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Paul Fortune, LA designer to the stars, dies at 69
Paul Fortune at his home in Los Angeles, Aug. 27, 2012. Fortune, whose charm, chiseled good looks and a hard-to-place English accent could be counted among the tools he deployed as an interior designer and arbiter of taste and chic for a long list of boldface clients. His death, of cardiac arrest, was first announced on the website of Architectural Digest, where he was regularly listed among the top 100 professionals in his field. Fortune died on June 15, 2020, in Ojai, Calif., at 69. Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times.

by Guy Trebay

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- While the terms that tended to attach themselves to Paul Fortune — style guru, epitome of taste, acme of chic, arbiter elegantiarum — had about them a whiff of P.T. Barnum, his tax returns said “interior designer,” a job description that failed to capture his larger calling as a self-appointed ringmaster in the social circus of Los Angeles.

Fortune died June 15 in Ojai, California, at 69. His death, of cardiac arrest, was first announced on the website of Architectural Digest, where he was regularly listed among the top 100 professionals in his field, and confirmed by his husband, ceramist Chris Brock.

Both professionally and personally, Fortune attracted a wide array of types, including the boldface clients (Sofia Coppola, Marc Jacobs, David Fincher, Brian Grazer, Aileen Getty) on whom he staked his reputation; billionaires and busboys; socialites and drug dealers; artists and writers; celebrities and the attractive nobodies who still flock to Los Angeles seeking fame.

Back when he was taking his first steps toward stardom, a certain unknown British actor named Daniel Craig bunked in the guest room of Fortune’s storied Laurel Canyon house.

With his square-jawed good looks, English accent and acerbic wit, Fortune was himself a character who seemed plucked from Central Casting, the kind of actor capable of slotting into any role.

And he played many parts in his varied design career, including that of the man who planted the first vintage Cadillac nose-first in the facade of the Hard Rock Café, who designed a line of spiky Lucite cactus lamps (Barbra Streisand bought one for a baby shower), who directed music videos in the early days of MTV, and who photographed Annie Lennox for a Eurythmics album cover.

As a devoted hedonist with a can-do spirit, he helped create and promote two of Los Angeles’ more celebrated nightclubs.

The first, the louche Fake Club of the early 1980s, was situated in a Trailways bus depot on a stretch of Cahuenga Boulevard where sidewalk stabbings were not unknown. “Come as you aren’t’’ was the unwritten code of the Fake Club, which opened in 1982, four years after Fortune drove across country to a city where, as he explained to Vanity Fair in January: “There was space, freedom, more sunshine than I knew was possible. It was like a big, weird blank canvas and I could paint myself into the picture.’'

The second club, the moody Les Deux Café, was created with designer Michèle Lamy and installed at Fortune’s direction inside an arts and crafts bungalow cum crack house, resurrected and transported by truck across a parking lot to a new locale.

It was at Les Deux Café, with its self-aware design quotations from Old Hollywood nightspots like Chasen’s, Scandia and the Brown Derby, that Fortune laid the groundwork for what is probably his signal achievement: the design of the Tower Bar, the clubby, walnut-paneled dining establishment that opened in 2007 and quickly became the Hollywood power nexus it remains.

Like so many other newcomers to the land of self-invention, Fortune adjusted and burnished his biography as he went along. Though he would eventually acquire some of the affectations of a swell, he was born Paul Stephen Fortune Fearon on Sept. 5, 1950, in a suburb of Liverpool, England, to Frances (Fortune) Fearon, a telephone operator, and Kevin Fearon, a production manager at a company that supplied Christmas hampers to Harrods.

When he was still a boy, Fortune’s family relocated to a large and ramshackle house in Cheshire, England, within earshot of the lion’s roar at the Chester Zoo. “Paul’s natural flair was a driving force’’ in the restoration of Cranwood, as the house was called, his brother, Mark Fearon, said in an email. Fearon and Brock are his survivors.

As a youth, Fortune often dragged his three siblings to country house sales and auctions, Fearon explained, not only helping his parents furnish Cranwood but also showing an unwavering conviction about the correctness of his own taste. This was to be an earmark of his design practice and recurring theme in “Notes on Décor, Etc.,’’ a 2018 book he wrote that was equal parts portfolio, memoir and how-to.

Of Irish descent, Fortune attended Catholic school and served as an altar boy, then fled to London and did a brief stint in art school before continuing his journey to New York and, eventually, the West. “I just wanted to take drugs and have sex and run around and have a good time,’’ Fortune said on a design podcast last year. But he was more serious than that.

“Paul’s taste was so extraordinary and singular,’’ said Marc Jacobs, whose triplex in Paris, townhouse in New York and new home — Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1955 Hoffman House in Rye, New York — were all designed by Fortune. “I’m so stubborn about what I want, but there are a few people, very few, who make me rethink something I like. In that sense, Paul was a perfect sparring partner.’’

Director Sofia Coppola, whose New York townhouse was designed by Fortune, added, “I’m such a control freak, but with Paul, I just said, ‘Do whatever you think.’ ’’

In reality Fortune seldom considered doing otherwise, an approach that may have cost him as many clients as it gained.

“What I love about Paul is that he just didn’t give a damn about design as a career,’’ said David Netto, a designer who chose Fortune as his collaborator when he restored a landmark Richard Neutra house in Los Angeles. “He cared about it as a life-enhancing thing.’’

That was clearest at his home in Laurel Canyon, an ongoing experiment improvised within the eccentric frame of a hillside hacienda built by the man who once designed the sets for “Mutiny on the Bounty.’’

With its cozy Paul McCobb chairs, earth-toned colors and warmly enveloping domestic aura, the Laurel Canyon house — where he lived for 35 years before selling it in 2013 to musician Nate Ruess and his wife, designer Charlotte Ronson — was a visual antidote to the steroidal bloat now blighting residential LA.

And it served as a proving ground for concepts he would deploy most successfully at the Tower Bar: brass-inlaid panels that frame geometric art deco windows with cinematic views over the city; lampshades lined in puce-colored silk that cast flattering light on even the most surgically adjusted of faces; Ultrasuede banquettes that soften to whispers ruthless conversations about status recalibrated daily in the trades.

“Paul understood the framing,’’ Jeff Klein, the owner of the Sunset Tower hotel and its Tower Bar, said.

One of Fortune’s inspired strokes in designing the Tower Bar, Klein noted, was to comb local memorabilia shops for movie stills, which he then annotated and had framed.

“He would go to all these old junk shops and buy black-and-white photos of nobody actors,’’ Klein said. “He didn’t want stills of the stars. He said, ‘Actors that never made it — that’s the real Hollywood.’ ’’

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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