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Maile Pingel | Photo: John Russo | Portrait by August Dering | July 9, 2013
Perched high above Sunset Boulevard, celebrity photographer John Russo readies his nest.
“If you don’t want to take your shoes off, don’t come over,” jokes photographer John Russo. “I’m a nervous wreck with this white floor!”
Guest-proofed or no, Russo’s house is precisely what the photographer envisioned, or as he’ll tell you, “manifested.” “It was my dream to have a midcentury house with a view. And as soon as I walked in, I knew it was for me.”
The house, built in 1957, is only about 1,800 square feet—modest by today’s standards—but located in the Bird Streets, an exclusive enclave in the Hollywood Hills. (Neighbors include Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio.) “This house has everything, especially privacy,” Russo explains. “It’s situated up high, almost on its own peninsula. From one side I see the ocean and from the other I see the mountain. And I don’t have neighbors on top of me.” The only intrusion is the occasional star tours bus. “When I’m out on the deck sometimes one will stop, so I wave,” Russo adds.
Respecting the architecture, Russo—who’s been shooting the likes of Angelina Jolie, Julianne Moore, Ryan Reynolds and Brad Pitt since 1995—focused his renovation on interior surfaces. “I told the contractors, ‘I want everything white, high gloss—the shiniest epoxy on the market.’ And they did it,” he says with delight. Making the house his own was critical for the photographer, who spends much of his time in hotels for his work. The kitchen, Russo’s favorite space, received the biggest makeover: Italian-style lacquer cabinets and a luxurious waterfall stone counter. “From here I can see the ocean,” his voice trailing off as he takes in the view. “If I can see the water, I know it’s going to be a beautiful day.”
When it came to the furnishings, Russo embraced the “fish-bowl spirit” of the house and went for a minimalist palette that left color to the views. “The sky and hillside remind me of Calabria—I’m Italian, I can’t help it,” he says with a laugh. For inspiration, he tore out pages from design magazines (he’s an avid reader) and fabricated anything he couldn’t find in stores. Working with “a super team” of local designers (Claudiu Cengher and Erinn Valencich) and landscaper Michael Fiore, the project was realized in a matter of months, though the downstairs is still being finished. Despite a hectic travel schedule (he was just in London photographing Gwyneth Paltrow for an international edition of Vogue), Russo’s no novice at fixing up homes. He’s sold several, furnishings and all, to a certain Grammy-nominated musician. “I love doing houses but I don’t want to sell this one,” he says with the satisfaction of the cat that caught the canary.
Russo, who has called Beverly Hills home for years, has had a camera in hand since childhood. “I studied photography and then worked as a fashion photographer in Miami but I decided I wanted to shoot celebrities.” His talent isn’t limited to portraits, though; his abstractions enliven the home. “The boxy, straight lines of the architecture called for artwork that offered the same depth, shape and movement as the views.”
The house may feel like a pristine studio but he’s shot very few clients here. And while it’s built for entertaining, he’s not done much of that, either. This “tree house,” as he calls it, offers respite from the hubbub of life. “I created this house for me,” he states. Beyond the main living areas and the master bedroom (which features a glass shower and steam room inspired by the Standard in New York), the home includes a small library where Russo displays “all the cool things” that come with a life of travel. A covered patio with a fireplace affords another place to unwind. “I love to just go out there and crash on the couch.”
“This house is like a breath of fresh air for me,” he continues. “It’s ethereal and open, and it makes me happy to wake up in the morning. There’s just so much life here, it’s inspiring.” And inspiration is paramount when you’re photographing Hollywood A-listers, writing a second book and launching a fragrance line called Photograph this fall. “I’m in love—like, in love—with this house,” says the artist of his muse. “When I’m away, I can’t wait to come home.”