Lauded interior designer Madeline Stuart is all about easy entertaining at her Santa Barbara weekend retreat.
As often as she is able to, Madeline Stuart leaves her L.A. office and hits the 101 with her husband, writer Steve Oney, and their two Jack Russell terriers, Beatrice and Mr. Peabody. Within 90 minutes, they escape hard-pressed city life and enter the serenity of Santa Barbara, steering their car straight onto the gravel-paved compound of story-book properties originally built as artist studios called El Caserio, where she has carved out their own private oasis. Any given night, “Casa Caserio” looks much like a Nancy Meyers movie, glowing with cozy firelight and vintage charm, as Stuart opens her doors to guests.
“This is definitely far more casual than my house in L.A., where I tend to entertain more formally,” Stuart says. “Santa Barbara is the anti-formal.”
The Beverly Hills-bred designer, known for her timeless yet fresh interiors, bought the one-bedroom 1930s Spanish bungalow on the spot a year and a half ago, both for its potential and location—tucked in a historic artists’ community downtown complete with its own neighborhood garden. Given that her Hollywood Hills house is “dark and moody” and filled with a lifetime of collections, Stuart says she wanted this home to be a counterpoint to that—white, clean and spare. However, it took heavy remodeling, heaps of white paint, and many hurdles with the historical boards to give it the movie-set feel it has now. Rooms are rustic-meets-refined, filled with Spanish antiques, and give the couple restful reading nooks, but not a ton of space to entertain inside. “I couldn’t have a lot of people in the dining room for a seated dinner so I had to do the trellis and heaters out back—that’s really my dining room, it just happens to be outside,” she says. A lined path from the dining room leads to a white stucco fireplace surrounded by three walls, where Stuart created another roof-less room. Guests gather here among lush topiaries for drinks and late-night gourmet s’mores (her signature dessert and “last supper meal of choice”).
While Stuart’s definition of L.A. casual includes donning a vintage YSL caftan instead of blue jeans on a Sunday night, her dinner parties here are definitely more laid-back. She’s swapped her luxe silver, china and crystal for natural linen, woven raffia and horn-handled knives. For center-pieces, she aims to make her mother, who she calls a world-class hostess, proud, opting for simple potted plants, adding that the table shouldn’t be “overly festooned with flowers.”
On the particular night pictured, Stuart and Oney invited close friends including fellow L.A.-based interior designer Elizabeth Dinkel and husband Aaron Meyerson, who also enjoy escaping to their second home in Santa Barbara. Sherry and Jim Villanueva came next, bearing a tray of cheese and charcuterie from their popular local restaurant, The Lark. Stuart credits guest Laura Collector, a Realtor with Sotheby’s, for finding the new home: “She called and said I had to have it, that my name was written all over it,” she says. And local ceramic artist Miri Mara (several of his pieces hold court in the home) came with husband Rick Perkins, whose family is one of Santa Barbara’s original ranching families.
It wasn’t just the guest list that the designer carefully considered; she thinks much like a director (she’s the daughter of Mel Stuart, director of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), and gives every single vignette and party detail hands-on attention. For music, she builds playlists off what she’s Shazamed in the car and then streams them from hidden speakers. Her menus are a result of clipping recipes constantly (her famous porchetta was written on the back of an envelope 10 years ago). She’ll run around her cottage in an apron, slicing squash open and scooping the insides out—for risotto vessels—with her one trusted silver spoon that she carries between homes, until the second the doorbell rings. Her parties, like her interiors, have that sparkling, cinematic quality, partly because she truly enjoys them herself. “The last thing I want to do when guests arrive is to be sweating in the kitchen, especially when all I really want is to hang outside and have a glass of Prosecco with them.”
Photography by TREVOR TONDRO.
Written by JENNIFER BLAISE KRAMER.