“They are young and fun,” says interior designer Susan Cohen. “They wanted a house with a sense of history, but nothing conventional or boring.”
Thus began the transformation of a sprawling house in Beverly Hills for Mark and Ellen Bidner. It had once belonged to actress Constance Bennett but had since undergone many face-lifts. Fortunately, houses can sustain cosmetic surgery better than actresses can. Cohen and her associate Peter Bolton made the house fit all the needs of the couple and their 11- and 7-year-old daughters and 9-year-old son. They began with the chandeliered foyer and ended with the five-car garage that has an embossed stainless steel floor.
Mark, 40, is a retired entrepreneur but, says Cohen, he would much rather be known as a car collector. Framed photographs of the 35 vintage automobiles that he has owned or still owns hang on the garage walls like so many ancestral portraits.
A man more comfortable racing his Ferrari or cruising his 85-foot yacht in the Bahamas, Mark Bidner was surprised to find himself enjoying the process of shopping for antiques and having his needs addressed. “I told them I wanted responsibility for my office, the garage, and my closet and bath,” he says. “I really loved being involved in those decisions. I stayed away from mundane stuff like appliances and door handles and focused on things that would affect my everyday life, like the state-of-the-art Escient touchscreen audio-visual system.”
The Bidners had been looking for a home with more than an acre of land. The 1948 Bennett house, originally part of Pickfair, the estate of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, came with two and a half acres. Mark’s desires then fueled many of the design decisions as the home was taken apart and reconstructed like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
While his five “statement” cars—which include a gray Bentley Arnage, an Aston Martin Vanquish, and a yellow 1976 Triumph TR6—get parked up front, his “street cars”—a Hummer, Suburban, and Jeep—are kept in a second garage behind the house. Mark wanted to play baseball with his son in the backyard without worrying about breaking a window, so eucalyptus trees were removed and a lawn now runs between the house and the tennis court.
His study was modeled on the Library Bar at London’s Lanesborough hotel. “I wanted my study to look similar to that, but with a more modern flavor,” he says. The mahogany paneling fits the bill, and Cohen updated the look with a black leather floor and zebra rug. Mark’s patriotic Peter Max painting now retracts to reveal a television. One shopping spree yielded the 1920s macassar ebony desk as well as the bronze statue of boxer Max Schmeling. An Asprey clock tells the time in four cities.
Mark also enjoys the occasional cigar and wanted a humidor, but not the traditional kind. “The ones that stand alone are magnificent, but they are big and require water and attention,” he says. “I had one built into the cabinets that would display my cigars in boxes. One of my requirements was that it be 100 percent maintenance-free, except for the annual checkup for the filter.”
Collecting watches is another passion, and Cohen installed a watch winder in Mark’s dressing room. “Automatic winders are usually freestanding and awkward, so I had one built into the cabinet with a glass door,” he says. Slowly turning and backlit Rolex and Patek Philippe models are ready for any occasion. “It’s the same as my cars,” says Mark. “If I’m taking the kids to school, I’ll put on slacks and the vintage Patek, and take the Bentley. If I’m going to a Lakers game, I’ll throw on jeans and the Daytona Rolex, and take the Hummer. The watches tend to mirror the style of cars I use.” And that, he adds, “is as close as I am ever going to get to accessorizing.”
The rest of the 12,000-square-foot house was Ellen’s domain. “My main concern was that I wanted the house to feel like a home,” she says. “I didn’t want a mausoleum.” She was particularly involved in the hunt for antique chandeliers. “This house was built around the fixtures. They add so much character,” she says.
As they shopped at antiques stores and auctions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, the design went from Tuscan to eclectic “because we wanted to include pieces from the 1920s to the 1940s,” Cohen says. Bolton, who is a decorative painter, finished all the hand-waxed plaster. He commissioned artist Sammy Beam to paint trompe l’oeil murals and had artisans create original wall sconces.
The designers chose furniture that evoked the glamour of old Hollywood, then they took the Bidners shopping for art. They commissioned a landscape by Jeffrey Beauchamp and glow-in-the-dark works by Ron Reihel, and purchased pieces by Robert Motherwell and Robert Graham.
The home serves sophisticated adults who entertain on a grand scale. But it was also conceived for a family. As Mark notes, “There is no area of this house where our children and their friends are not welcome.” Not even the garage, where the kids’ car of choice is the Hummer.
Susan Cohen Associates, 310.828.4445, www.susancohenassociates.com