Patrick Lee: Down to Earth-Tones Designer


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Patrick Lee is an earth person. He designed the interior of his Mission Hills home in sand, black and brown. “After all, the flora in Southern California is all imported,” he says. “Originally, we were all scrub grass, sandstone and dead palm fronds.” The fabrics he has chosen are vegetable-dyed or natural hues. “Life is so loud,” Lee says. “Who needs to come home to reds and yellows and other wild colors?”

Lee’s home, on a street of similar Mission Hills bungalows, represents a trend among young San Diegans to move back to the older neighborhoods. The home was appraised in 1985 at $172,000. But now, like many renovated bungalows in this formerly working-class area, it would bring a tidy sum—probably well over half a million. Lee takes us out to stand in the middle of the street and admire what he calls his “gull-wing” home. “Like an airplane,” he describes it—with the wings jutting out on both sides. Each house on the block is a variation on this gull-wing theme.

As an interior designer with a plan, Lee was content to live in the old house for a few years until he could put his talents to work on a complete renovation. Then the house was virtually gutted. Every surface received a new treatment—kitchen, baths, walls, floors, even some windows. Ceilings were removed and recessed lights installed. The old Craftsman look lives in the ceiling heights, the proportions of the rooms and the stucco of the exterior—but in every other respect, new life has been breathed into this sturdy old dwelling.

One of Lee’s first changes was to tear up the old floors and replace them with bamboo flooring. The bamboo comes in thread-like strips laminated, then cut in boards. Since each thread is a slightly different shade, the boards have a look of infinite variation. The effect is so stunning, it’s hard to see anything at first but the rich, lustrous floors when you enter. But bamboo is only one of many unusual materials at work in this innovative house, an indication the designer is constantly scouring the marketplace for what’s new and effective. Scouring the world, actually, since Lee does a lot of traveling and is constantly on the lookout for special touches.

Lee is proud of solutions he invented and sources he found to save money. “Home Depot,” he says about a skylight. Linens ’n’ Things for steel bathroom accessories. UFO in Chula Vista for fabrics. The kuba cloth framed in his living room came from Nigeria and cost $4.

The ostrich eggs on the coffee table are three of 24 he brought back from South Africa. “I carried them myself on the plane,” he says. “I washed them in the hotel room—they were smelly—and wrapped them in bubble wrap. All my personal stuff went into the plane’s luggage compartment.”

Twenty-four ostrich eggs? What did he do with them? “Gave them to friends. Used them for design accents.” Each egg is blown out and weighs almost nothing. “Pick up one,” he says.

“I wouldn’t dare,” I answer. But I do anyway, and the texture is wonderfully smooth.

Texture is a big part of Lee’s enjoyment of materials. His sofa is covered in a water hyacinth shade of mohair, soft and durable. The sofa and chairs, in woven wicker, belonged to a friend. “I traded a rug for them,” says Lee. The Victorian mirror over the fireplace was part of a larger piece of furniture “that I had forever.”

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