Made in L.A.


A look at the makers and gallerists defining design in L.A. today.

By Mallery Roberts Morgan

Parisian interior design luminary Jean-Louis Deniot loves Los Angeles. “Of all the cities I find myself in worldwide, this town has the greatest influence on my work,” says Deniot. That’s a pretty big statement coming from a designer whose luxurious residential interiors are in demand by an elite international clientele—current Deniot projects include locations in Moscow, London, Istanbul, St. Moritz, New York, and Delhi. “What I love most about design in Los Angeles is that there’s an underlying freedom of expression you don’t find in Paris, London, or New York. Any successful designer today has an eye on what’s happening in L.A.,” he adds.

“One of the most important things to happen from a design point of view in Los Angeles was the realization in the ’90s—by people like Diane Keaton, Brad Pitt, and other movie stars—that Los Angeles residential architecture was amazing and worth saving,” says Annie Kelly, renowned Los Angeles-based design writer and decorator. Kelly and her husband Tim Street-Porter, the legendary interiors and architecture photographer, were honored this year by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for their contribution to the city’s design and architecture scene over the past thirty years. Street-Porter’s iconic book, L.A. Modern, remains the go-to reference for midcentury houses. “Interest in Los Angeles design just kind of spread from there,” adds Kelly. “Because then it went into the furnishings since everyone wanted to decorate these houses correctly. So, it started to be this huge movement.”

“In New York, London, or Paris, things tend to be highly curated and presented in a specific context. It doesn’t leave much room for the imagination,” explains Deniot, who loves sourcing objects from Los Angeles auctions, local dealers, or even consignment stores. He notes that the originality of the pieces he finds and their scale (made for big houses rather than urban apartments) is unique. And he’s observed they’re turning up with more frequency in the Paris flea markets. “West Coast California pieces are slowly making their way into the design vocabulary of contemporary European interior design,” says Deniot.

Along with a fresh appreciation for the architecture and design the city has on offer, in the last decade, emerging talents from the art, fashion, and music worlds have been increasingly drawn to Los Angeles to find affordable space.

“Lower overheads allow for more experimentation than other places,” says Los Angeles-based ceramic artist Adam Silverman. And, of course, there’s the weather. “People always comment on the light,” adds Silverman. “I think the quantity and quality of light influences everything from people’s state of mind to the way things look. A piece I make here will look different than it would in Europe—and that somehow influences what I make.”

Another plus to the Los Angeles scene, according to Silverman, is the supportive local community. “When cool young people make a million on a movie or some other creative industry they tend to spend it on their peers,” says Silverman. “They hire a friend to build a house or make furniture or art.”

“We aren’t as concerned about preconceived notions here,” says Los Angeles interior designer Courtney Applebaum, an emerging young talent whose clients are largely friends and equally bright young things hailing from the worlds of art, fashion, and film, like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. “There isn’t that old school pressure like you have in New York to follow what’s expected—or like Paris where there’s a certain way of doing things and it’s more difficult to veer from that,” she explains. “For a designer that’s really important. It allows you the freedom to be more creative.”

 

Gerard O'Brien © Jessica Sample for L'AB/Pamono Reform Gallery

If there is one address in Los Angeles where you’ll find uniquely Californian design it’s at Reform Gallery. Gerard O’Brien always had a passion for beautifully made things. Throughout his years in New York working in the fashion industry he had a sideline as a picker, sourcing exceptional pieces for exclusive dealers. He relocated his young family to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career six days before 9-11. However, it wasn’t long before he discovered a somewhat overlooked treasure trove of postwar California modern design. “I have an obsessive gene,” explains O’Brien. “When I get into things, it goes really deep.” The more he researched, the more he found, and in 2003—just two years after arriving—he opened Reform. “I certainly couldn’t have done that in Paris, London, or New York,” says O’Brien of his first 3,000-square-feet shop. “In L.A. we still have not-so-high rents: you can have a big store and inventory.”

Ten years later O’Brien’s passion has become a “market maker” for many seminal and sometimes underappreciated 20th-century Californian craftsmen, such as Sam Maloof, J.B. Blunk, and Arthur ‘Espenet’ Carpenter, among others. “Reform focuses on makers because I’m interested in the narrative of how quality things are made,” enthuses O’Brien. “I never feel like I’m selling—it’s more like an adoption agency, and I’m screening parents.”

 

David Wiseman © Jessica Sample for L'AB/Pamono David Wiseman

From his studio not far from downtown, decorative artist David Wiseman makes beautiful, poetic, nature-inspired objects, furniture, and lighting. In the ten years since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, his work has become highly sought after by art and design collectors the world over. In fact, he is practically overwhelmed with site-specific commissions for private residences. “It’s all very exciting,” says Wiseman. “We are doing an entire hanging Garden of Babylon for one client.”

Wiseman’s forms take their inspiration directly from the natural world. He works in a variety of mediums, from porcelain and bronze to crystal. At the Christian Dior flagships in Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York, Wiseman draped cascades of lily of the valley over mantle pieces and scattered porcelain branches and flowers across ceilings. For the public library in West Hollywood he created an ornamental sycamore tree of plastered steel and bronze, rising over 60 feet into the building’s sky-lighted central staircase. At the recent 2013 Design Miami fair, New York gallery R & Company showed his bronze, lattice-like gates with intricate branches and delicate ceramic blossoms whose ultimate context he says, “would be as a garden folly with real plants growing through them.”

Born and raised in nearby Pasadena, Wiseman believes living in Los Angeles is ideal for the kind of work he does. “Because of the city’s history of aircraft and other manufacturing industries we have every possible resource at our fingertips—I get to work with the most amazing craftsmen.” Wiseman can now produce almost everything he makes from his own studio—only glass is outsourced. All those creative processes, however, mean a lot of heat and all kinds of gases and vapors. “Believe me, you don’t want to be cooped up inside with all that,” he says. “It’s a dream to be able to work outside in a t-shirt with an amazing sunset just behind you.”

 

Adam Silverman © Jessica Sample for L'AB/Pamono Adam Silverman

If anyone in Los Angeles represents the unique possibilities the city offers a creative spirit, it is Adam Silverman. Born and raised on the East Coast, he moved to L.A. after studying at the Rhode Island School of Design and co-created the hipster fashion brand X-Large in the ’90s. Throughout his success in fashion, he never stopped dabbling in his favorite hobby: making pots.

“There was always a voice in my head saying I should be doing the pottery full-time,” says Silverman, “and the voice got louder and louder.” In 2002 he turned exclusively to his art, incorporating traditional pottery techniques with his own experimental approach, naming his studio Atwater Pottery. In 2008 the venerable Heath Ceramics of Sausalito opened their first store in Los Angeles—designed by Commune—complete with a ceramics studio directed by Silverman. In addition to his collaborations with Heath, Silverman’s sensual ceramic pieces, with his trademark gritty glazes, have been exhibited throughout the United States and Japan, in galleries and museums, and are collected by such luminaries as architect Tadao Ando and artist Takashi Murakami. Silverman’s work is the subject of a new book, Adam Silverman Ceramics, published by Rizzoli in late 2013. Following a solo show at the Laguna Art Museum, he is currently working on his first public art commission for the city of West Hollywood. “I think L.A. is an incredibly generous city,” says Silverman. “If you start making things and put yourself out there, people are very supportive.”

 

Commune - The partners © Francois Halard Commune

Commune is the Los Angeles-based design collective of four partners known for their sophisticated, eclectic style that puts a new spin on California modern. A layering of materials, furniture, and textiles influenced by Southern California design aesthetics from the ’60s and ’70s, the studio’s work also draws on references as varied as fashion, music, and art. The ingenuity of their style comes from their collaborative spirit, with each other as well as with members of the local artistic community: their collaborators have included artists and craftsmen such as ceramicist Stan Bitters, sculptor Alma Allen, textile artist Tanya Aguiñiga, and director Mike Mills.

Local over global, handmade over manufactured, their projects range from shops (Heath Ceramics, Opening Ceremony Tokyo), restaurants (Ammo, The Farm Shop), and residential interiors for an impressive roster of cool clients, to the ACE hotels in Palm Springs and Panama City, and the just-unveiled ACE L.A. in downtown Los Angeles. Partners Pam and Ramin Shamshiri (siblings) came from a background in production design. Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht both had successful careers in retail in New York before relocating to Los Angeles. One day, when looking back on design in California in the 2010s, hands down, Commune will be a defining reference.

 

Joel Chen © Jessica Sample for L'AB/Pamono JF Chen

There’s no place like JF Chen. Anywhere. For over forty years antiques dealer Joel Chen has been amassing an unparalleled collection of furniture, art, and objects. Collecting is the focus of his life, and very much a family affair, with wife Margaret and daughters Bianca and Fiona helping to run the show. And quite a show it is. His gargantuan 30,000-square-feet warehouse-showroom on Highland Avenue manages to house only part of the collection. Two additional spaces—the 5,500-square-feet “C Project” and a 14,000-square-feet warehouse in Culver City—just barely contain the remaining treasures.

Chen doesn’t limit himself to any period or style. With four decades of experience buying and selling, along with his encyclopedic knowledge and hyper-educated eye, he finds treasures the world over. From an Egyptian architectural fragment and a Regency daybed, to a contemporary Max Lamb foam chair, extraordinary pieces make their way to Los Angeles via Chen, feeding the flames of top designer’s creative fires (Kelly Wearstler and Michael Smith are regulars) and appointing the homes of his vast celebrity clientele (Ellen DeGeneres, Gwen Stefani, and James Franco, to name only a few).

A visit to JF Chen is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole into design wonderland. Everything is arranged in eclectic vignettes—imagine an Art Deco table surrounded by rare Eames chairs crowned with Memphis ceramics. In addition, the Chens host several exhibitions a year and are extremely engaged in the cultural fabric of the city’s design community. When the alternative pop-up design market Parachute was recently staged by a hipster downtown crowd, JF Chen was one of the first to take a stall. “I like to get involved with the up-and-coming artistic community,” says Joel Chen. “I admire the creative people who are struggling and emerging in neighborhoods like Atwater, Silverlake, and South Pasadena. It doesn’t have to be high-brow to interest me,” he says. “Besides, what they’re doing is more craft, and I’m more into that right now than glittery things.”

 

Peter Loughrey © Jessica Sample for L'AB/Pamono Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

In 1992 a twenty-four-year-old Peter Loughrey felt Los Angeles needed an accessible auction house for reasonably priced modern design. So he started one: LAMA. Having trolled thrift stores and flea markets for his brother’s antique business, he knew good art and design could be found. He also knew it could be sold for the same prices paid for non-pedigree furnishings in chain stores. He figured young design aficionados like him would be interested.

In its first year, LAMA sales were $99,000. By 2012, sales had tipped the $8 million mark. In just over two decades LAMA has, without a doubt, played an important role in bringing West Coast design to an international audience. Once little known designers such as Greta Magnusson Grossman, Milo Baughman, and Paul László are now sought-after by collectors worldwide. Although they have routinely set records for 20th-century designers such as Charles & Ray Eames, George Nakashima, and Sam Maloof, a LAMA auction isn’t a stuffy affair. Located in a 12,000-square-feet former special effects studio—the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were created here—you might catch fashion designer Hedi Slimane or the occasional Hollywood celebrity milling around examining lots, but the atmosphere remains relaxed.

“We like to think of ourselves as the place to come for accessible design,” says Loughrey. “In other auction houses things go for such high prices you figure you must be bidding against a Russian oligarch,” he jokes. “Most of our clients are looking for something with a vintage sensibility to fill a spot in their own home. We try to remain accessible.”

  • Text by

    • Mallery Roberts Morgan

      Mallery Roberts Morgan

      Mallery is an LA-based design journalist and creative consultant. She’s the design correspondent for AD France and KCRW DnA: Design & Architecture in LA. Mallery also writes for many international publications.
  • Images by

    • Jessica Sample

      Jessica Sample

      LA native Jessica is the former Deputy Photo Editor of Travel + Leisure. Named one of PDN’s 30 Photographers to Watch in 2013, her clients include National Geographic Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, and Food & Wine.