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Art at Play

Traditional Southwestern architecture updated for a contemporary couple serves as the perfect foil for an unconventional art collection.

By Carly Scholl | Photography by Jeff Zaruba

On a clear day, the nearly 270-degree panoramic view from a hillside hacienda in Paradise Valley extends all the way out to the Desert Mountain community to the north and past the graceful foothills of Camelback Mountain to the southwest. It’s a sight that the homeowners of this charming slump-block abode enjoy daily from the vantage points throughout their house and from the expansive back patio and pool area that perches on top of the property’s slope. And while the breathtaking vista frames Mother Nature as the ultimate work of art, a peek inside the home reveals a collection of man-made creations that rival the color, energy, warmth, character and scope of the view outside.

“We’ve been collecting art for about 42 years,” says the husband, who notes that he and his wife have never worked with a curator but instead simply bought what they loved while exploring galleries, antiques shops and consignment stores in such far-flung locales as Paris, London and New York City.

“We have gone through a lot of stages,” his wife adds. “Many of our previous homes were older with traditional architecture, so our style of art was more of the old masters. But for the last 20 years or so, our taste has evolved to contemporary and eclectic pieces.”

Eclectic may seem like an understatement to some, as the couple’s collection includes quirky sculpture, figurative bronzes, massively scaled technicolor paintings, uncanny reproductions of famous works and pieces that might just require a sly sense of humor to enjoy. But perhaps what makes this mixed-and-matched menagerie so cohesive and curated in feel is the gallerylike domain in which it is displayed.

“We’re house junkies,” says the wife. “We’ve worked on about 17 renovations—not all for us—but we’ve never built a home from scratch. We like to rescue special properties.”

1. “I wanted this piece for about six years,” says the homeowner of the marble-and-bronze sculpture by Bart Walter, titled “Sanctuary,” which sits in the window of the dining area off the kitchen. “We finally brought it home just a few months ago.”  2. A short stairway leads from the dining area into the foyer, where an electric-yellow painting by Aaron Cruz, titled “El Dialogo,” mingles with a quirky frog sculpture by Jacqueline Hurlburt in the corner. The boveda ceilings were original to the house, but the new homeowners added concealed perimeter uplighting to showcase the unique features. 3. The large canvas outside the living room is a flawless reproduction of famous art deco work “Three Women” by Fernand Léger, which hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “The lamp is a vestige of our old taste,” the wife says of the art nouveau-style fixture.

This house was particularly intriguing, as it was the former residence of nationally beloved humorist Erma Bombeck, who moved to the Valley in the 1970s. “I’ve always been a fan of Erma’s,” the wife recalls. “Growing up in Michigan, I’d eagerly wait for the paper every week to read her columns.” When the couple discovered the property during an open house, they instantly envisioned their next project. “The wall space, the view and the height of the ceilings—those qualities really drove our love for this home. We knew it would work for our art collection,” the wife says.

1. Plush white sofas, a luxe faux fur rug, vivid paintings by Belgian artist Jessica Rice and a lively sculpture of a flutist by Richard MacDonald invite guests to cozy up and enjoy the gallerylike atmosphere of the living room.  2. Sophie”—a coiled and curious bronze boa constrictor by Steve Krestel—is one of the newer additions to the couple’s collection. 3. A large-scale reproduction of Tamara de Lempicka’s “Portrait of Mrs. Boucard” hangs above the stairwell leading to a lofted library in the west wing of the home. 4. An example of the couple’s ability to effortlessly mix styles and eras, a 17th-century religious sculpture is suspended next to a commissioned reproduction of artist George Rodrigue’s famous blue dog in a painting titled, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” 5. Panoramic views of the Valley floor are enjoyed from the expansive pool area in the backyard. A bronze figure of a seated woman perches at the far end of the deck.

After purchasing the 7,500-square-foot abode, the couple set to work renovating nearly every inch. “It had a kind of rustic, old-world vibe to it,” explains contractor Tim Cooper, who had worked with the couple on four previous homes before helping them tackle their latest. “We wanted to take a house that had a lot of traditional character and put a contemporary edge on it.” With the couple’s vision leading the way for each step of the process, Cooper and his team methodically updated the aesthetic and restructured the layout, which included the transformation of Bombeck’s former offices and gift-wrapping nook into guest bedrooms and a much-needed bathroom in the east wing. “Even with the wavy, textured walls and adobe-style construction, it still feels very clean and fresh because of the white walls, neutral tile flooring and modern touches, such as the big steel front door,” he says.

The largest and most complicated project was the backyard renovation. Originally a sunken concrete tennis court that took up the entire rear acreage, the space had great potential for livability. “It took several small front loaders about 3,000 trips through the entrance of the house to the backyard as they hauled out concrete and brought in about 200 yards of dirt to create multilevel areas,” says Cooper. Now, the foyer opens onto an expansive pool area that looks out onto the spectacular view. On its left is a sunken bocce court shaded by trees, while a lower-level putting green and a patio off the master bedroom sits to the right.

With its soaring ceilings, muted materials palette and spacious layout, the home might have given off a stark, somewhat cold feeling had it been filled with ultracontemporary furnishings and decor. But the husband and wife instead strove to elicit comfort and playfulness through their design choices. “So much of the warmth comes from their art collection,” attests Darlene Richert, a local consignment retailer and friend of the homeowners who helped them find the one-of-a-kind artworks and furniture that bring liveliness to each room. “They created an amazing retreat by being savvy and finding special pieces. If you love something and you’re fearless about it, that boldness can make a really interesting home. That’s what this couple does.”

Standing out against the cozy white sofas in the living room are vibrant square canvases featuring works by artists Jessica Rice and George Rodrigue, while a bronze figurine by Richard MacDonald sits on a coffee table parallel to a 17th-century Italian figure of Christ suspended in a wall cutout.

1. An abstract portrait anchors the end of a hallway outside the guest bedrooms. “The artist was a professor at a university in Mexico,” says the wife. 2. While the couple made major renovations to the entire house, they left these painted tiles untouched. Embedded in the wall plaster throughout the home, they are a small tribute to the property’s former owner, humorist Erma Bombeck, who collected the little works of art during her world travels.

In the dining room, large paintings with competing color schemes act as conversation starters during meals. Sculptures make themselves at home on exterior patios, fountains and even by the pool. A collection of nude figure paintings hangs in a cluster in the master bathroom.

“Of course, when you’re designing a livable home, there should be a some kind of cohesion, but you also need to have some fun,” says Richert. The husband agrees. “We don’t take our art too seriously,” he says with a smile. π

Original Builder: Dave Hansen, Dave Hansen Enterprises. Original Architect: Domenic Berta, Berta Associates. Remodel Contractor: Tim Cooper, MAK Construction.

For more information, see Sources.

1. Though an ordinary shower would make an unlikely spot for an art installation, this serene space—which is finished in wall-to-wall marble and tile—feels like a showroom. 2. In the master bedroom, an ornately carved four-poster bed, inlaid mother-of-pearl dresser and cowhide rug are threaded together by common neutral hues of black, white and gray. A large sketch by Peter Leventhal, titled “Menage A Trois,” melds perfectly with the surrounding furnishings. 3. His-and-hers vanities, flanked by his-and-hers closets, in the master bathroom are joined by a gallery wall of nude figure paintings and sculpture from around the world. 4. A white-on-white palette in the kitchen is broken up by colorful artwork and a dishware collection on display in glass-front cabinetry. The base of the table is an antique cardinal’s desk originally from Italy. The couple had a quartz top custom made to transform it into a dining spot. 5. The warm red tones of the boveda ceiling in the formal dining room complement the surreal painting on the wall, which is a professional rendering of an Emil Kazaz work. An effervescent chandelier hangs above the elongated wood table, adding another pop of whimsy to the space.

The Humorist on the Hill

Erma Bombeck, a young journalist and housewife in Centerville, Ohio, quickly rose to fame in 1965 when her column, “At Wit’s End,” became syndicated in 36 major U.S. newspapers, launching an illustrious career that defined her as the clever, poignant and jocular voice of suburban family life in 20th-century America.

In 1971, Bombeck moved her family to Arizona, settling in a hillside hacienda in Paradise Valley where she lived for the rest of her life. From there, she continued writing her weekly columns, which eventually were published in approximately 900 newspapers across the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, she wrote 14 books while living in the Valley, traveled the country as a lecturer and filmed segments for ABC’s Good Morning America from her own abode.

Bombeck’s resonant ruminations on home, family, marriage and motherhood endeared her to the public for decades, as she taught her readers how to find reasons for laughter amid the inevitable challenges of life. Her philanthropy and advocacy also reflected her heart for humanity: She actively supported myriad national and local causes, from the Salvation Army and Arizona Kidney Foundation to the American Cancer Society and Phoenix’s Indian reservations’ access to healthcare.

After quietly battling an incurable kidney disease for nearly 40 years, Bombeck succumbed to transplant surgery complications in 1996, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most prolific and adored humorists in American history and one of Arizona’s most iconic residents.


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