Designer Nell Alano Reimagines Philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton’s Santa Monica HomeDecember 21st, 2018
The political tumult of the past few (let’s face it, two) years has engendered a sobering, long overdue national conversation about the dynamics of race and gender in nearly every aspect of American culture. In the realm of contemporary art, a dedicated group of curators, collectors, and critics has been pressing that discussion for decades, and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton has consistently been one of its most eloquent voices. Beginning in the late 1980s, Norton and her ex-husband, Peter (of Norton AntiVirus fame), began assembling a cutting edge art collection with strengths in African-American, southern California, and women artists. Their patronage, through the Norton Family Foundation, extended into the arenas of politics, environmentalism, and social services.
The Nortons split up in 2000, and soon afterward Eileen and their two children, Diana and Michael, settled in a 1905 Craftsman home in Santa Monica designed by architects Elmer Grey and Myron Hunt, whose credits include the Rose Bowl and Huntington Library in Pasadena. “We moved from a very contemporary house with high ceilings and gallery-like spaces where you could hang just about anything,” recalls Norton, who was born in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts and worked as an elementary school teacher. “Installing contemporary art in a classic Craftsman was a bit trickier, but it worked,” she adds.
Norton has spent the past two decades working on the house, tweaking its rooms and adding new pieces to her formidable collection, which includes signature works by African-American artists on the order of Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Rodney McMillian, and Mark Bradford, the U.S. representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale, whose career she has championed since first visiting the artist’s studio in 2000. “Mark was still working as a hair dresser then, and I remember him telling me my hair wasn’t cute, so I started going to his salon. We’ve been friends ever since,” she says.
For the past six years, Norton has worked with decorator Nell Alano to refine and reimagine her home. “There was a lot of brown and khaki in the décor when we started, and a Craftsman house can be dark and depressing anyway. Eileen was at a time in her life where she wanted to brighten up her surroundings. She really pushed the color,” Alano explains, referring to specific pieces such as the living room sofa covered in raspberry velvet as well the new sandy-pink color of the master bedroom. As for the disposition of the art collection, Alano says, “I gave no feedback in any form. That’s 100 percent Eileen.”
One of the triumphs of Alano’s ministrations is the renovated nook just inside the entry, beneath the staircase and a floating Frank Gehry fish sculpture specially commissioned for the project. Originally used as an orchestra stand, where musicians would serenade guests as they arrived, the cozy space is now outfitted with an antique writing desk from Norton’s family paired with a nineteenth-century Swedish chair. The sunroom, another welcoming spot for repose, features multiple artworks by Raymond Saunders. Along with a giant clamshell chandelier, the Muriel Brandolini fabric that covers the chairs underscores the sunny theme and the house’s proximity to the beach. “In the past, Eileen occupied certain rooms much more than others. Now, she really uses the whole house,” Alano observes.
Although Norton’s appetite for acquisition has slowed down in recent years, she’s far from finished. “I’m mostly collecting the work of artists from the generation before Mark Bradford—people like Alma Thomas, Frank Bowling, and Raymond Saunders. They provide a bit of context and historical perspective,” she explains. Norton also continues to support younger artists, particularly ones based in Los Angeles, such as Samira Yamin, Sandy Rodriguez, and Nzuji De Magalhaes. Her philanthropic endeavors, channeled through the Eileen Harris Norton Foundation, are similarly focused on the local level. In 2014, Norton, along with Mark Bradford and his partner, social activist Allan DiCastro, founded Art + Practice, an organization that provides L.A.’s Leimert Park neighborhood with access to art and, in collaboration with First Place for Youth, supports the needs of foster children. “It started with the basic idea that we needed to do something to help these foster kids,” Norton explains. “It’s a way of using art to open up a world of creativity and empowerment. I know a little something about that.”
This story was originally published in Architectural Digest in November 2018.