Ann Getty at home in her Turkish-inspired living room. Photo by Lisa Romerein.
SAN FRANCISCO - Forty-some years ago, Ann Gilbert Getty moved into a stately house in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. A statuesque redhead from the Sacramento Valley, she had recently married Gordon Getty, son of oil tycoon and collector J. Paul Getty.
As the decades progressed, the house evolved and grew in sophistication. So, too, has Mrs Getty, of course.
Still, for all of her accomplishments, Getty was reticent a couple years ago when writer Diane Dorran Saeks approached her with the idea of doing a book on her work and life.
“I didn’t feel right promoting myself,” Getty recalls on a recent morning in her living room.
Fortunately, Getty changed her mind, and the result is Ann Getty Interior Style, just published by Rizzoli. With magnificent photos of the Getty residence as well as other houses Ann has designed, the book vividly illustrates a level of connoisseurship rarely seen today.
Among the numerous museum-quality antiques here in the living room are pieces made for England’s greatest residences, such as Badminton House, Houghton Hall and Spencer House, by such masters as Thomas Chippendale, Giles Grendy and James Linnell. The show-stoppers in the room, however, are probably the very rare pair of coffres de mariage, which are signed by André Charles Boulle. “Only a very few pieces were actually made by Boulle,” Getty notes. “I wasn’t sure they were by him when we bought them, but now we know. I think the Rothschilds want them back.”
The music room in her son Peter’s residence.
Initially, Getty hired the indomitable Sister Parish to decorate the Georgian-style house, which was designed by Willis Polk in 1913 and stands on one of the city’s loftiest streets. Parish brought in her signature English-country-style chintzes, along with lots of yellow paint, and helped Getty create what many people thought was the loveliest house in town.
Like other clients, Getty experienced some shock and awe when she first met Parish. “She scared me. I couldn’t make my mind up about anything. Finally, she told me I had to make decisions, and I did. Then I loved working with her and she was a great influence, as was Albert Hadley.”
In addition to raising the four boys she had with her husband, Getty pursued many far-flung interests. In the 80s, she made a major mark on the publishing world, when she bought the Grove Press, and went into partnership with London-based George Weidenfeld. In the 90s, she became a student of paleoanthropology, and spent extensive time working on excavations in Ethiopia, where she lived literally in the trenches.
The living room in the historic Temple of Wings in Berkeley, California, home to her son, John, is adorned with reflective Favrile glass objects, pewter picture frames and Daum glass vases.
After her children grew up, she began to seriously pursue her passions for collecting and design, which led her to redecorate the house herself. She had plenty of rooms to work on. Unlike many couples who downsize when the children leave the nest, the Gettys you might say “up-sized.” They bought the mansion next door and annexed it, and later bought an adjacent third house. “We joked that now that the children are gone, we needed a bigger house,” says Getty. “We’re building all the way to Oakland at this rate,” a friend of the couple recalls Gordon saying.
With chinoiserie as her theme, Getty transformed the newly enlarged house into a spectacular Aladdin’s Cave of treasures, exotic and layered. “I like things on things,” says Getty.
After making the house arguably one of the most ravishing private residences in America, Getty decided to go pro. In 2002, she founded Ann Getty and Associates, a residential interior design firm, and the next year launched Ann Getty House, a line of custom furniture and reproductions of important historical pieces.
Getty’s affinity for the unusual and the rare – and her ability to source such things – stems from her love of travel. Indeed, with her luxuriously outfitted and much-used 727 (known around San Francisco at “the Jetty”) there are few places she has not gone.
For a guest bedroom in her home, Getty created a Turkish- and Syrian-influenced haven with a gilded canopy bed and paneled walls that are hand-painted, gilded and ornamented with semiprecious stones.
She also received inspiration and mentoring from her father-in-law. Contrary to his fearsome reputation, Ann says J. Paul Getty was a sweetheart. “It’s not fair!” she says. “He was funny and fun to be with.
“He was really quite expert. In the beginning, when my means were not so great, he told me to collect fine French furniture. Later, we did, but I couldn’t then. So I started with English lacquer. When I bought my first piece, he said it looked like a soap box.”
Even after Getty’s means did increase, she has always followed certain principals when buying at auction. “I set a price and I don’t go over it.”
But with her sharp eye, she has often bought highly important pieces that were undervalued, or that have appreciated significantly. In the 1980s, she paid around $300,000 for an ormolu-mounted porcelain gueridon that Napoleon commissioned from the Sèvres manufactory. In 2007, when Getty consigned it to Sotheby’s it fetched $6.2 million.
“It was a good buy,” Getty says with some understatement. “But I’ve made some bad ones too. I just buy things because they are beautiful. I know instantly if I want it.
“If I am not using a piece, I will sell it. I sold the Sèvres table because it was so important, and as it was glass, I couldn’t put a glass on top of it. People were putting their drinks on it. I like every part of my house to be used. I don’t want to rope anything off.”
With the success of her own house, it did not take long for Getty’s business to grow. Her family and friends were first in line, with requests for her to decorate their houses.
A Keith Tyson history painting hangs in the sleek entryway Getty designed for Trevor and Alexis Traina’s home.
As Ann Getty Interior Style illustrates, she has a wide range. For her son, John, in Berkeley, she created an Arts & Crafts-style house, with a collection of rare Aesthetic Movement treasures. Just across the street from her own house, she recently orchestrated a dazzling eclectic mix of contemporary art and photographs, antiques, as well as custom furniture by her team of highly skilled craftsmen, for young tech entrepreneur Trevor Traina and his wife, Alexis.
“Ann comes armed with connoisseurship, as well as an army of people to make it happen,” says Trevor Traina. “If you can imagine it, she can make it happen. For her, the more fantastical the better. We have an entire room upholstered in peacock feathers.”
“There’s nothing she can’t do,” adds Alexis. “Her atelier is like Santa’s workshop.”
The Traina residence is one of the several photographed in the book. The day before our chat, Getty had just received an advance copy, which now sits proudly on a George II carved parcel giltwood and ebonized stool in front of us. Paging through it, she can’t hide her satisfaction.
“I’m pleased with it,” she says. “I’m glad I did it. Because I think it’s a nice record.”
It sure is.
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]