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An Antiques-Filled Beach House? That’s a Yes for Lee Stanton

If you were looking for the perfect oceanside hideout, you couldn’t do better than antiquarian Lee Stanton’s impossible-to-find, treasure-filled house in Laguna Beach, California, 50-some miles south of Los Angeles. After passing a strip of shops and takeout restaurants, you’re unlikely to notice a road that looks like a parking lot, beyond which a pair of tall iron gates give no clue to what lies ahead.

Once opened, the gates give access to a long tree-lined drive that slopes down to an English manor–style house, overlooking a small sandy bay, which Stanton has been perfecting for the past 25 years.

Lee Stanton dining area
Antiquarian Lee Stanton’s Laguna Beach dining room features an 18th-century gilt-wood and crystal chandelier mounted above a large English Regency dining table with painted French Directoire chairs. Top: In the kitchen, Empire tole cachepots and an Arts and Crafts brass fruit bowl are arranged on a 19th-century rustic chestnut table, which is juxtaposed with a 19th-century tole and crystal chandelier.

A mainstay of the Los Angeles design community, Stanton’s rarified and elegant eponymous store is centrally placed in the heart of the decorating world on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood. (Stanton was a founding member, in 2008, and longtime president of the La Cienega Design Quarter, aka LCDQ.)

But it’s here in his secret spot in Orange County that the full flowering of his enviable aesthetic is on display. You sense this as soon as you climb up the stone steps of his entry tower, hung with two iron-and-bronze lanterns bought from Sotheby’s famous auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s belongings. The tower opens directly into a paneled dining room where a delicate Italian crystal chandelier casts light on an antique English table surrounded by a striking set of Directoire dining chairs. Beyond is the main sitting room, filled, again, with countless old-world treasures — and offering jaw-dropping ocean views. Moving through these richly furnished interiors, you feel as if you’re in an important, historic home in Europe; it’s hard to believe you’re in a Southern California surfing town. 

About five years ago, Stanton bought a second house, in Montecito, north of L.A., where he has opened an offshoot of his store, called Private Stash, which sells a small, curated collection of furniture and antiques. And he recently purchased a Los Angeles pied-à-terre in Century Towers, a residential complex designed in the 1960s by the architect I.M. Pei.

But it was in Laguna Beach that Introspective caught up with Stanton, who shared stories of his life, his career and his beloved home.  

Lee Stanton dining space
A conversation corner in the dining area includes a pair of early 19th-century Italian painted chairs and an ebonized coffee table with leather top, along with a French painted settee and an 18th-century oak chest of drawers.

Did you collect as a child?

Yes, collecting has always been a family affair. After my father’s death, when I was eight, my mother would attempt to keep my interest while she shopped for antiques by encouraging my collections so I would enjoy the hunt and shop alongside her. I started with antique toys and progressed to tramp art and, eventually, architectural objects.  

My grandfather was a furniture restorer. When I spent time with him, I learned about different woods and furniture designs. After my grandfather’s death, when I was a teenager, I refinished furniture to earn spending money and to subsidize my college education.

Did you ever imagine it could become a way to earn a living?

No, I always considered sourcing antiques a hobby. After my college graduation and a successful career in publishing [Stanton founded a small magazine empire that catered to senior citizens], I had the opportunity to sell my company. At thirty, I had to consider a productive future in which I could make a contribution with the rest of my life, doing something I love, which included travel, architecture and design. Serendipitously, when I was volunteering for a decorative arts organization, a prominent antiques dealer in San Juan Capistrano, named Gep Durenberger, approached me, saying he was planning to retire and could not think of anyone more qualified to carry on his legacy. And so a second career that involved doing what I loved was handed to me.

Lee Stanton vestibule with spiral staircase
In the vestibule, a 19th-century bust of Brutus is positioned next to the early 19th-century spiral staircase from Paris. A 19th-century charcoal drawing hangs over an English metamorphic chair.

Why did you move to Los Angeles?

I became a major resource for designers and collectors from across the country, and especially Los Angeles, which accounted for seventy-five percent of my sales. In conversations with my clients, I learned that due to the inconvenience of traveling over an hour from the city to visit me — keep in mind that this was prior to online shopping and 1stDibs — seventy-five percent of my sales represented only twenty-five percent of their antiques purchases. I then took the leap to move to L.A. for a larger share of the market.

When you moved to Los Angeles, did you find the buyers you had hoped for?

Yes, I feel fortunate to live and work in a diverse and creative city with incredible talent. The designers are brilliant and very supportive, and I am in the hub of the design community, surrounded by some of the best showrooms and sources for interior design in Los Angeles.  

Lee Stanton main bedroom sitting area
A sitting area in the main bedroom features a painted Italian Palladian armoire, one of a pair of Italian painted-wood and iron candle chandeliers and a French daybed, all pieces from the 18th century.

You do more than sell furniture, and you have fertile relationships with your clients.

I work with private clients who want more than a “decorated” home, people who are interested in substance as much as style and who want a home that is curated and tells a story.

I am interested in helping my clients build a unique collection that demonstrates depth of character in a classic and timeless environment. I don’t do trendy, I disdain the ordinary and I am not satisfied with a home filled with furnishings that have no meaning and only look good as a sum total or in the big picture. I want every item to have a purpose and to be appreciated on its own merit.  

Lee Stanton's kitchen
A lantern from England hangs in the kitchen, where a 19th-century verdigris clock from France leans on a shelf opposite a 19th-century canvas depicting scenes from a French play.

Which have been your favorite pieces, and how did you find them? What do you first look for?

That is a difficult question to answer because I only buy things I love. I have always said that good style transcends time and good antiques transcend style. As I move things around my homes, I find they take on different meanings. Finding a new spot or even a purpose for them, as my mood changes or as the light hits them in a different way, I rediscover the forgotten quality and reason for which I purchased them in the first place. 

I find almost everything in Europe and the UK. The items can come from private and prominent estates with pedigree, such as my lanterns from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate or candlesticks from Princess Lillian of Sweden. I shop in the countryside for items such as my Palladian cabinet or my spiral staircase. Like needles in a haystack, I found my castle clock and my original king-size bed complete with reading candlesticks, from European and British antiques markets and fairs.

How would you describe your collecting style?

Well, it depends on the space. My home in Laguna was inspired by homes in the UK and Europe that were layered with history. Therefore, it features pieces spanning four centuries and my travels to several countries. I refer to it as my purist home with lots of stories and memories.  

My apartment in Los Angeles is more edited and modern. I have been referred to as the king of classics, and I’m pretty expert at creating tableaus, so with that in mind, I guess I would say my style is diverse, classic and timeless with an unexpected twist. It is definitely more handsome than pretty. I like to play with scale and texture, and I love to create a tableau that tells a story. 

Who have been your greatest influences and why?

Well, foremost, my mother, who trained me to collect; my grandfather, who taught me the nature behind good antiques; and my sister, who took me on some of my first buying trips and made me realize the joy of buying and collecting antiques. Other than that, I will always respect the collections and works of Sir John Soane, Christopher Gibbs, Jasper Conran and Axel Vervoordt.

Seascape hanging behind Directoire buffet
A late 19th-century seascape hangs behind an 18th-century painted Directoire buffet (one of a pair), which is topped with a collection of 19th-century carved-wood architectural elements.

Could you ever part with the pieces you have collected here in Laguna Beach?

Generally speaking, no. However, I never say never. As my lifestyle changes, I occasionally replace things, and as I attempt to downsize, I am beginning to let go of things and pass them on to someone else to enjoy. Hence the evolution of Private Stash, my little shop in Montecito where I quietly transition items out of my private collection.

Lee Stanton sitting at this desk
Stanton sits at his early-19th-century English partners desk, which he purchased in San Francisco but later learned that the previous owners were the people from whom he purchased his Laguna Beach home.

Your desk in this house has a story. How did you find it?

I found the desk in San Francisco when I was in publishing. While I was giving end-of-the-year bonuses to my employees, I decided to treat myself to this partners desk, in which I discovered random notes that mentioned the previous owner. I never discarded them and just left them in a drawer. 

The desk functioned nicely while I met with editors and graphic artists, and years later when I sold my business, I took it to this house in Laguna Beach, where it fit very nicely into my library. It was here that I rediscovered the notes and now recognized the name I saw on them: It was the people from whom I had purchased the house. After some research, I confirmed that the desk I had bought miles away and years before had found its way back not only into its original home, but also to the same room.

Lee Stanton’s Talking Points

Italian capriccio painting of architectural ruins, ca. 1740
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Italian capriccio painting of architectural ruins, ca. 1740

“The austere nature of a good capriccio adds a sense of historical intrigue and deserves a place in any architecturally minded person’s home.”

English mahogany partners desk with Greek key leather top, ca. 1820
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English mahogany partners desk with Greek key leather top, ca. 1820

“After the story of my experience with my partners desk, I couldn’t leave this off my list of favorites. Perfect to float in a room and sit with someone to have a productive conversation.”

Swedish Empire mirror in mahogany, ca. 1820
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Swedish Empire mirror in mahogany, ca. 1820

“Who can resist the clean yet traditional lines of a fine Empire piece?”

Italian mahogany armoire, 1840
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Italian mahogany armoire, 1840

“The classical nature of this Italian armoire would make a statement in a simple modern or a stately traditional environment.”

Set of three Italian leather armchairs, 1700
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Set of three Italian leather armchairs, 1700

“The old original cracked leather on these 18th-century Italian chairs again excites the purist side in me and makes a commanding statement. If you prefer a cleaner look to these chairs, reupholstering them in gray wool flannel demonstrates how you can create a modern interpretation out of Baroque classics.”

English mahogany estate desk with molded cornice upper cupboard, ca. 1850
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English mahogany estate desk with molded cornice upper cupboard, ca. 1850

“This estate desk from the collection of John Fowler of Colefax & Fowler is without doubt an early example of British craftsmanship.”

English corner cupboard with faux front panel door, ca. 1840
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English corner cupboard with faux front panel door, ca. 1840

“These easy 19th-century bookcases fronted with old leather bookbindings are fun and functional conversation pieces.”

Pair of mounted spherical shell sculptures, 1920
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Pair of mounted spherical shell sculptures, 1920

“These vintage shell sculptural spheres resting on old ebonized empire plinths brings a coastal, natural vibe into a cool and contemporary home.”

French tapestry-upholstered armchair, ca. 1760
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French tapestry-upholstered armchair, ca. 1760

“The purist in me appreciates this 18th-century walnut chair with perfectly aged warm walnut wood and original tapestry upholstery. I envision this piece slipcovered in a white linen (retaining its historical integrity while adjusting very nicely in a modern environment.)”

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