A little more than ten years ago, Mariah O’Brien was at a creative crossroads, and the direction she chose would determine her career path. In a single day, she read for a role on Dawson’s Creek and pitched a proposal for a $300,000 interior design project.
The chance to join Dawson and Pacey floated away, but the interior design job came through. And thus O’Brien, who had worked as a model and actress since she was a teenager, became a full-time interior designer in 2005.
Since then, she’s worked on many houses. But the most colorful and eclectic projects she’s completed have been her personal homes, and she shares the latest with her family in Los Feliz.
The Spanish-style dwelling is filled with art, books, and memories. “There isn’t one thing here that isn’t special to me,” she says.
One of the features that resonates with the designer is the style of the home. “I grew up in Laurel Canyon, which is an area of Los Angeles where families had little retreat cabins in the early 1900s. Today, there are a lot of midcentury and contemporary homes there, but there are also a handful of beautiful 1920s Spanish-style homes. I didn’t live in one, but I loved them,” O’Brien says. “There’s a romanticism about them that’s emblematic of Los Angeles, and although I went through a period where I didn’t like Spanish-style homes, I’m now drawn to them.”
As a mother, she was lured to Los Feliz for its walkability. “I moved to the neighborhood when my oldest kids were small. We had been living in the Hollywood Hills, where you can’t walk to anything. I wanted to be able to easily access trails, parks, and schools and feel like I lived in a community,” she says. “We moved to Los Feliz in 2002 and into this house in 2012. We were part of a wave of young families that moved into the community, and as we’ve lived here the neighborhood has undergone a renaissance.”
You could say her home has as well. When she moved in, the house was yellow (her least favorite color) on the outside and white on the inside. Today, the exterior is a traditional white and the the interior is graced with color, be it on the walls or in the furnishings.
“When it comes to this style, my preference for an exterior color is white,” O’Brien says. “I also love a pale pink Spanish house, but I didn’t feel it was right for this [one].”
The interior retains many of the original features, fixtures, and ornamentation Spanish-style homes of the era are known for: black-iron light fixtures, molded-plaster corbels and molding, arched windows and doors, and vintage tile.
It’s the perfect background for the designer, whose household includes children, pets, and a wealth of design finds. “I love modern architecture, and I’ve worked on many contemporary projects. But for my own life, this house is perfect. The Spanish style lends itself to an eclectic decor with big, vintage pieces that wouldn’t be at home in a post-and-beam house,” O’Brien says. “Here, I can combine things like a Noguchi coffee table and a Moroccan hutch and it works, where it might not in some stark modern spaces.”
What’s more, the all-embracing decor is forgiving when it comes to the unexpected accessories kids sometimes add. “This house can have five backpacks in the entry and still look good,” the designer says. “In a pristine modern home, that might not be the case.”
Of course, this is no period-perfect interpretation of Spanish-style. “I traveled to Morocco just before I moved into this house, and I fell in love with the colors of that country,” says O’Brien. “I decided I would paint the living room blue, and I chose Dunn Edwards’ Summer Lake. It draws you in.”
The vibrant shade allows her to use a design card she doesn’t often get to play in the outside world. “Convincing most clients to use a color this vibrant is a hard sell,” O’Brien says. “And, in fact, my older daughter was a bit doubtful. She said to me, ‘Mom, did you mean for this color to be so…activating?’”
But in this case, the home’s architecture works in the hue’s favor. “Like most older homes, the living room is disconnected from the other rooms in the house. You almost experience the color as a vignette from the entryway,” O’Brien says.
But to enter the room is to be immersed in a brilliant blue accented by hot pink and orange, and that’s been an asset to the designer’s large collection of vintage and antique pieces. “When you add the bright color behind the paintings, they pop and lose the drab factor,” O’Brien says. “All of the sudden, everything became more alive and less run-of-the-mill.”
The dining room is as equally multi-faceted, with slatted chairs by California modernist Arthur Umanoff sitting side-by-side with Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs around an Edward Wormley table created for Dunbar in 1971. “You would think the Umanoff chairs belong somewhere in Palm Springs,” says O’Brien. “But it works for me.”
Throughout the house, the personal is at the forefront, and the room also holds framed artworks by the designer and each one of her children, as well as a china cabinet containing her grandmother’s serving pieces.
That “design is personal” rule applies to color as well as art and accessories. Take, for instance, the hot-pink sofa in the family room and the pale-pink master bedroom. “After my divorce, I was on my own for the first time, and I did everything in pink. I bought this raspberry sofa then, and it still works,” O’Brien says.
Like the sofa, the pale-pink shade called “Nancy’s Blushes” from Farrow & Ball came with her to her new home. “I think that, psychologically, it’s a warming and calming color,” O’Brien says.
The designer finds the most serenity in her garden, where she’s created a series of areas for dining and relaxing—including a hammock positioned to take in the view.
“I have a huge green thumb and I love being outside in my garden. I put the hammock there because it has a view of the entire city,” says O’Brien. “My garden is my heaven.”