It must have been kismet

It must have been kismet
Artist Manfred Müller and gallery owner Rose Shoshana adapted the interior of a Gehry-designed Santa Monica building to suit their needs. (Lawrence K. Ho / LAT)
But for that felicitous wrong turn in the dark of night, Rose Shoshana might never have been able to say: "It's interesting how Frank Gehry has always sort of played a part in our lives." A line like that has the potential to captivate the audience at any dinner party in L.A. Here, let me refill your glass. Please go on.

Israeli-born Shoshana is recounting key moments in her professional and personal narrative since she opened her original photography gallery at Santa Monica's Gehry-designed Edgemar complex in 1991, not long after she became romantically involved with Manfred Müller, the German-born artist she would marry seven years later.

She recalls the night in 1997 when she drove down Olympic Boulevard and hung a right on what she thought was 11th Street. Instead she found herself on 12th, a dead-end industrial block with an atmosphere of utter desertion. "And it was then I saw 1643. I stopped the car, got out, and stood in front of a building different from any I'd ever seen, like a big box dressed in metal. It didn't look like an office space — I could see lights on and I had the sense people were living in it. It was very inviting, no coldness to it at all. I was totally enchanted."

The turn of events that followed could redefine "Some Enchanted Evening" and turn you overnight into an armchair mystic. A few days later, still caught in a spell, Shoshana mentioned the incident to L.A. arts patron Ann Janss, who knew right away which building she was talking about: "That's the live/work space Frank Gehry built." Janss also knew one of the residents, painter and sculptor Charles Arnoldi. Introductions were made, and Arnoldi suggested Shoshana phone Gehry — why not, you never know. Call it real estate karma or the luck of the draw: A unit being rented by landscaper Nancy Goslee Powers was about to come up for sale.

Shoshana and Müller knew as soon as they walked through the door of the narrow, soaring, light-bedazzled space that they were at home — and simultaneously at work, if you will. "I saw immediately that this was the right stage for living and working," Müller says.

The couple have like-minded aesthetic sensibilities, each drawn to architecture without ornament or artifice, "with nothing there for a reason other than functional," Shoshana says. The three-story, six-unit corrugated metal structure was pure '80s Gehry, before the swoops, the curves and form following function in the tradition of such Modernists as Schindler and Neutra. "It was essentially a simple, unpretentious structure with beautiful light," she adds. "Nobody does that better than Frank Gehry."

Be that as it may, they were not the least inclined to be mindless worshippers at the Gehry altar. Ideal as the space was for Müller's studio, it didn't fully suit their notions for ideal liveability. "There isn't much of a separation between our personal and work lives," says Shoshana. "They're interwoven in such a way that one informs the other."

That understood, the interior had to cooperate. The ground floor shot up like a white tower, 34 feet, to a mezzanine and on up another 13 feet to one other full floor. They wanted three full floors. So, with due respect for the integrity of the architecture and with what Müller calls "a careful strategy," they translated the interior in their own way.

"It takes extremely creative individuals to move into a building Frank Gehry created and not feel intimidated by his genius," says art critic Edward Goldman, originator and host of "ArtTalk" on KCRW-FM (89.9) and a friend of Shoshana and Müller.

Müller extended the mezzanine to create a loft-like kitchen, dining and sitting area, making sure he didn't interrupt or destroy Gehry's signature oversized industrial windows that "flooded the interior with a spiritual quality."

Each floor is infused with a different quality and intensity of light. The ground floor, which serves as Müller's art-filled studio, has a controlled light — "not bright, but bright enough," he says. On this particular afternoon, there's a certain dusky mystery to it, as though you're viewing it through a thin filter. It could be late morning, it could be late afternoon. But on the second floor you begin to sense what time of day it is. By the time you get to the third floor, exposed by skylights, it's what Müller calls "a festival of light." From there, he explains, you suddenly explore the landscape, you watch "the amazing spray of sunset," you look out at your neighborhood and get to know it intimately. "What a pleasure to have a third floor," he says.

From bottom to top, the house has the fertile, exhilarating aura of a place in constant flux, a movable feast of people coming and going, art coming and going, ideas coming and going. Even the furniture comes and goes, or to be more precise, moves around.

Because there was no built-in storage, Müller designed and made flexible units mounted on wheels that can be used as room dividers or shifted about at will to form any number of architectural configurations. "The original idea was to create a versatile space that could be changed whenever you choose," he says. Tables and other furniture are also on wheels, a concept Müller now wishes he had employed in the kitchen. "I think the time has come for us to rethink, re-form kitchens for contemporary use — the same idea of flexible units that interact but are not attached to each other. When it comes to setting up a space today, I would put everything on wheels. Nothing has to stay the same forever — even the closets can be adaptable. "

Architecture is of keen interest to the 55-year-old Müller, and its influence is evident in his work. In Germany, where he studied with Joseph Beuys and where he still maintains a studio, he is known, he says, for his "architectural sculpture" — abstract works made of brute industrial materials and found objects such as junked conveyor belts. His installation pieces, writes Kristine McKenna in "Any Given Space," a catalogue on his work for two exhibits in Germany and Chicago, are often referred to as "architectural interventions, in concert with the environment where they're to be exhibited." One local example is the public artwork "Twilight and Yearning," a sculpture of two red boats underneath the Santa Monica pier that becomes more — or less — visible with the ebb and flow of the tides.

"I don't see a difference between sculpture and architecture," he says matter-of-factly. "A house works because there's an inside life and an outside life. That's actually what architecture is about, isn't it, and that's also how I see contemporary sculpture — balancing an inner and outer life."

The correlation between inside and outside is a mark of Müller's richly colored paper wall sculptures, a few of which hang in his house. He perforates them, cuts little portholes, opens and folds, layers. The mystique of his pieces entices the imagination, invites you to peep in and find out what lies in the interior, much as you might want to peer inside lighted windows at night. Like a house, they suggest that there's not only a surface, but an inner space.

"The aesthetic strategy of architectural sculpture is also revealed in Frank Gehry's buildings of the last decade — you see the detachment from the strict confines of form follows function," Müller says. "You see a merging with art. There's a very playful attitude to his later work — witness Disney Music Hall and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.

"So in this way of looking at things, I see no difference between the artist and the architect. That's the reason I'm very interested in architecture. I analyze space, I formalize it, I decide on the right material, the right shape, the right size and then I compose it so that it makes sense."

Fortunately, Müller acknowledges, he shares what he calls "this kind of love" with Shoshana. "We both think space is a very sexy thing when it serves you beautifully and well. For us, it's not only a place for leisure, it's an experience. Let's say a good space makes us very happy."

Both work intuitively, creating an environment that gives off an air of the spontaneous — intelligently controlled. Look around at the half a dozen or so bowls and platters piled with oranges, tomatoes, green apples, red apples, red onions, the books stacked on the stairways and tables and floors, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange photos leaning against the dining area wall, the Mexican retablos (folk art tableaux of miracles) against the kitchen wall, and you sense that things have been allowed to develop organically, to assume lives of their own.

Their shoes are arranged in neat, aesthetically pleasing patterns in an open space of the third-floor bedroom, under and around a table assembled from free-form granite on two sawhorses. "Well, I had no other storage space for them, and I also like to look at objects I appreciate every day, to have them in front of me," Shoshana says. The suggestion of movement, of immigration, makes the shoes appear as if they're on the verge of walking off together or gearing up to come alive and tap dance when the lights go out.

"I think the house manages to create a marriage between comfort and cultural rigor," says their friend Roberto Tejada, an assistant professor of art history, theory and criticism in the visual arts department at UC San Diego. "There's a delight in exhibiting objects, photos, designs. It reflects a lifestyle that is both generous and precise."

From the start of their relationship, there has been a creative collaboration between Müller and Shoshana. He even designed the space for Rose Gallery's current location at Bergamot Station and the adjoining Bergamot Books — her tiny arts and architecture bookstore — along with all the furniture and bookshelves. Forbes magazine included the gallery in a list of America's 10 best photography galleries in 2003, the same year L.A. Magazine chose it as L.A.'s best photo gallery for its "Best of Los Angeles" issue. The New Yorker referred to it earlier this year in "Goings On About Town" as "one of Southern California's most prestigious photography galleries." In the May 2 issue of Business Week, an article titled "Photography's Golden Age" describes Rose Gallery as a venue haunted by "serious collectors."

Among the major photographers represented by Rose Gallery are Manuel Alvarez Bravo, William Eggleston, Martin Parr, Robbert Flick, Bruce Davidson, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio and Graciela Iturbide — whose new series of works went on show April 23 and will run through June 18. Shoshana also collaborates with collector and longtime client Bruce Berman, former head of production for Warner Bros. and now chairman and chief executive of Village Roadshow Pictures, on conceiving road trip projects for photographers. Berman, who has a collection of 2,000 mainly contemporary American photographs — 200 of which hang on nearly every wall of his 17,000-square-foot suite on the Warner Bros. lot — finances the trips and gets to choose some of the finished works for himself.

Shoshana is drawn primarily to photos that depict mundane, everyday life — "what we see or pass by all the time but might not notice. They kind of stop us in our tracks and make us look at it with more attention." As such, you suddenly see the extraordinary in the ordinary. "It comes down to the way I feel about architecture. I'm attracted to work without artifice, whether a portrait, a building, a landscape that tells a story without embellishment."

A graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Shoshana is herself an experienced photographer and a documentary filmmaker. She worked for several years during the '80s shooting portraits for movie studios and for album covers, then started working on a still unfinished documentary about descendants of Holocaust survivors — her parents were survivors who immigrated to Israel — and postwar generation Germans. In 1992 she won an Emmy for her PBS documentary "The Women of the Georgian Hotel," about elderly women — many of them of European descent and several of Jewish descent — who lived in the Ocean Park residential hotel.

Müller first got to know the women when he stayed at the hotel on his first visit to L.A. in 1989 as one of seven German artists who came to create on-site works for the inaugural exhibition of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. He and Shoshana met at a party, eventually started a transcontinental relationship, and married in 1998. A year into their marriage, Müller was in a serious car accident in Northern California; his left arm had to be amputated just under the elbow.

But, says Goldman, it didn't slow Müller for a minute. "He took this disaster, all the pain and experience, and used it as a component of his art." Perhaps the most powerful example is an installation piece he created called "The Body Shop" — a Chevrolet Blazer wrapped mummy-like in swaths of fabric mimicking bandages, then turned on its side.

Müller got the inspiration from the view outside his kitchen window, that of the Pacific Towing Co. "In front of me, every day, was this drama — destroyed cars, stolen cars, abandoned cars being towed onto the lot. And then, ironically, I experienced the car drama myself. It was rough. I had to do something about it. I had to take this beast by the horns and make peace with it."

Müller has long since adjusted. He delegates much of the hard manual labor to an assistant, and judging from the stacks and the boxes of new artwork, his fervor and output have not diminished.

"It was a dramatic change in my life, but the drama has faded," he says. "It's like a movie you see so many times, it loses its spirit. The drama is not fixed at five years ago."

A brazen shaft of afternoon sun strikes a red wall sculpture. Müller wraps tissue around a recently completed oil painting on manila paper and carefully places it on top of others in a box that lies on the birch work table he built. Shoshana arrives with Laura Peterson, her gallery director; Hannah Sloan, her assistant director; and "007" film producer Michael Wilson, a major photography collector. They gather around the dining table on the second floor — the floor that Gehry played no part in. One imagines that he wouldn't be at all dismayed.

Times staff writer Barbara King can be reached at