Nicole Sassaman has been designing, creating, and selling since she was four years old, when her biggest client was one of the most iconic figures of all time: the ever-illustrious Barbie.
“Barbie was always a huge influence because I was able to design my own dream homes for her out of shoeboxes and things that didn’t cost anything,” she says. Even once she grew up, her love for interior decorating stuck, and when she purchased and revamped her first home in 1997, a buyer came along and offered her the opportunity to make quite a pretty penny. Ever since, she has bought, renovated, and resold over a hundred residences to date—not to mention designed spaces for countless high-profile individuals.
We chatted with the “sassy” designer, tastemaker, real estate flipper, author, and TV host—who also happens to be an avid welder—about her personal aesthetic, philosophy, and key sources of inspiration, and probed her on one of her biggest projects to date: the ultra-glamorous “Barbie Penthouse,” where she and her daughter Ava currently reside.
Formerly owned by the Handler family—who founded Mattel Toys, the makers of the famed doll—the ritzy home is poised at the acme of the Century Towers' east building, located on the westside of Los Angeles. Overlooking the Santa Monica mountains to the north, Hollywood and downtown L.A. to the east, and the Pacific to the southwest, the dazzling abode—purchased by Nicole back in 2012—now features a resort-like, ultra-chic vibe inspired by Barbie’s fabulous lifestyle, all thanks to the designer's unique creative eye.
HR: Describe your personal design aesthetic and philosophy. What mission do you ultimately hope to achieve as a designer?
Nicole Sassaman: I would describe my work as modern, yet warm. I always try to create unexpected elements in all of the spaces that I design. My philosophy is that all things are possible and that every wall is a door, so I aim to create unique spaces that leave people asking, ”How did she do that?” 😉
HR: What are your key sources of inspiration?
NS: Each space inspires me in a different way. I try to see the possibilities that haven’t been realized in a space. For example, can the closet under the staircase turn into an unreal wine cellar? The possibilities are what inspire me.
HR: Describe the “Barbie Penthouse.” Why did you decide to purchase and flip the home?
NS: The Barbie Penthouse is a very special property. It is irreplaceable. Its views are the most jaw-dropping ones in the city. The story behind the home of the Handlers is inspiring and I wanted it to live on. I am very attached to it, and can’t imagine not living here. Ava and I love it! Our friends and family have so much fun here.
HR: How did you go about designing the residence? What type of vibe does it exude? What kind of lifestyle does it offer?
Like any space that I work on, I allowed the space to speak to me and figure out how I could lay the space out, open it up, and finish it off with just the right amount of everything. I tore everything out and then looked at the space as a single room and began putting it back together. It is very sophisticated, warm, and whimsical, and there is something unexpected in each and every room… even in the closets!
HR: How drastic was the home’s transformation?
NS: The project was a complete gut, including windows—[initially], it looked like the set of Bewitched!
HR: How did you get into welding? Did you employ your welding skills at all in the revamp?
NS: I got into welding and concrete technology at the same time. I wanted to design and build my own furniture and back in 1989, and those were very popular materials. And yes—I welded some of the accessories in the space.
HR: Talk about any noteworthy elements that adorn the residence, and why you chose to incorporate them. Do any of the pieces/works featured have an interesting backstory?
NS: The space is sprinkled in Barbie art, books, etc. The light fixture in my daughter’s room is a custom piece that I created for the space, as well as the Barbie artwork hanging above her bed that includes a very special and meaningful note to her. All of the art in the home is special and has a back-story. I know most of the artists on a personal level and that makes their work that much more special to me.
HR: To what extent do you feel the penthouse embodies the “Barbie” lifestyle? In what ways does it not?
Barbie is a girl who has recreated herself time and time again. She exudes fun and sophistication. I think that the penthouse embodies all of those qualities.
HR: Describe the personality of the individual you believe would best fit the unique penthouse.
NS: This space was carefully designed to be able to be fully transformed. If you remove all of the art and furnishings, it can quite easily be changed to reflect a more country or masculine feel. As it is, the home is warm, inviting, great for entertaining, fun, elegant, and unique. The space is suited for someone with style and the courage to be different.
HR: Where do you like to shop for furniture to incorporate in your designs? Do you have any favorite brands/stores that you frequent?
NS: I love B&B Italia, Poliform, and Holly Hunt, and I shop all around the world for unique art and accessories to fill spaces and make them special and unforgettable.
HR: What plans do you have for the penthouse (are you hoping to keep it or sell it)?
NS: At the moment, we plan to create many more amazing memories in it. We love living here!
HR: If you could design any other space in the world without having to worry about any fathomable limitations such as cost, what would it be?
NS: A hotel!
HR: Reveal a fun fact or two about yourself that fans of your work might not know about you.
NS: I love working with my hands, so mixing concrete, welding, and drilling are part of my everyday life. I would love to begin creating artwork. There doesn’t seem to be enough time in a day to do everything, and I barely sleep as it is. I aspire to inspire people to design a great life. Diana Nyad is a wonderful source of inspiration for me. She is proof that the human spirit transcends everything and that anything IS possible!