Designer Spotlight

Peter Dunham Brings English Romance to Los Angeles Design


Portrait of Peter Dunham by David Jensen. Top: One of his earliest clients was a young Internet investor, for whom the design brought together a joyful mix of mid-century modern pieces. Photo by Tim Beddow.

There’s not much that’s unromantic about Peter Dunham’s early life: the first meeting of his French-American father and English mother on an airplane to Paris, the 17th-century, semi-palace where he was raised on the St. Germain en Laye; the family’s gloriously rustic weekend home in Cadaques, Spain, accessible by boat or rocky goat path. Even his boarding school — the Stowe School, designed by the eminent English architect William Kent — looked something straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. When Dunham was 13, his parents rented an apartment next to the Eiffel Tower, an Art Deco masterpiece that silent film star Carma Carlyle commissioned designer Ernest Boiceau to outfit in 1928.

“My mother had such an eye for places with beauty. It drove her choices,” says Dunham, who today continues the family tradition for living casually with international style. His current 1920s Spanish bungalow on the edge of West Hollywood is complete with dining room chairs plucked from the 1953 set of How to Marry a Millionaire and windows and furniture draped in his own Fig Leaf fabric inspired by a family trip to Salvador Dalí’s house in Spain. It is equally chic outside with its Wade Graham–designed pool. “Ultimately, my parents’ taste had a huge impact on mine,” says Dunham. “As a result, I’ve been obsessed with architecture ever since.”

Despite his passion for history and design, Dunham proceeded cautiously when it came to making a career out of it. After attending Oxford and interning under the iconic English designer David Hicks — father to Dunham’s best high school chum, Ashley — Dunham was hesitant to become one himself, after design legend Jacques Grange (as well as Hicks) warned him that it was an awfully hard way to make a living. “And these were two men at the top of their game saying this,” says Dunham. “So I listened and chose the next closest thing I could find to that world: real estate.”

Cadaques Interior

An interior of Dunham’s home in Cadaques, Spain. Photo courtesy the designer.

As a young adult living in Manhattan from the early-1980s to the late-’90s, Dunham flourished in this milieu. His international network of friendships brought overseas clients who not only sought Dunham’s deft skill at closing the deal, but relied on his keen eye to decorate their pieds-á-terre. During this time, Dunham’s own walk-up apartment on Bleecker Street was published in Elle Decor, quite a feat for someone who wasn’t officially decorating. But it was definitely still on his mind, especially since despite his success, real estate ultimately brought an underlying sense of being unfulfilled. “It was mission accomplished each time I sold a client’s house,” says Dunham, “but after the transaction was completed, there was little to show for it.”

Great satisfaction had come, however, from a personal mission of taking a four-unit, disfigured 1820s building on Downing Street (“It looked straight out of that creepy movie Seven,” says Dunham) from disaster to a single-family house with flair. “I raided many a dumpster,” he explains of his restorative feat, which involved removing every floor (they’d been damaged by years of leaky pipes). “I learned Construction 101 from the ground up.” An additional bonus came from the hefty profit Dunham made when he sold it, allowing him in 1998 to make the move, with his partner, Peter Kopelson, to the West Coast, where he is based today.

An informal take on a formal dining room at movie executive Gerry Rich's house in Hollywood. Photo by Victoria Pearson

An informal take on a formal dining room at movie executive Gerry Rich’s house in Hollywood. Photo by Victoria Pearson

Looking from Dunham’s living room onto the garden. Photo by Tim Street-Porter

Los Angeles may seem worlds away from the exotic locations of Dunham’s passport-filled childhood but ironically, its Moorish architecture and abundant bougainvillea felt instantly familiar from his first visit, as it often sparked memories of an impressionable journey Dunham made to Marrakech when he was just 10 years old. “My parents and I took carriages through the Palmeraie and rode Arab ponies through the Atlas Mountains,” recalls Dunham. “What I love about Los Angeles is that, in certain places, it reminds me of Morocco. To this day, the light, the geometric patterns and the flora of North Africa inspire not only my work but my choice of hometown.”

Soon after his arrival in California, Dunham purchased a couple of houses and continued his successful trend of adding his design imprint and then moving on. “At this point, I was really toying with the idea of becoming a decorator full time,” says Dunham. “When a friend saw a project I had done, he said, ‘You know Peter, you were always meant to do this,’ and it really resonated. I knew I had to commit to it.” When one of his revamped houses was published in Los Angeles Magazine, the phone started ringing. “Everyone was looking for an upstart decorator to exploit,” jokes Dunham. “As far as the style I was using, I definitely started with a combination of English and Mediterranean influences that, over time, have married a Californian sense of comfort and practicality.”

An eclectic mix of art and furnishings gives an African/Middle Eastern feel to a young studio executive's bedroom in his hillside house. Photo by Victoria Pearson

An eclectic mix of art and furnishings gives an African/Middle Eastern feel to a young studio executive’s bedroom in his hillside house. Photo by Victoria Pearson


Photo by Grey Crawford

Dunham’s own Fig Leaf fabric makes a bold statement in a Hollywood Hills bedroom. Photo by Grey Crawford

It was after Dunham had textiles made for a showhouse room he designed, that the next spoke on his design wheel appeared. “I’ve always been obsessed with fabrics,” he says. “My own collection really grew out of love.” In anticipation that people might want to buy the handprinted patterns he designed and used, Dunham found a home for them with the renowned John Rosselli & Associates in Manhattan. “I took my little carry-on wheelie to all the New York designers when I got my first collection together,” says Dunham. “Albert Hadley immediately told me to go and see John Rosselli.” Dunham’s fabrics are now carried in more than 16 satellite showrooms around the world and reflect his devotion to exploring it as much as possible. “I strive to create updated approaches to traditional prints rich with Indian, African, Central Asian and mid-century Mediterranean nuances,” says Dunham, who sketches as much as he travels.

Before long, he was looking for a shop where he could not only spearhead his now thriving interior design business but also showcase the ever-expanding Peter Dunham Textiles. While most would be content to rest on the laurels of their own popular patterns, Dunham moved progressively to open his doors to display the celebrated collections of friends and colleagues he admires, such as Manhattan-based pal Carolina Irving (who often travels with Dunham to places like Turkey and the Middle East for inspiration) and Los Angeles designer Martyn Lawrence-Bullard (“like him, his fabric line has a big personality,” says an admiring Dunham).

In 2007, Dunham found a retail space behind antiques dealer and designer Nathan Turner’s shop in Almont Yard and convinced Turner and the surrounding stores to forgo their parking to create a courtyard. That was a winning move. Soon, their address became as much of an oasis as a design destination in the city. “I called my shop Hollywood at Home after randomly buying the domain name about 10 years ago when I had nothing but insomnia,” says Dunham. He eventually relocated to a larger space on La Cienega, where, today, devoted fans swoop in and out with regularity.

“We are always experimenting here,” explains Dunham of the multiple incarnations of his salon, where he generously devotes an entire room to each of the designers he carries, to routinely rotate them as done in art galleries. Whether it’s a Syrian side table, a folk-art turtle sculpture, John Robshaw’s block-printed cotton voiles in dramatic charcoal or an ottoman Dunham’s fashioned out of a 1950s Fornasetti leopard rug (yes, Hollywood at Home is now offering fabulous custom furniture too), everything is distinctly filtered through Dunham’s design lens without feeling forced or fussy. “I really want this shop to be a picture of my design soul,” he explains. His spirit is clearly one that is as domestic as it is wayward. Confesses Dunham: “I’m never happier than on my way to the airport.”

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