Urban paradise was all I could think as I searched for parking on a narrow street in Franklin Hills - a small, residential neighborhood in central Los Angeles. Developed over a swatch of decades, the architecture varies, though it can be hard to tell, most of the houses peak out from behind an orchestra of sumptuous landscaping and fireworks of bougainviella. A haven for pedestrians, neighboring boulevards are easily accessible via a network of public staircases built into the hills. I would use the term "well-heeled" to describe the residents, but shoes, in general, seem beside the point. Every house is a self-contained paradise, more homestead than home, and the house I was headed to proved no exception.
Having seen photos, I braced for what I assumed would be an all-consuming jealousy. 1920s, Mediterranean, I don't even need to read the rest of the description. But as I stepped down into the living room, I mostly just felt inspired. I remember thinking it was the perfect size, spacious, but not so big it felt excessive. A black upright piano sat under a fixed arched window, the verdure of the front garden like a painting above it. On the far side of the room, a set of french doors opened to a spacious patio perched in the hills, which were so lush and green they looked enhanced.
This was the second Lily Spindle installation I witnessed and, like the one before, it felt like being early to a really great party. I gave them a bottle of Rosé and we caught up as they prepped the house for their photographer, obscuring any of evidence of what is normally a well lived-in house. I put my hands on my hips, watching a few men work on an empty swimming pool in the backyard. That’s gonna be nice, I thought, and then said it out loud, casually, trying to play it cool. Debra was preoccupied, arranging and re-arranging the contents of the fireplace mantle, while Rebecca unpacked throw pillows and entertained me with stories about the project - furniture the client already had, what they brought in, challenges with the custom upholstery on the sofa. This is a common dynamic for the two. Rebecca, a writer with a background in art sales and consultation, is naturally gregarious, with a sharp sense of humor, knack for impressions, and mastery of the narrative arc. “I’m the interrogator. I’m a nice interrogator, but I hold up the bright hot light and ask the hard questions. Do you really like that chair? Do you see yourself using that chair?” She’s like the Mentalist of home design, reading between the lines and getting to the nitty-gritty of what clients don't even know they want. For her this is the best part of the job. When I asked if they would ever consider doing any commercial projects, for Rebecca it was a resounding no thanks. “I love people, the psychology of the way they live, the decisions they make, their relationships, with themselves, with other people, with their pets.” Though Debra tends to agree - commercial work is so much less personal, plagued by conflict of interest and committees - she's drawn more to the problem solving aspect of the job; she loves the opportunity to "trouble-shoot" a space and figure out what works. At one point Rebecca and I watched as she transformed a sad little glass of flowers, taking a leaf from the arrangement and wrapping it around the inside of the vase, a turn of hand she attributes to her art school background and fascination with floral sculpture. Previous to Lily Spindle she worked as an art conservator, something that seems perfectly suited to her thoughtful and meticulous nature. Together they are yin and yang, striking that elusive balance so rarely attained by two different people working towards a single goal. It all seems a bit effortless - the division of labor instinctual rather than allocated.
I wasn't at the Franklin Hills house for long, but by the time I left I had met the client’s brother, his girlfriend, and Stevie, their feisty little rescue pup. The three of them live in the house's guest suite, where they run a small pet-sitting service, something I discovered when they emerged from a basement of barking dogs. As we stood, chatting near the threshold to the kitchen, I imagined the client coming home and wondering why there was a small party going on in her house. As far as I can tell, this isn’t uncommon for the ladies of Lily Spindle. At the first install I went to, the client was home, working in an unattached studio in the back yard, but before long we were all gathered in the living room, sampling her homemade limoncello while her beloved cat, Ollie, looked on. Later, I asked if they’ve ever had anyone hire them just because they wanted to be friends, but I already knew the answer to that question.
“Sorry we’re late,” Rebecca started, "we had to help an injured squirrel out of the road." It was a very hot 9AM at a flea market in the valley. “That kind of thing always seems to happen when we’re together,” Debra added. Which is true, serendipitous encounters with animals seem to pepper and punctuate almost everything they do. There’s no such thing as a short story, no boring excuses for being late. After it had been established the squirrel was safe, we started to lumber towards the aisles of the flea market. I was relieved to find we had a shared affinity for complaining about the heat, which we proceeded to do a lot of over the next two hours. They were there to shop, if not for specific clients, then to satisfy their own “love of collecting” - something they’re consciously trying to tame now that it’s on the business dime. And it was in this spirit of restraint that we returned to a booth we had previously visited, where Rebecca fell in love with an antique portrait of a couple on their wedding day. “It's great, but who would want it?” Debra explained how it usually falls on her to temper enthusiasm and be the voice of reason when it comes to buying art for the business. “If you saw the stacks of art we already have you’d understand.” But even after we had exhausted the rest of the market, Rebecca was reluctant to let it go. “Let’s just go back and get the guy’s info, you never know, he might decide to sell it for less." And that's when, as if to point out my own failure to do so, the seller asked, "Who's Lily Spindle?" Up until that point, I'd been having so much fun I hadn't thought to ask.
Let’s start with Lily. When I sent them a list of questions for a phone interview, I joked that the portion dedicated to their dogs would take an hour - it ended up taking an hour and twelve minutes. They both have their own pack of rescue animals, each with their own unique origin story. Quite possibly my favorite is that of Freddie, one of Rebecca’s pups. Aside from Lucy - who she adopted after her proximity to a Rhodesian Ridgeback made her seem like a small dog - Rebecca blames Debra for all her dogs. A regular shelter volunteer, she’s an excellent resource for those looking to adopt, but less so for those who have already adopted too many. Prefacing an email with, “I know you don’t need another dog right now, but..” she forwarded a picture of Freddie to Rebecca, who has an affinity for terriers. Opening the email while she was at work, the photo immediately elicited hysterical shrieking and interest from her co-workers, at which point Rebecca recalls getting “weirdly territorial” and blurting out, “It’s my dog! I'm adopting him!” It’s hard to do her telling of this story justice, both Debra and I immediately burst into laughter, it felt so absurdly relatable. And then, as though they wanted to get in on the joke, there was a sudden chorus of barking, and in the muffled exchange I could make out Debra yelling “Lily! That's enough!”
Lily’s story begins at LA’s North Central shelter, where she wound up as a puppy with one the worst cases of mange Debra had ever seen. Facing euthanasia, she took the pup in as a foster, but after months spent bathing and rehabilitating her coat, she knew they wouldn’t be able to part. Both she and Rebecca are full of words to describe Lily, including “smart” “sweet” “amazing” “adorable” and “a total pain in the ass." Debra explains, “she’s the kind of dog you don’t want to let anyone adopt, because you know she’d do something bad and end up getting returned.” Lucky for Lily, she was already home. And after months of throwing around names for their business, Lily, with her big heart and personality, was the perfect fit. Spindle they already had, referring to the chiseled wooden dowels in the back of chair, it’s a memento from an old ambition of Rebecca's to open her own retail space. Originally, Lily Spindle was a retail concept as well, but the more they thought about being chained to a physical space, the more they realized it would take away from what they really love - building relationships with clients and designing beautiful spaces for them to live in. So Lily Spindle was born.
She was conceived, as I imagine many Southern California residents are, in a swimming pool in Mexico. The two had been friends for a while - their husbands, both working artists and avid surfers, ran in the same circles - but it was on a vacation they took as foursome, floating in the swimming pool of a house they rented near Zihuatanejo, that the two discovered the depth of their shared affinities and aspirations, and as Rebecca put it, started “literally percolating” the idea to start a design business together. For some reason I have this image of their individual careers as thick wooden vines, separate but rooted in the same soil, ultimately coming together to flower at the top. Their respective skills and experience create the ideal ecological backdrop for thoughtful, flushed out, well designed spaces. “It wasn’t really an a-ha moment,” Debra explains, reflecting on their time in Mexico. “It was more like, can we talk about this? After so many years working for other people, we were like, we should really be doing these things ourselves.”
"You all made this home feel like MY home...that is your magical skill. You are both truly magical! I have lived here for 6 months and because of you all, it is now my home."
Following up after one of the installs, they passed on this excerpt from the happy client. And while I wasn’t surprised, they did a stunning job, I paused for a minute to wrap my brain around the concept of someone else being able to make something feel like yours. It seems like the quintessential paradox endemic to domestic interior design. Anyone with an artistic eye can design a beautiful space, but designing a space that both reflects and serves the person living in it takes a special set of skills. “We never want to be the kind of designers who would go in and dishonor everything about the person’s life. You have to have a certain amount of empathy. You have to get them to trust you.” A notoriously difficult thing to do in any relationship, let alone a transactional one. Yet this is exactly what I witnessed them do again and again the more time I spent with them. The way they took time to talk to their client's brother's girlfriend about her dog. The way they stood in an un-shaded booth at the flea market, talking to the seller about his rugs, but also about his family and his daughter, who shared Rebecca's name. What’s clear from their portfolio is that they know how to build beautiful spaces, what’s less obvious is that they know how to build relationships. In their line of work, the two go hand in hand. Combined with decades of experience in what they refer to as a "venn-diagram of the art and design world," together they're a force of nature. Watching them work together, I don't know that they would have been able to avoid this if they tried.
As some prospective clients have discovered, if you call asking for Lily, you won't be able to reach her. Lily Spindle isn’t a person, in the physical sense, but she is, I would argue, a spirit. She’s a state of mind, an attitude and a philosophy. But most of all she’s a tribute - to beauty, to the gravity of home, and what it means to the lives lived there. To the transformative power of friendship, and all the magical and serendipitous forms it takes. To swimming pools in Mexico and being your own boss, to epic flea market finds and the perfect area rug. And to the dogs. To all the dogs.