Natural By Design

With effortless grace, supermodel-turned-interior designer Carolina Gramm created a Renaissance-style villa in Ojai that reflects her European sensibilities.

By Sally Rice—Principal Photography by Gaszton Gal

Anyone exposed to television advertising during the ‘80s remembers the landmark spot. A surreal graphic landscape of piano keys fills the frame while the background soundtrack plays “I Want to Set the World on Fire,” by the Ink Spots. A slow dissolve reveals a wide shot of a jetliner’s reflection climbing the face of the Transamerica building, that glorious San Franciscan pyramid. Fade to black.

“Charles,” says a masculine voice.

“Katherine,” replies the voice-over dialogue seductively.

“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

She saunters slowly toward camera on an invisible catwalk, with sophisticated poise, dressed to the nines in a classically tailored crimson suit. “No, what is it?”

Then the close-up: dreamy eyes, glossy red lips open in slow motion. The tag line captures the essence. Share the Fantasy, Chanel no. 5.

“Katherine” is actually Carolina Gramm, the beauty behind the blockbuster ad campaign that rocked the ‘80s and put Ridley Scott on the map as an A-list commercial director just after he formed the production company RSA. The spot ran for years. Back in the days of healthy residuals, it was nothing short of a cash cow for all the commercial talent that booked the gig.

Cut to the present.

From her residential villa tucked away in the hills of Upper Ojai, the supermodel-turned-interior designer is remarkably laidback. “I can’t find my hairbrush today. I think my son must have taken it,” she says, referring to her 16-year-old, who is still at school. Laughing, she twists shoulder length chestnut brown hair into a clip at the base of her neck and plops easily into white linen cushions on the sofa that adorns the second story balcony overlooking the swimming pool.

Despite her easygoing air, Carolina Gramm still carries herself with the elegant savoir-faire of an Elite model, a career that spanned a few decades beginning in her late-teens. But in these modern times, her attention to beauty has turned inside out. Now, she doesn’t bother with much makeup, favoring a more natural, organic look, and her attention to fashion and design is geared toward architectural projects and the luxurious fabrics she uses to dress sofas and chairs.

Photo by Sally Rice.

Gramm’s home in Ojai—“Villa DeLa Roche,” reads the stone tablet at the front gate—is her pride and joy. She and her husband, Jack, a retired racecar driver and airline pilot, purchased the property in 2001. The original owners had designed the structure to replicate a villa at St. Jean Cap-Ferrat, on the French Riviera. And though its footprint remains unchanged, Gramm incorporated the perfect details to transform it into a Renaissance-style villa that feels authentic. The color palette incorporates the holy trinity of classic tones: ochre, umber, and sienna, the chromatic blueprint of 15th century Italian architecture.

Outside, thick vines of bougainvillea exploding in color define the trellised arches that form a portico under the balcony. Classic Mexican pavers flow inside and out, a floor plan that invites dining and entertaining al fresco.

Inside the residence, Gramm paid special attention to maintaining the original esthetic whenever possible—as long as it was worth saving. “The hardware on the main doors is the same, it works just fine,” she points out as an example.

When asked how she approaches furnishings and interior décor, Gramm bursts out laughing and points to a chair with a circular back. “I found that chair on the side of the road. It was just sitting there; I felt sorry for it,” she says. “I’m a scavenger. Someone made that chair, so I picked it up, polished it off, and delivered it to L.A. to be recovered. There it is, good as new. Everything I find has a memory attached and a story.”

Nearby, a rectangular wooden box with short legs serves as a coffee table and holds a collection of art books and magazines. “I found that in a small shop in the Hudson Valley,” she tells me. “It was once a child’s bed, but I decided it would make a better table. So where the mattress was, I put books and magazines.” Indeed, Gramm has an eclectic design sense about her, a culmination of a past deep-rooted in European culture.

“I was raised in Italy, in Bressanone, and I have always loved architecture,” she explains, her accent laced with multi-cultural threads. “I grew up in the mountains, just below the ski lift,” she adds, sounding more German than Italian.

Bressanone sits in the foothills below the Italian Alps and the Dolomites in the northern region of Alto Adige. The area was ceded to Austria in 1918. Not surprisingly, in this area of Italy, German is spoken as commonly as native Italian. “Unfortunately, I don’t speak much [Italian] anymore,” Gramm laments. “But, I am happy my son is learning Spanish in school; I want him to be bilingual.”

It was a long road that led Gramm to America, following a challenging, somewhat turbulent youth. “I began working when I was 13, as a hairdresser. I worked six days a week, Monday to Saturday,” she says, reminiscing. “It was very hard, but then I got discovered by Gianni Versace, when I went to Portofino one weekend with a friend.” Gramm describes the life-changing event with an air of nonchalance: “Versace hired me on the spot and gave me a solid two months of work for his new line. He liked me because I could do many hairstyles, since we did not have a hairstylist on the job.”

After that, Gramm traveled to England to hone her English language skills. But she “didn’t make it to many classes because the agency found me and gave me more [modeling] work. I worked every day after that.”

Eventually she ended up in New York City, where she met her husband, Jack, who was also modeling at the time. “I met him through a photographer friend who was shooting a test. He was a racecar driver, and to support himself he did modeling on the side.”

After apartment living in New York, the couple bought a country house and Carolina fell in love with antiquing. When her purchases began to overflow the space, it was time to go into business; there just wasn’t enough room to store all the collectables. Gramm partnered with a fellow designer, and together they opened an antique store under the name Gramm and Ivy. The business lasted a little over a year, until her partner adopted a baby and found that the combination of business and parenthood “was just too much.”

After that, Gramm got into interior design, working with realtors, decorating model homes. “We bought another country house, and I designed that too,” she says. “I put in 28 antique wooden doors and cherry wood floors. We sold it to Roy Lichtenstein’s son. But one day it burned down.”

And then she got pregnant. Shortly thereafter, Jack’s job as a G5 pilot led the family to California—and eventually to Ventura County and Villa DeLa Roche, where a new life chapter began.

Currently, Gramm works with clients on both coasts as she juggles interior design and family responsibilities. Her passion for architecture and creative design is rooted in her childhood, she says. “I learned to work hard when I was very young, and I have always been stubborn, which I think is a good thing. It helps you to never give up.”


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