For a Montecito family, vibrant accents and unexpected antiques make a light-filled hillside abode more than a cozy place to call home.
David Florimbi and Nancy Simon have a house habit. Since moving to Santa Barbara a dozen or so years ago, the couple has restored an Andalusian farmhouse built in 1916 by renowned architect George Washington Smith, and has inhabited a house with a five-car garage they converted into an enormous living space, not to mention spending time in a pair of rentals along the way. “Our daughter Sofia, who’s 13 now, has lived in six houses—way too many,” says Nancy, a fiction writer.
“Sofia had been shuffled around a little,” adds David, a painter.
What motivates the couple’s frequent moves isn’t an acquisitive impulse but rather a creative one. “I think spatial problem-solving is fun. I find it vigorously fun,” says David, who relishes designing in 3-D (when he’s not busy painting in two). “And Nancy has the best sense of style of anybody I know. We enjoy this.”
Little Sofia may now be staying put for a while. At the relaxed, artfully vibrant home in lush Montecito—a few miles south of Santa Barbara—the couple appears to have finally satisfied its design bug. After a year and a half of renovations, David and Nancy moved into this two-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot home more than a year ago. The two have taken a once-nondescript California ranch-style house, circa 1948, and boldly re-imagined it as a clean-lined tropical haven. David’s soulful, dream-like paintings hang in every room amid furnishings chosen and arrayed with discipline and assurance. Everything in the house, from thrift store items to ravishing antiques, reads with astonishing crispness. It’s almost as if it all had been cut out of another background—someone else’s cluttered life—and super-imposed here against the home’s sun-enlivened, white-on-white interior. “The white floors and the white ceilings make it seem like a gallery. You really see Dave’s paintings,” says Nancy.
David’s paintings can also be seen at Santa Barbara’s Contemporary Arts Forum through the ninth of April. The show, Imminent Domain, comprises works inspired by local real estate ads—haunting images in which landscapes and livestock, in anticipation of subdivisions to come, fade into oblivion.
David—who worked in Hollywood in his early twenties as a producer for Aaron Spelling and Universal Pictures—has been painting full-time since age 26. He grew up mostly in Madrid, Rome and the East Coast (his father worked in the defense industry), while Nancy, whose father is legendary playwright Neil Simon, spent her childhood in New York. The pair met on a blind date in 1988 after a mutual friend assured David that Nancy was the woman of his dreams. (“And she was!” interjects Sofia, just home from ballet class.) The couple married 14 years ago in Assisi, Italy.
A year later, domestic harmony was almost shattered when the couple got caught in the middle of a gang skirmish during the 1993 L.A. riots. “We got shot at by the LAPD by mistake. We had run into the parking lot where our car was to hide,” recalls Nancy. In a heartbeat, they drove to Santa Barbara—where David’s father owned a house—to look for a place. “We grabbed our dogs and came up for the weekend,” says Nancy.
After that hair-raising experience, the two were drawn to the beauty and relative safety of the Santa Barbara area. Understandably, they were focused on finding the perfect home for themselves. Looking back, they now see all those years on the move as a sort of apprentice period for exploring and winnowing their tastes and preferences. “We were incubating a lot of ideas about what we liked about design during that time,” says David.
The house they chose was an unlikely canvas. Nancy admits she still finds the architecture “kind of boring.” Indeed, other prospective buyers thought so little of the place they could only imagine razing it. The house had a white exterior and such American Colonial elements as black shutters, a brick-red patio and an eagle weathervane. As David describes, “it was kind of Yankee.” Somehow, the couple saw past all that.
Before closing on the house, David was already busy at work sketching up plans. “It’s like a Rubik’s cube. If you don’t crack it by then, you shouldn’t be buying it,” he says. The changes they ended up making weren’t slight. Outside, the brick-red patio was stained brown, new coping was installed around the pool, palm trees were moved into elegant clumps, and dumpster loads of vegetation were removed to open the mountain views. Inside, the floor plan—which included an awkward entry hallway—was radically simplified. “The kitchen was like four rooms!” David exclaims. “It was a rabbit warren,” adds Nancy.
While David excels at master plans, Nancy shines at finishing touches. In counterpoint to his expansive paintings and the broad swaths of white, Nancy’s choice of eclectic Asian pieces from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan adds intricate detailing. Fuchsia pops up on throws and pillows and upholstery, a color that complements the garden’s rose-pink canna lilies. The couple painted the exterior of the house an earthy green. “The idea is for it to sort of disappear,” says Nancy of how its blends with the landscape.
With the design mostly complete—the couple still plans to convert the garage into a den—David wishes he had more time to relax in it. He is already preparing for a Fall 2006 show in L.A. at Frank Pictures. “You never feel like you can take your feet off the accelerator, which is kind of a contradiction living in Santa Barbara,” he says.
“But it’s nice to have that contrast,” says Nancy.
She herself is busy completing her first novel and volunteering as an adult literacy tutor and as a mentor at Santa Barbara Hospice for children who have lost a parent. (At age 10, she lost her own mother, Joan, to cancer.) They love cooking, strolling the neighborhood (the house is up the road from the quaint stores of Montecito’s Upper Village) and raising their irrepressibly charming daughter, who has clearly inherited her parents’ love of design. Sofia spent many hours searching for just the right pink, black and white accessories to decorate her room. “She wanted it to look like a French apartment,” boasts her proud mother.
Together, David and his daughter continue to fantasize about other residences. “They go to open houses all the time. They’re very into it. But once we bought this, I stopped looking,” Nancy continues.
And they don’t have any plans to move—so far. “We’ve invested all of our energies into making this house right,” says David. “It’s a thrill to come home.”
By Degen Rener.
PHOTO: Lisa Romerein.
Produced by Kendall Conrad.