When began dating her future husband, Lou Howe, she walked into his apartment and came face-to-face with a naked woman seated on a bed. Not in the flesh. Rather, the nude was the focal point of a massive photograph taken by the artist Malerie Marder. Howe waited for a reaction from his guest. "I'm the only girl he ever brought home who wasn't horrified by that picture," says Tapert Howe. Far from a deal breaker, she says, "I actually kind of liked it."
She embraced both the naked woman and the man, who was about to enroll as a directing student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In 2010, the couple married and settled into life in Manhattan, where they had deep roots. They had both grown up in the city and still had family there. Tapert Howe—a former employee of such top New York decorators as Haynes-Roberts and Mica Ertegun—had her own home furnishings shop in SoHo. In addition, she is a partner in Carolina George, an up-and-coming interiors and furniture company that she runs with a friend, Caroline Cummings Rafferty.
By the end of the year, however, New York had lost its pull on the couple. With the economy stuck in a rut, she closed her store. Meanwhile Howe was writing and directing his first film. On a whim, he asked if she wanted to try living in Los Angeles. She was game. "It was totally out of character for me," she says. "But it was January, which is not the best time of year in New York. We don't have kids. I told myself I could fly back and forth for my design business. We sublet a shoebox at the beach for a month. By March, the move was permanent and we got rid of our New York apartment."
When the beach sublet expired, the couple began searching for a new apartment. Nothing seemed right until they discovered a duplex in a 1950s building in West Hollywood. The lease, a two-year commitment, was daunting. But they loved the layout—which felt more like a house than an apartment—and the classic architecture, with its French doors and moldings. Best of all was the garden courtyard, lush with bougainvillea and potted palms. "I knew I could make the place look great," she says.
They needed the apartment to multitask as a space for living, entertaining, and working—all on a restricted budget. "There was no renovation," Tapert Howe says. "All we did was paint." She divided the lower floor, an open space 30 feet long, into three distinct zones: a living area, a dining area, and her own home office. Of the two rooms upstairs, the master bedroom was transformed into a romantic hideaway, with a four-poster draped with Carolina George's Harem fabric, while the second bedroom became a writing space for Howe that doubles as a guest room.
Fortunately, Tapert Howe had some wonderful furniture at her disposal, including a Josef Hoffmann side table from her former shop ("I was secretly happy when it didn't sell") and an antique Indian chair that was a gift to the couple from her mother, the style writer Annette Tapert. From the Carolina George furniture line, she chose a pair of low, curving slipper chairs worthy of Greta Garbo and a set of Regency-inspired gray lacquer chairs for the dining room. Elsewhere she economized, recovering her husband's worn sofa in blue velvet, creating pillows from fragments of textiles from a bazaar in Istanbul, and snagging a 1960s resin light fixture for a song on One Kings Lane.
The acquisition of her one investment piece, a cocktail table, turned out to be an immersion in decorating West Coast–style. After a long and fruitless search for the perfect item, Tapert Howe found a Lucite table in poor condition at an L.A. auction house. A man noticed her looking at the table and asked what she thought of it. She told him that she liked it, but had been dreaming of finding a table that combined Lucite and brass. "He turned out to be Charles Hollis Jones, the godfather of Lucite, who made furniture for Diana Ross and Tennessee Williams," she says. Before long, she talked Jones into creating a new table to her specifications. "He'd drive his Jaguar over from Burbank and show me Lucite samples and sketches on the hood of his car," she says.
After promising to deliver the finished piece in time for a party the couple were throwing, Jones called at the last minute to report that "his truck had been stolen and, not only that, it had his dog in it," Tapert Howe says. "Or so he said." Three weeks after the party, the table—glamorous and redolent of Old Hollywood, just as she had envisioned it—finally showed up. Today, it holds court in the couple's living area, where it is as much a conversation piece as the naked lady above the sofa.