Fred A. Bernstein

A Doll House in a Doll House

Barbra Streisand's "barn" in Malibu

Published in, November 13, 2012


No one argues about the size of Barbra Streisand's talent. It's what she does with the talent -- the music some find schmaltzy; the films some see as self-indulgent -- that make her controversial.

When it comes to home design Streisand's latest obsession the pattern is the same: The talent is enormous; it's how she chose to use that talent that may raise a few eyebrows.

In Malibu, Streisand has just completed an 11,000-square-foot "barn." The building overlooks a mill house, complete with an artificial river to keep its water wheel turning.

Inside the barn are dozens of period rooms. One enormous suite is Georgian, meaning Wedgewood-blue walls and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington over the fireplace. The library, at the other end of the building, is all Arts & Crafts -- much of it adapted from the Pasadena masters Greene & Greene. Other rooms are Victorian or art nouveau, down to the smallest detail (there's a tulip-shaped toilet in the art nouveau bathroom). Vestibules separate the suites, cushioning the transitions from one period to another.

The barn is ready to be used, despite the fact that "main house" that Streisand shares with her husband, James Brolin, is just 100 feet away. There are frilly pink robes in Ms. Streisand's closet and a flight simulator in Mr. Brolin's home office. There's a Stickley style fax room and a Sub-Zero refrigerator carefully disguised as a vintage icebox.

But much of the building is really a private museum. The actual closets pale next to the "display closet" -- an art nouveau-style showcase for some of Ms. Streisand most famous outfits, including dresses from Funny Girl and the gown in which she married Mr. Brolin in 1998.

The closet is disguised as a clothing shop; it is one of half a dozen fake stores lining a cobblestone street in the building's basement. Antiques Ms. Streisand couldn't bear to part with -- but which she didn't have another place for -- are in a private antiques store. Her doll collection all white lace and pink ribbons and bows is displayed in a doll shop (where one can marvel at the concept of a doll house in a doll house). A catering kitchen is presented though not convincingly -- as a root cellar. (One large piece of crockery is labeled "buttah.")

The project arose out of pent-up creative energy. Choosing not to make the movie the Normal Heart -- based on Larry Kramer's play about the early days of the AIDS crisis, to which she owned the rights -- Streisand turned to a project, that she said, was ultimately more difficult than movie-making.

For years, she says in a new book about the house, "I was hoarse from screaming over power tools." (That's what the voice has been up to?)

She and Brolin already occupied the main house, on an oceanfront lot, as well as the smaller house next door, a ranch that she had turned into a kind of guest house/office. She gave that building a frilly decor that led Mr. Brolin to dub it "grandma's house."

But it was on a third lot, beyond grandma's house and her elaborate rose garden, that Streisand decided to build the ultimate retort to her deprived childhood (when, she has said, her only "doll" was a hot water bottle). She avoided art deco -- a style she had employed in several previous homes (in 1999, she sold much of her deco stockpile at auction) and threw herself into studying the work of Greene & Greene (particularly their Thorsen house in Berkeley) and Hector Guimard, designer of Paris's art nouveau subway entrances.

Architects were little help, she said; she fired several when they didn't understand her vision. And contractors rarely lived up to her expectations. (One of them, she said, told her, "Can't you just give us the plans and leave?") Others, she complained, padded their bills because she's rich.

One assistant who stayed with her was Bernadette Stewart, who had just graduated from interior design school, and was working as a waitress, when she spotted an ad on Craigslist: "Assistant needed for 11,000-square-foot house in Malibu." She almost didn't apply Malibu is a long drive from Long Beach, where she lives but when she did, Stewart found herself in a creative maelstrom. One coup was finding an upholsterer who could do a sofa overnight. That allowed Streisand to see immediate results, like a movie director watching dailies.

"She was the designer; I was hired just to manifest her vision," said Stewart of her boss. Together, they bought and commissioned thousands of items, from the tulip-shaped toilet in the art nouveau bathroom to the cornerstone that "dates" the brand-new barn to 1799.

But even paradise has problems. Having spent millions of dollars on the house, Streisand said, "I worry a lot about wildfires in Malibu." That's one reason, she said, she decided to document the project in her book, My Passion for Design.

Not surprisingly, she wrote most of the text, took most of the photos herself and narrated a tour of the house, which appears on a "bonus" DVD. Recently, she said, she persuaded the publisher, Viking, to mount the DVD in the book over a photo of the mill house with the disk doubling as the water wheel. "The disk has to match the book, and it's a different printing process," she said, explaining her latest preoccupation. Then she added, of her publisher, "They're great. They're not fighting me on the details."

She phoned me from the South of France, where she was vacationing with Mr. Brolin. "How do you like the house?" was her first question. It was hard to know exactly how to answer.

Streisand's building mimics Winterthur, the du Pont mansion in Delaware, known for its lavish period rooms. The difference is that Winterthur is open to the public, as is J. Paul Getty's Malibu mansion, a re-creation of a first-century Roman villa, just down the coast from Streisand's compound. But her house, on a quiet residential street, is private, and probably always will be.

Then again, it's in Malibu, where houses far bigger than 11,000 square feet -- built by people far less accomplished than Ms. Streisand -- are commonplace. And she said she doesn't care what the public much less architecture critics think of the design. "All that matters is the process," she said. "After that, whatever happens, happens."

Yet by publishing the book, and promoting it widely, she has shown that she does care.

As for the house's stylistic anachronisms: Is there any reason art nouveau is any less "valid" than modernism? Why is one considered kitsch, the other cool?

Filled with the kind of decoration modernists hate -- mosaics, carved wood, stained glass -- the house echoes the debate at the heart of a new book: Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship, by Yael Reisner. Most "serious" architects, raised on the idea that form should follow function, avoid obvious ornamentation. During a recent panel discussion prompted by Reisner's book, a number of prominent architects, including Frank Gehry, seemed to view the idea of beauty for its own sake with dismay.

Streisand should have been on the panel, making full-throated defense of beauty -- the same case she makes with her house.