Art collectors need furniture, too, and as a result the art world has embraced contemporary design in a big bear hug. Design fairs are popping up alongside art fairs, and historic design is incorporated in the context of exhibitions at galleries and museums. And arguably the best part about it is that the chair you sit in while contemplating your new art acquisition could very well end up in the same museum, and also appreciate in both intellectual and financial value.
A recent trip to Los Angeles provided the opportunity for a quick survey of new design in the city, undeniably an important center of both 20th-century and 21st-century design. No surprise that the town’s hippest art galleries are in on the action. At Black Dragon Society in Chinatown, for instance, director Parker Jones has recently organized "Designomite: Design by Artists," an exhibition examining the crossover of design into artist’s studios.
This completely cool show ranges from the funky to the high-tech, including hash pipes made from silver aluminum cans by Piero Golia as well as a wall of speakers in red, yellow, green and blue by Chris Beas, inventively combining Dub and Rastafarian visual and musical culture. This last is $9,000. Other items included a found chair covered with a choice of custom fabrics by Liz Craft, a shelf of multi-colored milk crates by Jason Meadows and a Lucite-topped coffee table that comes with an oversized coke-cutting razor blade by Eric Wesley.
An increasing number of design galleries and dealers are moving from their longstanding Melrose Avenue and West Side locations to Culver City, already home to many art galleries. J.F. Chen has been on Melrose for 33 years and now is opening a 14,000-square-foot space on National Boulevard in Culver City with the assistance of his daughter, Bianca Chen. Considered the dean of the L.A. design scene, Chen numbers many top movie stars among his clients, including (so the stories go) everyone from Barbra Streisand and Gene Hackman to Kate Bosworth.
Chen’s new Culver City space is primarily to feature modern design, but it is also planned as a showcase for young designers. Chen has a third space called The Loft, some 10,000 square feet on Highland Boulevard in Hollywood that is noted for its sheer volume of material. Chen says that the real key is getting the right mix of new design, classic modern design and very old material.
One Culver City pioneer is the architect, designer and artist Gregg Fleishman, who has been in the area for 47 years and now operates a gallery on Main Street. His furniture and shelter systems reveal an approach to geometric structures that combines functionality with decorative whimsy. His "Sculpt Chairs" are typically made of European birch given life and flexibility with unique arabesque cut, while his "Rhombicube" diamond panel forms are the foundation of a shelter system that can be assembled without fasteners. The chairs are priced at $1,800-$2,800.
Visiting Galerie Sommerlath, which has locations in both Venice and Culver City, is like coming upon a Modernist flea market. A source of everything from iconic pieces of design to completely unexpected objects and accessories, the gallery is a mid-century design heaven. One treasure is a Danish-inspired Louis Paolozi desk from the 1950s, priced at $3,200.
Dealer Michele Sommerlath originally had galleries in Versailles and Paris for over 20 years, where she sold primarily 18th- and 19th-century French furniture. After coming to Los Angeles to visit a friend, she fell in love with California, which reminded her of her native Morocco, and sold her business in France and opened up shop in Venice Beach.
Also in Venice on Abbot Kinney Boulevard is A.K. One Eleven 14, owned by Ken Erwin. Ken has been in business since the 1980s, and his collection of pre- and post-war design is nothing if not refined, classic and important. Working with collectors as well as museums -- he recently placed a piece at the Pompidou Center in Paris -- Irwin loves the treasure hunt, looking for iconic pieces which have architectural integrity.
Over in Hollywood, La Cienega Boulevard has what feels like an endless supply of top-shelf galleries dealing with all areas of the decorative arts. Reform Gallery, owned by Gerard O’Brien, is like a mini-museum focusing on California Design. This namesake movement began with a biannual series of exhibitions at the Pasadena Museum in 1954-76 that celebrated California’s extravaganza of both indoor and outdoor living, a boom that followed World War II.
One standout in the shop is a Glyph Wall by David Cressey, made ca. 1965 at the height of the California Design movement, and featuring handmade stacks of primitivist stoneware totems. The price is a handsome $45,000. California Design has had a resurgence, with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art scheduling a survey exhibition for 2011.
In addition to California Design, Reform Gallery has also started showing young designers who pursue both craft and innovative functionality. Tanya Aguiniga, a recent RISD grad who now lives in L.A., is one such designer at Reform. Her daybed made of memory foam and a folding chair covered in felt (a la Joseph Beuys?) reinterprets the traditionalist commitment to handmade craft and forward-thinking design.
Noho Modern began as contemporary art gallery in North Hollywood, showing artists such as June Harwood and other less-known L.A. talent. Building a reputation with support from critics like Dave Hickey and Christopher Knight, Noho Modern was subsidizing its art shows with sales of historic furniture -- a different sort of "back room" activity. This activity eventually led to a mix of both and now the gallery is focused entirely on iconic designers of the 20th century.
L.A. Moderne on La Cienega Boulevard specializes in items from the Secessionist, Deco and Modernist periods. The firm’s founder, Kim Veloso, opened L.A. Moderne with his best friend six years ago. Buying in Europe and selling in Los Angeles, Veloso tries to emphasize the handmade quality and classic lines of early Modernism. Among the current offerings is a pair of Josef Hoffmann armchairs made ca. 1920 by Mundus in Vienna, the consolidation of bentwood furniture companies that eventually included J&J Kohn and Thonet.
Blend Interiors, operated by Eric Thevenot, has galleries in both Hollywood and Paris, and combines vintage, classic and cutting-edge design. An example of the latter is the tiered Pebble table by Nada Debs, a young designer living and working in Beirut. I’m not quite sure of the derivation of the title, but the Pebble’s sleek lines and multiple surfaces do suggest a stone skipping across the surface of a pond. In addition to the new stuff, Blend also offers vintage offerings that come directly from Parisian flea markets.
Two other shops, Orange and Emmerson Troop, have set up as neighbors on Beverly Boulevard, each with its own approach. Orange combines blue-chip designers alongside Gucci accessories with industrial, new design. Operated by Angie Zupan and Nadir Zafai, both with backgrounds in interior design, Orange has a stylized perspective, intelligently combining Modernism with the pure decorative. A rare Jacques Adnet Hermes desk from the 1940s is a complete experience of classic design and handcrafted, material decadence.
William Emmerson of Emmerson Troop was born and raised in London and was on his way to Malaysia with a stop over in L.A., which turned into a permanent move to the city. Originally stripping and refurbishing furniture finds and selling them wholesale, Emmerson eventually developed his own gallery. He now also has his own line of design, AB OVO, which, in keeping with its meaning (from the beginning, from the egg), takes its design inspiration from human anatomy and bones. His third collection is made of teak for outdoor use or walnut for indoor.
Sam Kaufman’s gallery concerns itself with combining old and new, blending the modern with the archaic. Kaufman’s offerings of ceramics is unsurpassed. Recognizing ceramic as the first real source of functional and decorative objects, clay technology is now built into computer chips and turbine engines. Here you will find selections by Gambone, Pablo Picasso and Campi. Kaufman also has a very rare original kitchen cabinet designed by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand from the Inite d’Habitation de Marseilles dating from 1947. The building was landmarked in the 1960’s, making these case pieces extremely rare. This is a particularly interesting example as it illustrates the more utilitarian side of these historic designers’ collaboration.
The gallery Twentieth on Beverly Boulevard is a showcase in cutting-edge rock star design. Stefan Lawrence, the gallery’s founder, started out as a fashion photographer, and then began selling mid-century Danish at the Farmers Market in L.A. Eight years ago he founded Twentieth, and now carries the production of over 35 designers from around the world. Here you will find the design zeitgeist, including the unbelievably dynamic work of Zaha Hadid, Citizen Citizen, Moooi, Drug, Tom Dixon and others. The designer Elizabeth Page Smith constructs chairs and chaise lounges made of fiberglass -- these Corvette-inspired furniture pieces can be re-finished by bringing them to your local auto body repair shop if you so choose to change their color.
La Brea Avenue offers visitors another group of creatively ambitious galleries. Eccola, owned by Kathleen and Maurizo Almanza, focuses almost entirely on Italian design. Here you will find choice pieces by Gio Ponti, Borsini, Venini, Pietro Chiesa and Buffa. Making regular trips to Italy, this husband and wife duo load up containers with fresh finds and have them shipped directly to Los Angeles. Eccola feels like a journey through a fabulous Italian villa where important modern classics are unexpectedly arranged with accessories that celebrate European heritage.
Design Utopia, located on Melrose Avenue, was opened by Lynne Nash after she decided to go professional with her long passion for decorating and hunting Los Angeles for material. Nash buys intuitively and has a range of things from classic mid-century to Hollywood Regency. Los Angeles is a center for Regency material, which is a hybrid style that adds elegance and glamour to the more severe lines of Modernism. Oval-shaped dining tables and wedge side tables are in demand, Nash notes, because their shapes help bring people together and help the flow of communication.
No design market survey would be complete without mention of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, (LAMA), owned by Peter and Shannon Loughrey. One of the leading forces in establishing the global market for classic design, LAMA began operations in 1992 with an inaugural sale of pieces by designers like Eero Saarinen and Frank Gehry. Now, with more than 40 sales under its belt, LAMA has set records for Charles Eames, selling an armchair in 2000 for $129,000, and for R.M. Schindler, selling one of his chairs in December for $36,000.
LAMA also held the record for George Nakashima with a 1965 dining table, which sold for $129,250 in June 2004. Christie’s has since broken that record, however. In LAMA’s early days, top shelf material was much easier to find, with the major auction houses often sending design consignments to the Loughreys -- a situation that has changed, needless to say, with the majors now holding their own high-profile design sales. The next sale at LAMA is scheduled for June 3, 2007, and features notable work by Nakashima and Kjaerholm, as well as a rare work by Ken Price.
SHELDON LAPIERRE is a design specialist and sales rep at Artnet.