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Wall-to-Wall Waldo Means California Cool to the Likes of Merv and Liz

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Merv Griffin was in a royal huff. In less than 24 hours, Prince Rainier would descend on the Beverly Hilton, a hotel the former talk show host had recently purchased. At $1,000 a night, the Presidential Suite, the fanciest set of rooms in the pile, was in need of a quick facelift before the monarch of Monaco made the scene. So Griffin did what any smart multimillionaire would do: He gave the go-ahead to the slight, soft-spoken interior designer who had quietly been fingering the drapes and examining the drab beige rug. The message was clear: Do what you must but spruce up the joint on the double.

The next day, a beaming Merv personally escorted Rainier into chambers fit for, well, for a prince. Bright bouquets of flowers, lush Spanish area rugs and priceless antiques were scattered, as if by a design master’s exquisite hand, through the sunlit rooms. The fairy-tale facelift was courtesy of Cuban-born Waldo Fernandez. “The room was a disaster,” says Waldo. “It was, in a word, s—. So I borrowed about $150,000 worth of antiques. It was like making a movie set. When Rainier left, we struck the set and took the furniture back.”

In the wake of performing his 11th-hour rescue last fall, Fernandez, 41, has been signed on to freshen up Griffin-owned hotels in Atlantic City and Nassau as well as tackling Merv’s mansion near Palm Springs and his Beverly Hills estate. But Fernandez isn’t Griffin’s exclusive property. Goldie Hawn, Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery, Linda Gray and Neil Simon all have designs on him. His clean but theatrical interiors of limestone, natural fabrics and white walls and floors have created a stir in Hollywood, where big and sensational plays better than discreet and low-key. Fernandez features what folks in the trade call the “California look.” Says Waldo: “I like clean spaces and hard surfaces. I don’t like a lot of little things in a room. I like bigger things.”

No client is more attached to Fernandez than songwriter Carole Bayer Sager. In 1978 Fernandez decorated her first home in Los Angeles. Next came husband Burt Bacharach’s Del Mar beach house. Then Fernandez redesigned the couple’s present home in Bel Air. It’s filled with his massive stone furniture. “My mother says Waldo must have had another life in the Stone Age,” says Bayer Sager with a laugh. “It’s easier to buy another house than to move his furniture.”

Fernandez also did the interiors for Elizabeth Taylor’s country-style home in Bel Air. “We did the entire downstairs,” reports Fernandez. He recently was called in to redecorate the master bedroom while the lady of the house was away. “We rushed like crazy,” says Waldo. “We had people there almost round the clock, but we got it all done.”

Not everyone is wild about Waldo. The West Coast design community, for instance, is distinctly chilly. “His work is very cold,” says an L.A. designer. “It’s okay if you like that sort of thing.” If Fernandez has a controversial image, it may be because his fellow designers resent the attention he has received for copying the style of Michael Taylor, a San Francisco designer who died in 1986. “At least he had the good sense to copy the best,” sniffs a competitor. Fernandez freely admits he was inspired by Taylor: “I loved his work and his sense of scale. But it’s nothing new. Everything’s been done before. The big scale was done in the ’30s and now again in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Fernandez’s interest in interiors dates back to his childhood in Cuba. He grew up in a small town on Havana Bay. His father was a mechanical engineer, his mother a housewife. “I knew I was interested in design,” says Fernandez, “when I started helping my mother wallpaper the house and reupholster sofas.” At 15, Waldo was shipped off to relatives in New York City to avoid the draft. A year later he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied drafting at night and worked for Twentieth Century Fox by day, as a designer on the sets of Doctor Doolittle, Hello, Dolly! and Planet of the Apes.

Fernandez left the studio in 1975 to set up his own antiques business on Melrose Avenue. A year later director John Schlesinger asked him to decorate his house. Fernandez hesitated. “I had done sets, but you don’t live in a set,” he says. “But Schlesinger said he’d tell me what his feelings were for each room. So I did it.”

Fernandez did it so well that Michael York wanted him to do his house. And so did Sean Connery. Fernandez also designed Trumps, a restaurant he co-owns that has generated lots of comment thanks to avant-garde interiors of matching white concrete banquettes and chairs.

A millionaire bachelor, Fernandez lives in a dramatic house in the Hollywood hills. It’s pure Waldo—white sofas, lots of stone and marble and a swimming pool in back. The only problem is that Fernandez isn’t home much to enjoy it. He’s too busy planning his next career move—developing hotel capsules, 7½-by 9-by 7-foot white fiberglass boxes that look like a spaceship’s sleeping chamber. “If you have good space,” Waldo has always maintained, “furniture is secondary.” Then again, if fiberglass boxes become the living space of the future, interior designers may become secondary as well.

—Harriet Shapiro, Marie Moneysmith in Los Angeles