have crazy parties here. And there’s this amazing video on YouTube with Edward R. Murrow interviewing him in the house.” In the clip, from 1955, there are images of a 30-year-old Brando showing off the Oscar he had won just days earlier for On the Waterfront, as well as a portrait of his late mother hanging above the limestone fireplace in the living room. After Brando sold it, the home was later purchased by interior designer Janet Polizzi, whose projects included the Los Angeles Country Club, and who lived in the house for 30 years before selling it to Vergne and Chivaratanond.
The couple decorated sparely, letting the eccentric bones of the structure stand out. “I have ‘stuff’ anxiety. The less the better for me,” says Vergne. “Sylvia always makes fun of me. She says that I’m French so I cannot multitask. Maybe it’s the same visually, and I cannot look at more than one thing at a time. I’d rather have one beautiful piece than a forest of stuff.” In the living room, that one showstopper piece is an enormous, crescent-shaped De Sede Non-Stop sofa from the 1970s. “I looked for a long time for that piece, because it was kind of all you needed,” says Chivaratanond, who grew up in L.A. and graduated from University of California, Los Angeles.
Ironically, this less-is-more approach extends to art. “We are not collectors in the sense of people who fill up their house with art,” says Vergne, who refrains from purchasing pieces that could create any appearance of conflicts of interest in his role as a museum head. Most of the works are gifts from artist friends.
The couple, who have a 6-year-old son, Indra, met in the late 1990s when Vergne was a curator and Chivaratanond was a curatorial fellow at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Chivaratanond soon moved to Chicago to work as a curator at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The pair married in 2002 in Topanga Canyon at the Inn of the Seventh Ray. “We got married and then went back to our respective cities. We’ve been together 18 years, and 10 of those were commuting,” she says. Six years later, when he became director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, she was able to relocate.
Since settling in L.A., Chivaratanond has been active philanthropically, joining the board of My Friend’s Place, a homeless youth center in Hollywood, whose 30th-anniversary gala she’ll co-chair next year. She’s also curating a series of talks this fall called The Justice Series at The Underground Museum, a nonprofit arts space in Arlington Heights, which has a partnership with MOCA. The first presentation, featuring South L.A.-based urban gardener Ron Finley, will be about food justice.
In just three short years at the helm of MOCA, Vergne has accomplished a remarkable turnaround. The museum, which was in disarray after the departure of former director Jeffrey Deitch and had no shows on the calendar when Vergne arrived, has since increased its endowment by $27.2 million, brought up attendance by 22 percent and mounted highly acclaimed shows by Doug Aitken, Kerry James Marshall and Matthew Barney. “I think we have recaptured people’s trust, and that for me may be the most important thing,” says Vergne. This fall will bring a show of young Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, who, in Vergne’s words, will “basically turn the Geffen inside-out and into a landscape sculpture,” as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative on Los Angeles and Latin American and Latino art, “I love the diversity of artists’ voices in Los Angeles…And I really like the horizontality of the city—its density of social, cultural, political and ethnic fabric,” he says, adding, “It takes a different kind of eye to get.”
Photography by SAM FROST.
Written by DEGEN PENER.