Heart of the Home

LM Pagano on designing around the piano

Born into a musical family in the San Fernando Valley, LM Pagano painted, sang, waitressed, cooked and catered before finding her ultimate calling — and success — as an interior designer, counting such celebrities as Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp and Jeff Skoll as clients. Pagano still sings and asserts that a piano is what makes a house a home.

 

Tell me about your Steinway.
I’m a singer. And my longtime “Ralph Sharon” [Tony Bennett’s accompanist and collaborator] is Henry Spurgeon, a jazz pianist and piano technician. When I met him, he had purchased this piano from the daughter of Marion Hewlett Pike, a renowned portrait painter, socialite and arts aficionado. It’s a 1927 Cuban Mahogany Steinway Model B. Alfred Wallenstein, who was the conductor of Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1943 to 1956, helped her pick it out. Visiting artists playing at the Hollywood Bowl would stay at Ms. Pike’s home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles, when they were in town, and practice and perform on the instrument.

My parents thought their children ought to play piano. The lessons lasted about five minutes. My sister didn’t continue to play, but I did — not that I’m any great shakes, but I’ve always had a piano in my life. My father divorced my mother when my siblings and I were young, and unbeknownst to me there was a clause in the divorce contract that said if the piano was ever taken out of my mother’s house, my father could take it back— even though he never played! [Laughs.] So we kept it in the house. My dad briefly played violin. My mother was a big-band singer; my grandfather was an opera singer.

 

‘I don't think the house is a home without a piano.’

             
Was there a lot of pressure to have a musical career of your own?
No, none whatsoever! [Laughs.] In fact, no one ultimately cared whether I played the piano or not, except for me. I started performing as a singer — folk and jazz — in restaurants and clubs by the time I was fifteen. I moved out of my house at sixteen. My dad found out and one day the piano movers showed up. It was devastating. I managed to get hold of an upright not long after, with help from a friend.
                           
Is there any overlap between your professional and your musical life?
I have done concerts for clients after they found out I was a singer. [Laughs.] I bought a Steinway for Nicolas Cage for his house in San Francisco. Because I’m a musician, clients will ask for my help in selecting a piano.


Do you bring your musical aesthetic into your visual aesthetic? 
I’m sure I do. Maybe I should have been a composer! I think interior design is much more like putting a trio together than being a solo artist. But when I walk into any house, one of the first things I’m thinking is: ‘Where can I put a piano?’ because I have luxury clientele. Moreover, to me, anyone who cares enough to have a piano in their home, I am predisposed to have an interest in this person.
 
Why does ‘luxury clientele’ immediately suggest piano?
Because I don’t think a house is a home without a piano. I think there’s a hole in the heart of a home without a piano. The piano immediately suggests warmth, culture, history, party. And, if you have children and can afford it and can have the room — and I rarely do homes that don’t — you have to have a piano. It’s a presence in the home that is not provided by any piece of furniture. It represents music and happiness to me. Even on boats, where it’s not good for the instrument, I’m always looking for a place to sneak a piano in. If you have a home, the piano calls to you to be played. If you have guests and you have parties and you entertain — or if you have children — you have to have music in your home. And in this day and age of everything being online, and so much music getting lost, I think a piano provides a way of keeping a lot of really important music alive that isn’t being showcased. Classical music, in the world of pop culture, is being completely lost. It’s hardly even sampled! It’s a rare home where people put on Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations these days. I grew up listening to singers who played piano: Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren. These people aren’t brilliant pianists, but they are brilliant writers. And they played real pianos! 

‘The piano immediately suggests warmth, culture, history, party.’

 

How have you displayed your own piano?
It’s the first thing you see when you walk to the top of the stairs upon entering. It’s there because I want to see it every single day from as many vantage points as possible because it’s beautiful. It is an old piano that has been played by a lot of amazing people. It’s also a bit scarred, so it is perfect for me because I’m known as a designer who mixes old and new together. 
                                   
Tell me more about your design aesthetic.
Whether it’s a modern or contemporary interior, or a castle in Munich full of antiques, I insist that things are beautiful but welcoming. I don’t like furniture that you can’t sit and be comfortable in. And I really do like mixing genres, old with new. I don’t like cold interiors. 

 

What makes for a cold versus a warm interior?
A cold interior is one that might look snappy and clean, but it’s not somewhere you’d want to live. I always want to create a place that people don’t want to leave. When I get really clean and contemporary interiors, one of the only things that I know is going to work with the client to warm it up is the addition of a piano — the piano is timeless. I don’t want your house to look like everyone else’s house. This can hurt me in the design world. With many famous designers, you know their work instantly because every interior looks very similar. I think what I’m good at is being a chameleon and interpreting the client and what they need. 
                                   
There’s of course an element of improvisation when you’re singing jazz. Do you find that same spirit of improvisation in your design work?
All the time! But I think I improvise more so with clients! [Laughs.] I’ve had to do homes in different countries in a couple of weeks for some clients. You have to improvise when you can’t customize everything. I have to improvise when interpreting what a client wants. They might think they want one thing, and I know in my heart that isn’t going to work, so I have to find a way to take what they’re asking for and make it livable and wonderful. 

I’m not a jazz pianist, but when you’re learning improvisation, teachers often employ what I find to be a great technique of giving the novice pianist two notes and saying: ‘These are the only two notes you have to improvise with.’ So somebody might tell me twenty things they want in a room — in twenty different styles. And I have to find the right way to say ‘OK, let’s take six to eight elements and see where that takes us first.’ An exception to that is the yacht I designed for Johnny Depp (now owned by JK Rowling), which I wanted to have the feel of the Orient Express on the ocean: there’s so much going on in there, but it all works. I had some of those velvet patterns rewoven for me on original art deco looms!

What do you take into account when incorporating a piano into interior design?
The first thing is usage. It doesn’t matter if I’m dealing with a famous person, a musician, or not: if it’s someone who’s very serious about the piano and they need it isolated, then we’re going to create a room that is designed around being their place to practice, their place to write, their place to play. I’ve generally found that if that’s a person who has a family, it’s going to be a separate room. Although, I should say that if it is a separate room, there’s usually a second piano in the middle of the home, in the living room, great room, et cetera.

‘Think about where the piano is going to live all the time that feels good and looks right in the space and isn’t being pounded by the elements.’

Is that because one is a family or performance piano and the other is a studio piano?
And one is a tool, a practice piano, a piano to write on. I don’t know any musician who plays piano that doesn’t also want a piano that is available to their kids — or their friends and family. So generally, if it’s somebody for whom a piano is part of their working life, there will be more than one piano in the house. 

If it’s their only piano, there are some basics. You want to think about where the piano is going to live all the time that feels good and looks right in the space and isn’t being pounded by the elements — sun, air vents and the like — and will open properly to the room, when called upon.

Let’s say I don’t have LM Pagano at my disposal. I want a piano. Where do I start?
Depending on your style, if you have a modern home you’re probably going to get a black piano. Mine is a satin finish, but I’m good with either satin or a high gloss: the black piano goes with everything. You can’t screw up. It’s basic black, think of it like you would fashion. If someone has a penthouse apartment and every single thing in it is white, you may want to reconsider. It will stand out like the elephant in the room; then again, that may be a good thing! For me, unless someone has a vintage look in their house, I’m not going to push a brown piano on somebody.

What about Crown Jewel pianos with exotic finishes?
If you have original Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann furniture in there in Macassar ebony and have the money and want a Macassar ebony Steinway, I will certainly make it work!

So that’s color. What’s next?
How much room do I have? Where am I going to put this piano and what is the usage? Is it there because I want to have a piano in my home for myself and others? Am I a pianist? Maybe I’m in a small apartment and can’t fit a Steinway Model B. Maybe I’m looking at a Model M or S. Generally, you’re going to put it on an angle in the room, depending on the light and where the windows are and the space. If you only have room for an upright, you’re going to get an upright. If it’s a new building, you’re not going to put it on an outside wall if you can help it because pianos are like your children, and you wouldn’t leave your children baking in the car. But not everyone has the luxury of those considerations. You do the best you can. 

Are there other factors to take into consideration — textures, acoustics?

Absolutely, but you are bounded by where you are. If you’re a musician who makes a living that way, acoustics and the space will be super important and you will address them accordingly. But most people are going to put a piano in their house because they want a piano. I try to keep people from doing the obvious stupid things like using the piano as a receptacle for a vase of flowers. I’m not a proponent of piano as display case — and, of course, absolutely no drinks on the lid! Most serious musicians do keep their pianos closed — and a lot of them keep a piece of felt inside it.

I’m going to place the piano in the place that incorporates it into the home and works the best for all general purposes. I’m there to place it where it should live, per clients’ needs and usage and per architectural constraints — and acoustical constraints. I can’t put it in the bathroom. Sometimes I’d love to, as a singer, it’d be a lot of fun! 

It’s an instinctual thing. We were speaking about improvisation. A lot of designers and architects try to figure everything out on paper. But you can’t. You can do a three-dimensional pie on Revit and see heights and things like that, but you can’t feel how something’s going to feel in a room, and you can’t hear. That’s when the improvisation comes in, during the installation. 

My job as an interior designer is to make the custom recipe, sparked by one ingredient or element, then dependent on conditions, quality of light, a client’s art — you name it! You have to be ready to improvise and revise, invent and reinvent. 


 

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