Monday, August 10, 2015

Exclusive: Famed Costume Designer’s Charming Canyon House — Theadora Van Runkle Interior Style

An Exclusive look at the Magical Cottage of Theadora Van Runkle in Legendary Laurel Canyon. Last week, it was quietly offered for sale.

Theadora was the costume designer for ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, as well as ‘The Godfather II’ and ‘Bullitt’ and ‘New York New York’, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ (the original), and ‘Myra Breckinridge’ and many others.

She was nominated several times for an Oscar—and is one of the most admired and influential Hollywood costume designers with a career spanning more than three decades.

She was a longtime friend of mine, a writer of many letters, a witty companion, and a brilliant interior designer.

Theadora, who died in 2011, worked closely with leading directors like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and with stars like Marcello Mastroianni, Faye Dunaway, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Steve McQueen (a favorite), Don Johnson (a crush), along with petite Dolly Parton and dear Warren Beatty, her champion, close friend and mentor. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was Thea’s big break and her lasting legacy as a designer.

And since 1962, Theadora lived in a hillside cottage, a thirties time-capsule that she turned into a sunny artist’s retreat, complete with an airy studio, terraces, and an ultra-private garden fragrant with lilies.

The cottage—with walls and ceilings and floors painted white, the perfect canvas—still holds her lifetime’s collection of portraits, French porcelain, conchology, antique Turkish textiles, English ironstone, and pre-Raphaelite-inspired paintings.

Today, those same Chinese rugs and ironstone pitchers, wicker chairs, and shells give each room its vitality. In her bedroom, bookcases are stacked with collections of Evelyn Waugh, with costume design references, and especially with inspirational books on painters she loved, such as Velasquez, Tintoretto, Lucian Freud, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Veronese (color), and Vermeer, Balthus, and Piero della Francesca (and, really, anyone in the Prado or the Uffizzi or Louvre).

Theadora was a very close friend of mine for years. We met when she owned the legendary Old Milano hotel on California’s north coast.

I’d spend weekends north of Gualala at her sunstruck Iris Cottage, whalewatching, gardening or painting.

Or in LA. The hills of Laurel Canyon were filled with the music and laughter of Joni Mitchell in those days, and when I was in LA on assignment, Theadora and I spent weekends with a roving band of friends. Breakfast on the terrace beneath the stone pine, lunch in the garden with a troupe of artists, and later drinks with a visiting actor or musician and a quick trip to Wally's for more Champagne. Or a fast drive to Fred Segal or Neiman's or Indigo Seas or the Canyon Country Store. We seldom left Lone Mountain Drive. Where could be better? 

Some antique dealer was always dropping by to deliver a chair or a rug or cabinet or bundle of antique embroidered silks and linens Thea had acquired. They still grace these rooms.

Saturdays were often spent lurking around the fusty antique shops and dusty old bookstores that used to be on every block of West Hollywood. Sundays, Thea’s Sketch Club members (a close-knit and vibrant group of film creative insiders) and an artist’s model or two (perhaps a nude, perhaps a costumed character) would arrive and we’d spent the afternoon painting, drawing, sketching, laughing and comparing notes.

Hers was a house for life, laughter, art, and ideas. We’d play music like Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’ on Sunday mornings, to laugh and sing along. Chopin, ‘Libertango’ or ‘Oblivio’ by Astor Piazzolla, maybe Segovia, or the Rolling Stones enlivened the canyon summer air. Then friends would stop over, linger.

Last week the house was discreetly offered for sale.

Now for the first time you can see up-close images of each room and the garden, shot recently by the great Los Angeles photographer, Amy Neunsinger. The house is exactly as it was when Theodora painted there and lived, and precisely as she arranged it. 

There’s the sunny studio (a former water tank) where Theadora painted, the dining room where artists and costume assistants and arty pals lingered over splendid Moroccan cooking, and sumptuous cakes. Often Thea would cook an impromptu dinner of ‘Marcello’s favorite pasta’ that included lots of fresh tomatoes and verde olive oil.

In her bedroom there’s the Victorian bed (said to have come from a version of ‘Wuthering Heights’) where she read and sketched and entertained close friends.

And there are treasures found on 3rd Street or La Brea, on a sidewalk along Beverly, or at Indigo Seas or Hollyhock or Joel Chen or even afar in Santa Barbara or Ojai.

Theadora’s paintings are on the walls.

The garden (beautifully maintained by her son, Max Van Runkle, who nurtured every plant) frames the house. It’s a private paradise, rare and tranquil and embracing.

Adieu, Theadora

Theadora died in November 2011. Her life had been a bold adventure. He joy in art and literature and friends and music never dimmed.

Now, after a period of contemplation, restoration and time passing, her son Max is selling her remarkable and highly theatrical cottage high above Lauren Canyon, Los Angeles.

Theadora was a lifelong fan of the Bloomsbury set, and loved rooms that were full of paintings and books, adored expensive (Sevres or Meissen) with bargains (shells, ironstone) and pulled it together with eccentricity and the classic elegance of the past.

Over the years, the rooms became lighter, more chandeliers appeared, but she kept the Virginia Woolf-meets-Vita Sackville-West-meets-Luchino-Visconti look that is brilliantly timeworn and yet fresh as a summer Sunday morning.

Thea spent a lot of time around movie sets, working with great production designers like Dean Tavoularis (‘The Godfather’ series) and she has the ability to weave in any English historical style-from Victorian to English Country, and to create interiors that are full of comfort and charm, totally atmospheric and magical, conjuring up an imagined past.

It is a house that reflects Theadora’s romantic and highly informed design sensibility, and it’s about capturing the past with a sense of magic — and with a great sense of poetry.

Airy and light, and transcending time and place, the interiors speak of Theadora’s love of Arts & Crafts, portraiture, antique textiles Rooms seem casual and relaxed, but each detail and dash of paint and inch of fabric was completely thought out. The effect is at once a portrait of Theadora…a self-portrait, really…and the stage set for an inspired life. 

Fortune and Change — and Great Style — Played a Part in Theadora’s Vivid Career

A glance into her first commission, working with producer/ actor Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway on ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. Luck and fine judgement played a role.

Theadora recalled:

“Had I heeded the advice of Edith Head, then Hollywood’s ruling and powerful grande dame of design, I might have gone off in the wrong direction with my work on “Bonnie and Clyde”.

Soon after I was signed up, I was at Western Costume and anxiously shopping for the film when I ran into Edith Head. It's a small world, the costume business. Edith, acclaimed, was the queen, the unquestionably top costumer to the stars and holder of zillions of Oscars.

“Edith said, ‘What are you doing?’ ”, the kind of casual talk you might engage in about a major project.

“I said, ‘It’s the ’30s and they’re on the lam, escaping from a bank robbery.’ ”

“She said: ‘Oh darling, do everything in chiffon. You’ll have no problems.’ ”

“I love the fragility and beauty of perishable worlds; the nostalgia that inhabits objects and places that have a past, and that linger on in the splendor of rooms, in the patina, the chips and the faded colors and half light. We must preserve the tiny details, scars, irregularities and layers of history that exist in old buildings and tell their stories.” — Roberto Peregalli, interior designer, Milan.
From, ‘The Invention of the Past: Interior Design and Architecture of Studio Peregalli"
Written by Laura Sartori Rimini and Roberto Peregalli, Foreword by Hamish Bowles. Published by Rizzoli. 2011.

Theadora's Hillside Retreat

Theadora’s house is in a very secluded, tranquil and private corner of Laurel Canyon. It’s high on a hill near Lone Mountain with quick access to Mulholland and over the hill to Studio City.

Laurel Canyon in the sixties, when Theadora moved there, was famous as home to many of L.A.'s rock musicians, including Jim Morrison of The Doors. Joni Mitchell lived in a house in the Canyon that was immortalized in the song, "Our House", written with Graham Nash, and the blissful setting was her inspiration for her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas took inspiration from their home in Laurel Canyon for the song, ‘Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon’. Today, screenwriters, musicians, directors, and entertainment lawyers and web designers find it a congenial, well-located, and leafy setting.

Happy Days in Laurel Canyon: A Letter from Theadora


“I am clearing the hillsides of thick grass. It’s thicker and greener than any winter grass I’ve seen, spangled with tender yellow Oxalis flowers and with orange poppies. Upon the highest slopes are exquisite patches of lupine. It is such a lovely spring. Looking forward to seeing you.” — Theadora, handwritten in beautiful calligraphy to Diane

There are a total of six lots included in the sale; total square footage for all 6 lots is 21,853 sq. ft.

Breakdown of Lots & Structures:

Four of the 6 total lots are vacant land (totaling 12,472 sq. ft) ; the other two lots have Single Family Residential structures on them as follows:

1. The main house is listed on title as having 999 interior sq. ft. on a lot size of 6258 sq. ft. It has 2 bedrooms and 2 baths (although assessor’s records list it as a 2 bedroom 1 bath house);

2. The “casita” (guest house) is listed on title as having 280 interior sq. ft. on a lot size of 3123 sq. ft. As it currently exists, the casita is a studio outfitted with a kitchen and cedar lined bathroom (although assessor’s records simply show it as a 0 bedroom & 0 bath residential structure).

Both the main house and the casita likely tape-measure a bit larger than the interior square footage shown on title or assessor’s records, but exact measurements have not been determined. 


Amy Neunsinger

Amy’s photography has been featured in many books and magazines, including C Magazine, House Beautiful and many others. She is based in Los Angeles.

For further information and to view the canyon house:

Margot Tempereau
partner | broker-associate
deasy/penner & partners


Tori Horowitz
senior partner
deasy/penner & partners

Website for both realtors is:


FrenchGardenHouse said...

Thank you for this beautiful post, not only a wonderful look into Theodora's beautiful home, but a beautiful tribute to her. What a talent she was, her costume designs are legendary, and her home, amazing! I seem to remember it was featured years ago in Victoria magazine, or one of their design books.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Thank you…yes, an earlier version of her decor (before all the white paint) was published in Victoria.

Yes, her house was also in one of my early books, CALIFORNIA COTTAGES…thank you for reminding me.

Lovely to hear from you. I love your blog. Do stay in touch---DIANE

Beauty Follower said...

Great post indeed. Beautiful places!
Loved her costumes in all the movies she did. She was brilliant in her work!

Karena said...

Dear Diane, I can see that Theodora was a most wonderful friend to you!
Her home is a dream, a vision, an artist's paradise.
Thank you for the gift of this so talented woman and the life she led.

The Arts by Karena
Artist Nicoletta Belletti

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Tania Vartan--herself a great artist in textiles and other media--so talented--

sent a lovely note:


A wonderful remembrance, Diane! TANIA

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I've received such lovely messages from around the world regarding the Theadora post:

This morning, from London:

Meredith Etherington-Smith, the great one:

"lovely posting Diane - she sounds such fun! And I always admired her costume design....really interesting and quirky.

All the best - Meredith"

Tricia Rose Rough Linen said...

What a beautiful setting for a creative free spirit! Easy to see years of careful, loving collection in her house.

peggy braswell said...

such talent + Amazing her home

Emily said...

Ah! This exquisite, elegant, playful, dreamy home & garden! It has been my dream house ever since I first saw it back in the sixties when Theodora gave a magnificent wedding for mutual friends. I composed & sang the wedding song & played the dulcimer. ��So very sixties! What an extraordinary home. How I wish I could buy it right this minute!

Judith Fisher said...

Hi Diane,

You may remember, me, Theadora's Gualala pal, Judith, who managed the Old Milano Hotel, 1980-84, until it was sold. You and I met then, and as I started to read this piece, I knew it was you writing. This is an incredible treat, to time travel through her home and studio--so personal! I only visited her once, 1983 or 84, with my daughter Heidi, for a week or so. She insisted that each of us sit for a watercolor 'portrait' in the studio, and being a saver-type, we of course have these treasured paintings. As well, I have a small collection of her drawings, self-portraits, and a few costume illustrations. Everything Thea ever gave me I still have, She meant the world to me, believed in me at a critical point in my life.
Thank you, Diane, for this beautiful tribute, for that is what it is. Did you see Mary Reinhart's story about Thea in the Pasadena Weekly, a few weeks ago? Thea and the Old Milano live on in my recently published memoir, "Bookbinder's Daughter, a Life Lost and Found," chapter,"Hotel."
With Love and fond memories,
Judith Fisher

carrps said...

I have adored this house since I first saw it in your book. I have lived here in my imagination for years. When I finally broke down and set up a pinterest account, one of the first set of images I wanted to save was of this house. But I couldn't find any online. Thank you so much for capturing this final vision for posterity.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Forgive me for not answering sooner…I have been traveling.
Yes, of course I recall you very very clearly--you were always at the Old Milano.
It was a magical time…
Can you please send me your book…and send me the bill/ invoice and I will send you a payment.
write to me at
and I will give you my address.
Yes…I have all of her portraits and paintings…and letters as well/
Thank you so much for writing…and please contact me via email.
I would love to catch up. I'm so happy you found this story…and please send it on to all GUALALA friends…artists and writers all…please contact me. DIANE

Paul Chirumbolo said...

What a lovely article and tribute to my good friend Theadora.

We first met nearly 30 years ago at the Barnsdall Arts Center. I had just returned from a summer in Bolinas and headed up early morning - me in my wool serape and ragged jeans - to register for one of the uninstructed life drawing workshops. There sat Theadora, herself waiting to register. She gave me the once over, then asked, "What are you, a Hollywood Shaman?"

Over the years, we dragged out art materials all over Southern California, trading stories from our filmmaking days and supporting each other in our vow to follow Winslow Homer's axiom..."a watercolor a day!" Many a time, Theadora would coax me to climb someone's fence to nip a small branch from some exquisite white geranium, and others, that she would then root and grow in her garden.

We both had epiphylum (orchid cactus) collections, so we were always pruning and sharing clippings to root and grow, as well.

Those rugs you refer to as Chinese are actually tribal Persian rugs from Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. I once ran a small hobby business called Low Price Persian Rugs, and Theadora insisted on coming over with each new shipment to pick out ones for herself. Of course, I gave them to her for less than cost. What are friends for?

I also see in your article many of the crystal and other items she would buy as she dragged me through the valley antique shops and warehouses hidden away from regular traffic. She talked me into buying a giant 400 pound cement bust of Alexander the Great that had been used as a prop in a Cecil B. Demille movie. Ha! I've still got that, as well as other pieces.

Over the last few years of her life, we would spend two days a week together, photographing hi-res digital images of most of her artwork. I still have a complete set on disc of all the costume design sketches, as well as many, many of her watercolors. We would then sit in front of my giant computer screen as we color corrected each image to Theadora's specifications. We established a small enterprise, producing and selling fine art reproduction gift cards and prints of artwork from a small group of five of us, including Thea, produced on 100% cotton rag, archival papers and sold in gift shops and museum stores throughout the Los Angeles basin. You can see one of the prints, "The Banquet of the Beheaded," leaning against the wall on the floor near the base of her spiral staircase, one of two I had gifted her at her last Christmas. She welcomed me to her table as family.

During all this time, Theadora related endless stories from her career, which I helped write into somewhat of a Hollywood tell all - nothing cheesy mind you, but engaging nonetheless - to be illustrated with her paintings and sketches as the story unfolded.

And we were building sales books for agents and sales people to hawk the prints and cards throughout the U.S., when Theadora took ill, and in 10 short months, she was gone. I should have known at first, when she started bringing over china and vases and such, saying she never used them anymore.

On the morning after her passing, not yet knowing, I sat down at my computer and looked out the window to see my dog, Shanti, catch a squirrel and take it to the studio door out back. My partner of some time set the squirrel free and came in the house to say that Theadora had come to visit in the garden. That's when I opened my email to find her son, Max's, note that Theadora was gone.

She was a wonder; one of my best friends. And I still miss her very much.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Thank you so much for your highly vivid and detailed and wonderful memories of my dear friend Theadora.
I knew her for a long time…and she was indeed a great friend.

I'm so happy you were able to spend these wonderful times together--doing all of the great adventures she loved, painting, exploring, finding rugs and books, drawing, sipping tea, going to museums, going to galleries, art classes, and seeking treasure in unlikely places.

my very best to you--and thank you so much for your wonderful comment. So appreciated. DIANE

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this elegant post. And the heartfelt photographs. I just saw both for the first time this morning. She, and her children, were good friends of my older brother from the days when he lived in the Canyon. I only met each of them once -- Theodora, sometime in the 70s, at her wonderful house--which instantly became my ideal; Felicity over dinner in San Francisco and Max when he was working under a car at my brother's later home on Wonderland. Your tribute brought back such wonderful memories of the impact that little house made on me all those years ago. I hope that whoever purchased it loves it as so many others have. Thank you.