Tour Sidney and Joanna Poitier's Beverly Hills Home
This story originally ran in the March 2008 issue of Traditional Home magazine.
Sidney Poitier admittedly is more of a household name than his wife, Joanna. An Oscar, a knighthood, and a hot-selling book make sure of that. But in their Beverly Hills home, the roles reverse. Joanna, an interior designer, is the unequivocal star; the entire house is her stage.
Built in 1925 in the Mediterranean architectural style that ruled the state during that era, the house bespeaks Joanna's "Old World meets comfortable California eclectic" approach to design. Her window treatments are especially telling. Over earthy bamboo blinds that calm the sun, panels of hand-embroidered and appliquéd silk and taffeta billow from below the ceiling beams to settle luxuriantly onto the floor like sleepy cats. That congenial coupling of casual contemporary and formal classic, of practical and elegant, is what this house and Joanna's signature style are all about.
"Beautiful but comfortable" is how she defines it. Her fondness for gold-leafed 18th-century antiques doesn't preclude "people putting their feet up on the table. I have no problem if children play with my crystal. If something breaks, it's not the end of the world. It's just an object," she explains. "Design isn't my life. My life is my family and their well-being."
When she and Sidney moved in, the previous owners had just repainted every room. "It was wonderful. The house did not require a single structural change, and I didn't have to alter the color of one room," recalls Joanna, who, after 14 films of her own in the '60s and early '70s, left the industry to marry and later start a family with Sidney.
Her design challenge was to edit the contents from a house three times this one's size, without sacrificing objects she and Sidney both love. (Even celebrity households aren't spared the empty-nest syndrome.) "A lot of furniture had to go. But not the artwork. We'd never part with that," Joanna stresses.
For good reason. She is an artist, both painter and sculptor, in her own right. While the couple's daughters—Anika and Sydney—were young, Joanna studied sculpting with Artis Lane. Her teacher's sculpture of actor Djimon Hounsou commands prime space on the Poitiers' living room mantel. "He was one of our models," says Joanna of the actor best known for his moving performance in Blood Diamond. A commercial success, Joanna sold her own sculpture of Hounsou, but many of her other bronzes decorate the home. The most treasured object in the family room is an elongated bronze of a ponytailed woman that Joanna gave Sidney for his 50th birthday.
An ability to casually slip into a career change—or any other new role in life—is a skill she has honed over the years. A native of Nova Scotia, she started adult life as a fashion model. After she appeared on a Vogue cover, a Hollywood movie director contacted her at her home in Paris, requesting that she travel to America for a screen test. "I refused. I said, 'Look at my pictures and decide. I'm not testing.'" The director did precisely that, and Joanna accepted a role in Universal Pictures' The Lost Man. "I met Sidney for the first time on the set," she says. "It must've been destiny. I was engaged to someone else at the time."
When their younger daughter entered college, Joanna began her current career as a designer. Her first project was decorating the beach-front home of a friend. "I told her I couldn't do it, but she kept insisting," says Joanna. Word traveled, and her own design business, JSP Interiors, was the result. Another business took shape when she was designing a villa for Vera Harrah (of Harrah's Casino) and decided to use hand-embroidered drapery panels. "We did the designs, then sent the fabrics to India to be embroidered. We developed a sample line of these luscious embroidered panels and took them to showrooms," Joanna recounts.
When 12 showrooms said yes, she knew she was in business. The Florio Collection, with business partner Janet Rodriguez, became a reality. Its fabrics fill Joanna's home. "I love to find old fabric fragments in Europe, where they call me the pillow queen," she says. "Pillows are like jewelry. You can make a Pottery Barn sofa one-of-a-kind with exquisite pillows."
Her biggest fan, husband Sidney, admires not only her way with pillows but her overall style. "From my point of view, she's an extremely gifted and talented person. You see her distinctive style in every room. It's impossible to have a favorite space when each room is beautiful to look at and extremely comfortable to live in," he says.
Joanna's collection of old Aubusson rugs brings a refined finish to the terra-cotta floors. When she can't find the right antique rug, she improvises. "For the living room, I custom-colored the threads for a new rug woven in the Aubusson style," she notes.
"I was born a collector, and Sidney and I love to travel," she says. Globe-trotting, they've encountered unusual objets d'art, books, and antique furnishings that have managed to hitch a ride home with them. "The house is about 80 percent antiques," Joanna estimates. She began the dining room's collection of 18th-century Spode "years and years ago in London." The 18th-century Italian table was an anniversary gift from Sidney that she refinished to relieve its worn look. (Why revere age when improvement is in order?) When the living room's long 18th-century red lacquer coffee table needed work, she topped it with mercury glass for a more interesting reflective quality.
As with any signature style, certain elements bear repeating. Joanna's approach is both a gilt trip and a fling with an old flame-stitch. Room to room, she covers generously scaled gilt chairs in flame-stitch wovens for a look that will last—like her own amazing marriage to a Hollywood legend.
Sidney Poitier's Legacy
Sidney Poitier's achievements are legendary. In 1963, he was the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. His performances in To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner secured his place as a film icon. He directed many popular movies, and in 2002, was presented with an Honorary Award by the Academy for his "extraordinary performances…and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence."