DEL MAR — Perched near the southern edge of the city’s downtown stretch, Les Artistes Inn is a charming, albeit mysterious symbol of quirky Olde Del Mar.
Although residents may be familiar with the inn’s artist-themed rooms, bubbling stone fountains and lush courtyards, they may not have met the creator behind it all.
Sulana Sae-Onge, a Del Mar resident originally from Thailand, is the architect who painstakingly planned and crafted the structure and interior design of each of the inn’s 12 rooms, in collaboration with the inn’s co-owner John Halper, a contractor.
Sae-Onge calls the inn her “playground.”
Les Artistes Inn has been in business since the mid 1990’s — but the building itself is between 70 and 80 years old. When Sae-Onge came across the property, it was a more generic, “run-down” roadside inn.
When she purchased the inn along with Halper, the idea struck to build each room around the theme of a renowned artist. From there, Sae-Onge said, “I just have fun.”
“I cannot stop thinking, what should I do,” Sae-Onge said. “I never sleep at night, sketching and seeing what I want here, there.”
The result? Rooms colorfully and meticulously decorated to celebrate artists such as Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Gauguin. What makes the rooms unique is not necessarily the paintings that adorn the walls — which are all copies, mind you — but the small, striking details.
To name a few: a mirror framed by a horse collar in the Remington bathroom, miniature Mayan sculptures lining the wall enclaves of the Rivera room, and small ornate tiles fixed into the adobe partition wall of the O’Keeffe room.
Sae-Onge has drawn much of her design inspiration from the artists’ own past homes or apartments — several of which she has visited in her travels.
Although one wouldn’t know it at a first glance, Sae-Onge has given many once discarded objects a second life at the inn. Many of her materials — granite countertops, wooden headboards, tiles used for the floor designs, even a clawfoot bathtub — were collected haphazardly and renovated to fit the theme at hand.
For instance, Sae-Onge was walking near the train tracks in Del Mar one day, found a 3-foot-long piece of driftwood and decided to paint it and use it to construct a cabinet for one of the rooms.
A circle of horseshoes in front of the western-themed Remington room were donated by jockeys who stayed at the hotel while competing at the racetrack. They apparently recognized Sae-Onge’s passion for finding artistic merit in commonplace, and sometimes forgotten items.
“A lot of things you can do, with the old,” she said.
And although the subject matter is worldly and artistic, there are also heart-felt homages to Del Mar. Across the floor of the large upstairs living area, is a sprawling floor engraving of Torrey pine trees, and a pair of pelicans flying over an abstract beach. Sae-Onge said she carved the etched, Japanese-inspired markings herself with a kitchen fork.
Sae-Onge moved to the United States over 30 years ago, and studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania as a student under Louis Kahn, the famed architect who designed La Jolla’s Salk Institute.
She said her trademark as an architect is lighting — evidenced by the use of skylights and even portholes to let extra sunlight illuminate the rooms. The sculptures in the Diego Rivera room are fronted by a set of lights that brings shadow and depth to the pieces.
“Normally the home is not alive until you turn the light on,” Sae-Onge said.
When it comes to Les Artistes Inn, it’s all about lighting and water. Sae-Onge said the inn’s many fountains were inspired by the water elements in her home growing up, in Thailand.
She now runs the hotel’s daily operations while continuing her work as a designer and architect. She also owns the Secret Garden Inn in Del Mar, and either owns or has worked on countless other projects in the region and elsewhere — from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Paris, France.
And the hotel guests come from all over as well. Sae-Onge said she frequently has guests from Switzerland and Germany and enjoys showing visitors the work that distinguishes Les Artistes Inn, perhaps leaving them with inspiration for their own homes.
“My customers come, and when they go home they have some ideas of what they’re going to do with their space, and I teach them how to do it,” she said.