Call of the coast: an Australian stylist’s California dream home

Marcus Hay still clearly recalls the moment he decided to move to Laguna Beach in California. He was having lunch with his partner in a restaurant overlooking the ocean. “Everybody looked so happy and the sun was shining,” he says. “We were in our black clothes from New York and stood out like sore thumbs. But we said to ourselves: ‘This could be our future.’ After being in Manhattan for 13 years, I was ready for a sea change.”

For the Australian stylist, whose clients include American homeware brands such as CB2, West Elm and Williams Sonoma, it was also something of a throwback to his childhood. “When I grew up in Sydney, I lived right on the beach,” he says. “I used to spend a lot of my childhood fascinated with rock pools.”

Hay is not the first person to be enamoured of the coastal resort south of Los Angeles. John Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flat at 504 Park Avenue, and Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Bette Davis all had Laguna Beach hideaways.

Wood-panelled front of the house, painted blue-green, with tropical plants in front
‘We literally have 50 squirrels in the trees all day’: the garden, which is also visited by hummingbirds and butterflies. Photograph: Jonny Valiant/The Observer

The house Hay found has an interesting history. It was built on a steeply sloping plot in the 1930s by a suffragette and local personality called Nita Carman (a nearby park is named after her). “She moved into this community that was very artistic,” says Hay. “All the people who lived around her were her friends. She would host numerous tea parties and cocktail parties in the garden.”

For Hay, the garden in question was one of the main draws. He particularly loves its koi fishpond and profusion of trees. “You get this beautiful light that comes through the branches,” he says. “It really is its own little haven and has its own ecosystem in a sense. We literally have 50 squirrels in the trees all day; we have hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies.”

As for the heritage-listed house, it has rather an usual layout. The living room is on the top floor with the bedrooms below and a laundry in the basement. “It’s almost like going down into a ship,” he says. The nautical feel is heightened by the presence of a random porthole-style window in the guest room. “The house is full of little unexpected architectural details like that.”

Marcus Hay in the kitchen.
California dreaming: Marcus Hay in the kitchen. Photograph: Jonny Valiant/The Observer

In most of his previous homes, Marcus has not hesitated to completely repaint the walls. But here, the interior had just been renovated and he decided to keep the all-white environment. “It’s not a huge house and that makes it feel bigger than it is.” It also provided a perfect canvas for him to express his love of Modernist design. He is a fan of midcentury pieces, such as the Eero Saarinen tables, chairs by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, and Norman Cherner, and lighting designed by George Nelson or Isamu Noguchi. “I feel they’re classics for a reason,” he says. “They are just so beautiful to look at. I always start with them and then build upon that base.”

Here, Hay particularly wanted to add a certain Californian vibe and did so by integrating ceramics by local artisans and vintage ikebana vases produced in the area by a group of Japanese craftsmen, who had migrated to the region before the Second World War. A number of the vases can be found on the large shelving unit in the living room, along with a plethora of other objects, including neo-classical busts, a ginger jar created by Aubrey Beardsley for Poole Pottery, a gorgonian coral, and a group of wooden figurines from Artek representing marine animals such as a whale, a penguin and a squid. “In my profession, I love nothing more than the challenge of styling a set of shelves,” he says.

His passion for objects in general is almost overriding and he is constantly on the hunt for new treasures wherever he goes. “The nature of my work is that I’m always collecting,” he says. He unearthed the painting of an artist’s studio by Jeremy Miranda in the kitchen in New Hampshire and the ribbon-like Curtis Jeré sculpture above the mantelpiece on a trip to Arizona. The ceramic plaque in the dining area, meanwhile, was brought back from Copenhagen several years ago. It depicts a young girl wearing a blue headscarf and has become something of a personal mascot. “She’s followed me around. I’m a big lover of Scandinavian design. I think it works particularly well in this environment.”

One of the bright and airy bedrooms.
Bright and airy: one of the downstairs bedrooms. Photograph: Marcus Hay/Jonny Valiant

The house is not immense, but after years of living in tiny New York apartments, it provides the opportunity for Hay to surround himself with many items that had previously been in storage. More than anything, however, his new life has allowed him to reconnect with outdoor living. He regularly has barbecues on the rear deck, spends countless hours gardening, and is a 10-minute walk from the beach. “When I got to California, it was like an explosion of the senses,” he says. “All of a sudden, I experienced all this stuff I’d almost forgotten after years in New York: the love of the ocean, the salt on my skin, the way the tomatoes taste here. Everything is just so much fresher and hyper-real.”

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