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Commune Design marks 10 years of handcrafted SoCal cool with a book

LA-based firm Commune Design has influenced everything from hotel to home to boxes of chocolate

You may never have heard of Commune Design, but if you've spent time in Los Angeles there's a good chance you've shopped at, slept in, walked through or taken home some of the firm's handiwork. Since 2004, the company's take on California craftsmanship (earnestly handcrafted, seriously high-end with a hint of hippie) has turned up in an impressive list of houses, restaurants, hotels and boutiques as well as in furniture, lighting, bedding, ceramics, shampoo bottles, perfume diffusers and even boxes of chocolate.

Commune (www.communedesign.com) — co-founded by Roman Alonso, Steven Johanknecht, Pamela Shamshiri and Ramin Shamshiri — has marked its 10th anniversary by publishing a compilation of some of the quartet's favorite and most meaningful projects. The richly illustrated, magazine-like 256-page coffee-table book showcases their contributions to the Southern California landscape and beyond.

"Commune: Designed in California" ($60, Abrams 2014) features personal residences, including the homes of each founder. Among the highlights are a 1908 Craftsman-style Ojai home with a hunting lodge feel, a 1960s-era Buff & Hensman post-and-beam house on Mulholland Drive and a 1926 Spanish Modern in Los Feliz. Hotels include the Ace properties in Palm Springs, downtown L.A. and Panama City, Panama, and there are boutiques such as lingerie shop Kiki de Montparnasse, vintage-inspired clothing and accessories purveyor Hollywood

Trading Co. and the Standard Hotel sundries shop. The glossy pages also feature Commune's minimalist furniture, reclaimed-wood flooring, rustic table linens and throw pillows made from repurposed kilim rugs.

It takes just a few minutes of flipping through the pages to realize that the firm's aesthetic could only have come from the melting pot that is Southern California. It's seen in the way indoor spaces effortlessly transition to outdoor spaces and the way any number of influences (Spanish, Tudor, Gothic, Modern and Renaissance among them) seamlessly mix and mingle in a home hallway or hotel lobby. "It's the Wild West," says Alonso. "It's less rules and more room — there's an openness here that translates into the feeling that anything is possible."

Not reported between the book covers is how the company came together — a tale that is as Southern Californian as is its Bohemian luxe design aesthetic. The story begins at a sushi dinner on Sawtelle Boulevard in October 2003, the first time all four founders gathered around the same table.

At the center of the group's Venn diagram is Alonso, now 48, who moved to the U.S. from Venezuela when he was 14. While working as director of corporate public relations for Barneys New York in the early 1990s he met Johanknecht, now 56, who was in charge of store design and display for the retailer. In 1998, Alonso decamped to L.A., where he co-founded Greybull Press and eventually crossed paths with the Iranian-born, L.A.-raised sister/brother event production team of Pamela and Ramin Shamshiri (now 43 and 41, respectively) when all three found themselves working on Lily Tartikoff's Fire & Ice Ball.

Although the four brought different backgrounds and skills to that sushi restaurant table, they all wanted something that was missing from their lives: a collaborative environment and a non-hierarchical approach to design. The foursome left dinner determined to pool their talents and the contacts in their Rolodexes to create Commune Design.

"At first we weren't going to have any employees and [just] assemble freelance teams for each job," says Pam Shamshiri. "That lasted about a year." She explains that it turned out to be more efficient to have an in-house staff of artists, graphic designers and architects. Today, the company has 40 employees, including the four founders, based in a North Robertson design studio in West Hollywood.

The first two projects under the Commune nameplate were Ammo restaurant on North Highland Avenue ("the graphic identity, the uniforms and the interior design," Alonso says) and Hollywood Trading Co.'s Beverly Boulevard store ("all the graphics, [retail] packaging and interior design," he says).

Commune's first hotel — and the project that established its bona fides in cultivating SoCal cool — was the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs. With the team's help, an abandoned motor lodge became a hip desert oasis for the 21st century nomad-in-the-know, filled with handcrafted touches — do not disturb signs by Heath Ceramics, for example — and a vibe Alonso describes as "hippie camping."

"The property was interesting because … if you looked up, you had these beautiful views, so you didn't really feel like you were in Palm Springs; you felt like you were in the desert," he says. "So we thought, 'What would the Ace [Hotel] experience be in the desert?' Well, it's camping … and then the hippie thing just kind of came because there was so much handcrafted [detail] that was part of the narrative." Research included studying such disparate inspirations as Bedouin and Native American tribes, the Whole Earth Catalog and "MASH."

For the Ace Hotel that opened this year in the former United Artists Theatre in downtown L.A., the Commune book offers the following narrative (quoting the hotel chain's late founder and creative director Alex Calderwood): "Mary Pickford and Rudolph Schindler have an affair, and their love child turns out to be Exene Cervenka." The result: hotel rooms with lots of textured exposed concrete and minimalist spare-meets-hipster-handcrafted furnishings. Public spaces overflow with Gothic and Modern influences — Haas Brothers murals on the walls, a swimming pool inspired by the Donald Judd pool at the artist's compound in Marfa, Texas, and a custom carpet pattern influenced by an original detail in the theater's mezzanine.

That notion of narrative ties together every Commune Design project no matter the scope; at some point in the process (which can range from six months for a retail store to several years for a hotel), the team compiles a brand book.

"We're very concerned with things being honest and for things to actually belong," explains Alonso. "They can't just be creations out of nowhere; there has to be some sort of reason. In order to actually do that, we come up with narrative that ties it into something."

The geometric pattern used on the book sleeve, for example, is their take on a classic Latvian weaving pattern. Subway tile patterns they've created are deconstructed and reconstructed versions of traditional Nordic designs. Alonso points to a rug pattern with a vaguely Southwestern motif. "For that we took a tiny little cell from a Navajo rug and blew it up," he says. "So, yes, it's Navajo, but it's not. We like the idea of ethnic patterns that communicate something that's perhaps not what you thought they communicated."

Alonso takes the top off a box of chocolates, revealing a grid of chocolate squares laid out like a miniature Byzantine tile floor in alternating patterns of light brown and gray. "This is a collaboration we did with Valerie Confections," he says. "The idea was that they would look like tiles that had been hand-printed."

The emphasis on all things handcrafted can be found in every Commune project. Think of the macramé curtains hanging in the lobby of the Ace Palm Springs (eight miles of cotton rope tied into Japanese-style bondage knots by jewelry designer Michael Schmidt) or the reception desk at the downtown L.A. Ace (designed by the Haas Brothers using wood paneling reclaimed from elsewhere in the building). More often than not, Commune taps the deep bench of artisans based here, which further forges the connection among the firm, its projects and Southern California.

The company recently completed retail projects for jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth and for Greg Chait's Elder Statesman brand. A big hotel project, the Durham Hotel, is slated to open in Durham, N.C., in the spring, and two large-scale residential projects are in the works. Product collaborations include lamps and lighting fixtures with Remains Lighting, a 16-piece furniture collection with George Smith, bed linens with Hamburg House and architectural hardware with E.R. Butler.

Given Commune's emphasis on narrative and story for each project, one might be tempted to view the recently published tome as something akin to the type of book created for clients.

"Is it a brand book? Not necessarily," says Alonso. "Because we don't particularly think that's where we're staying. This is our first 10 years, not a manifesto. We're still evolving."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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