Philanthropist and interior designer Ann Getty can hire someone to do just about anything for her. Yet, at this moment, she’s re-stitching a coverlet that has become separated and filling in missing areas with needlepoint where needed. Growing up in the rural Sacramento Valley, driving tractors at an early age, she became accustomed to doing things for herself and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that brought.
That hands-on approach has stayed with her throughout the years, despite residing primarily in an opulent mansion in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. It would be so easy for her to simply be Mrs. Gordon Getty, wife of the billionaire composer. But to do so, would greatly disappoint the well-heeled clients of Ann Getty and Associates, her San Francisco-based residential interior design firm that provides luxury design services all over the world. The 21-year-old company was borne out of her love and deep appreciation of design.
“Through my travels and involvement in the art world I was able to develop and deepen my knowledge, and I used this expertise to furnish and decorate my own houses,” she explains. “Soon my friends were asking me for design advice and it just kind of evolved.” It didn’t take long for her to be taken seriously in her new career. All people had to do was see to believe. Thanks to Ann Getty and Associates doing a number of rooms in local showcase houses as well as a library in the Kips Bay Showcase house, the firm gained exposure and broadened the range of its projects.
Getty is known for her sharp eye, which she honed over time. A great early influence on her was her father-in-law, the late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, whose passion for French history and furniture was apparent in his collection. “This exposure brought to me an appreciation,” she says, adding, “but fine French furniture is very expensive and virtually impossible to find. I took his enthusiasm and found a few French pieces but supplemented them with comparable English furniture. The more I researched the pieces for my own house, the more I understood the nuances of their details and design.
“When I traveled, what I saw, the architecture of the buildings, the art in the museums and the interiors of the homes I visited always inspired me. [Developing my eye] really is an accumulation of years of seeing how things work together in a myriad of spaces, what stands out and is appealing and what might be a bit of a miss.”
She detailed many of her favorite projects in her 2012 hit book, “Ann Getty: Interior Style.” Among her favorite clients to work with: Terry Gross, Trevor and Alexis Traina, and Todd and Katie Traina. “All of these projects were a collaborative effort and the results reflect their individual taste,” says Getty, whose ideal client is well-informed and brings some of his or her own aesthetic to a project. “I enjoy the collaborative effort and prefer a client who is not too timid and safe but who is willing to follow my direction into bolder strokes of design.”
Mornings are when her creative juices flow freely. At home, she takes the elevator downstairs to a design studio where a rather extensive library—she’s always loved Elsie de Wolfe’s lighthearted yet dramatic approach to design, Sister Parish for her never over thought, sophisticated and comfortable rooms and Tony Duquette for his lavish whimsy—and collection of antique textiles provide just the right amount of inspiration. Some of her favorite fabrics come from Sabina Fay Braxton, Bevilacqua in Venice and Robert Kime out of London.
“It is nice that I am able to have everything I need so close at hand,” she remarks. Her entire exquisite home boasts a museum-like quality, but many of her favorite pieces are reserved for her master bedroom so she can see them daily. She’s particularly fond of Mary Cassatt’s painting “At the Theater.”
“I love the setting for the pastel as well as the gentle depiction of the subject; the moment seems to be captured so perfectly,” Getty states. “She looks as if she is caught up in the performance but you can’t really read her exact expression—it is so complex and attentive; you don’t know what she is thinking. Paul Gauguin originally owned it, and I am now happy to have it in our collection.”
In 2003, it was her own collection of furnishings that inspired her to start The Ann Getty House Collection, a line of custom furniture featuring original designs and authentic reproductions. She thought her set of six French Louis XV side chairs that were designed by Nicolas-Quinibert Foliot would be perfect for the music room in her home that she was furnishing, so she had them replicated.
“The quality that came out of our local workrooms was exceptional, and so I knew this could be done on a larger scale,” she recalls. “I then began designing and reworking pieces to suit my clients’ needs.”
The result was a fine line of period-inspired furniture that was either unattainable or unavailable for her clients. Having her husband of 51 years sit on the acquisitions committee for The Getty museum in Los Angeles has proved advantageous for her line as well. The museum has always been helpful when she’s had a question about an item of interest.
“However, more often I would hear from them when they wanted to let me know that they were going to bid on an item at auction, which prevented me from bidding on it as well,” she says. “In fact, if I acquired something and it was decided that it would be a good addition to the museum, they would be able to buy it from me for my purchase price. They were always very accommodating and would allow me the opportunity and time to reproduce the piece if I chose to.”
From a living room lamp by Biennais that Napoleon had commissioned for his mother Madame Mere to a pair of 19th century Indian ornamental doors to the dining room’s circa-1720 chinoiserie panels that were originally made for the king of Poland to the gilt wood furniture, the Getty manse is a true testament to her fluency in classical styles and period. She has nothing against modern interiors and in fact, has designed some. The biggest project was in Hawaii; most of the furniture was upholstered in Lotus cloth that came from Burma. The fabric, made from the fibers in the stem of the lotus plants that grow in Inlay Lake, looks like a cross between raw silk and natural linen. Always cool to the touch, it’s perfect for the 50th state’s warmer climate. She kept things simple with the addition of some refined modern furniture for a clean look; her favorite piece was a large wave chandelier by Nikolas Weinstein in the entry.
“I do like a modern look; I love the clean feel of these spaces,” she confesses. “Embracing the technology of smart houses is inevitable and I find the functionality of a truly modern interior appealing.”
As wrapped up in design as she is, Getty still misses her days as a paleoanthropologist in Ethiopia in the 1990s—despite the conditions not being the most accommodating.
“It was very hot and our biggest luxury was a tent—but I did enjoy the sense of discovery,” she remembers. “Working in this large area, we conducted surface surveying to discover any fossils that were exposed. We found the presence of pig, antelope and calibus monkey fossils, which were an indication that hominids could be present in the same environment. We even searched for fossil pollen, which takes a very keen eye to find. When exploring the matrix of fossil evidence, you have to discern the very subtle difference between the two. It was a bit challenging, but so rewarding.”
It’s hard to believe that this woman whose closets are full of frocks by Oscar de la Renta and other top designers, who is known for her impeccable entertaining skills and who would be out every evening if she accepted just a smidgen of the invitations she receives daily would get so excited about fossils.
“I don’t think people know it, but I am actually quite shy,” says the red-headed woman who rarely is spotted on the scene where socialites flock. “I am most comfortable in the company of scientists.”
Well, she’s also quite at ease with her five grandchildren. She and Gordon have four sons, one of whom passed away last year, and Getty longs for more grandchildren. “They really brighten my life,” says Getty, who never knew her grandparents because they passed away when she was very young. “I love watching my grandchildren grow, learn new things and discover the world. I enjoy being there to help and support them through the process. I would also like to have more time and energy to enjoy them.”
Although she is still on the advisory board of Sotheby’s, she’s stepped down from all of her other boards to concentrate on the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, established by the couple to support classical music nationally with a strong focus on the Bay Area. The Foundation’s support has also extended to the fields of human origins, evolutionary biology, environmental preservation, dance, art, literature, education, and human and animal welfare.
Gordon’s music—along with her children and grandchildren—are the three things she’s proud of the most. While she has everything at her disposal, including an aircraft nicknamed Jetty, if she and Gordon could run off to anywhere tomorrow, she wouldn’t choose some exotic or foreign destination. Merely going across the country is enough for her.
“There are many places that I would love to go as I find travel so inspirational,” she says. “However, if I were truly to get on a plane to go someplace tomorrow it would be New York as there are some wonderful operas there right now. In fact, this week there are brilliant casts performing Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.”
In a sense, Getty’s response fits who she is. We may see grand from the exterior, but on the interior, this designer is re-stitching a coverlet.