This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
It didn’t take Portia de Rossi long to discover Ellen DeGeneres’s passion for decorating. “I got a very thorough education in mid-20th-century French furniture within the first weeks of our dating,” she says with a grin. Indeed, there’s nothing the television star and comedian loves more than designing a house. “Ellen has moved more times than any person I know,” says Los Angeles designer Cliff Fong, her decorating accomplice. The goal, however, is not to flip her homes. “I can only change the furniture so much and I get bored,” DeGeneres says. “Then I need a new structure to work on.”
In 2009, the couple bought a property that de Rossi believed would keep DeGeneres occupied for some time: a ranch north of Los Angeles with multiple structures, including eight cabins. “I thought it might take Ellen five years to finish the project,” de Rossi says, “and she did it in one. It was shocking!”
Situated in tony Hidden Valley, the 26-acre property was the estate of actor William Powell in the 1920s. Later it became a monastery, then a rehab center. DeGeneres thinks part of the film Seabiscuit was shot there. “When we bought the place, it was a professional horse facility,” she recalls. “But it was really not taken care of.” Nonetheless, both women were immediately seduced by the landscape. The property abuts the Santa Monica Mountains and features giant boulders and oak groves. There are roaming deer, coyotes, mountain lions, and a number of feral cats that the two more or less adopted.
De Rossi, who was born in Australia and moved to the U.S. in the 1990s to pursue acting, has her own on-site passion: riding horses. She has two horses here, a Hanoverian called Maeby—named for the daughter of her character on Arrested Development—and a Dutch Warmblood called Mcy (pronounced Macy). “But she looks like a cow,” de Rossi says, “so we call her Moo.”
Don’t think she has the stables to herself, however. “There are times I’ll come to the barn and see a beautiful piece of early American furniture where my horses get groomed,” de Rossi says. “I have to explain to Ellen that I need to fit a horse in there.” DeGeneres did manage to sequester one stall and turn it into an elegant sitting room. It was there that de Rossi wrote part of her 2010 memoir, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain.
They made numerous alterations to the property, the most significant of which was tearing down the main house. “The footings were crumbling,” de Rossi explains. “It wasn’t worth salvaging.” They also removed plastic corral fencing and a host of signage. “It said, ‘No Parking Here!’ ‘Don’t Even Think of Parking There!’” DeGeneres says with a laugh. They did, however, retain a public restroom and gave its interior a coat of chalkboard paint. “I leave chalk in there so everyone can draw,” she adds.
When it came to the overall look of the place, DeGeneres says she wanted “a feeling of country and yet a relaxed sophistication.” She favors sculptural pieces and simple forms, mixing 20th-century designs by Jean Prouvé and Arne Jacobsen with industrial furnishings, and she collects old portraits and fencing masks. “Ellen likes things to be a little more natural and rustic,” de Rossi explains.
DeGeneres initially worked on the ranch with Los Angeles decorator Jay Holman, with whom she has completed several other projects. But as soon as they were finished, she became antsy and called in Fong to help her tweak the spaces, and it remains an ongoing process.
One of her primary goals was for each cabin to have a different mood. For DeGeneres, Number 6 is “very much like Belgium” and Number 8 “more contemporary.” She and de Rossi have lived in most of them and recently moved back into Number 5, which has a screened porch and a prime view of the largest rock on the property—“the size of a small apartment,” DeGeneres marvels.
The heart of the ranch, however, is a pair of large barns. The all-white Art Barn serves as a living and dining area. The darker, more brooding Romantic Barn is called that because the couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary there with a candlelit dinner. DeGeneres’s gift was to install three early-20th-century factory lamps that de Rossi had spotted at a nearby gallery. The space also serves as a games room, where they play Ping-Pong and poker. For bigger parties—which have drawn friends including Diane Keaton, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Aniston—they set up outdoor seating areas and put down vintage textiles as picnic blankets.
How long the couple will stay in Hidden Valley is anybody’s guess, given DeGeneres’s penchant for picking up and decorating anew, but there’s a good chance that this place may be for keeps. De Rossi seems particularly attached to it (both her mother and her brother’s family live nearby). “If I find something else and can see having a new project, I’m open to that,” DeGeneres says. “But I’d have to fight Portia, because this is her dream property. This we may just hold on to.”
This story originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE