Gregg Fleishman's Forever Furniture looks like three-dimensional Chinese calligraphy on legs. There is a touch of Art Nouveau about it, too, in the whiplash line of some of the wood struts, reminiscent of the fanciful iron Metro signs in Paris. But those similarities are accidental. Great minds do think alike, and if Fleishman's fretted chairs evoke past designers, it is because his ideas and mastery of his medium (Finnish birch plywood) rival theirs. The Forever range is not derivative, and to prove it, Fleishman holds one Canadian and two U.S. patents. He admits that some of his motifs have an Oriental look but feels that affinities with African and Pre-Columbian art are equally strong. He describes his work as "ethnic modern."
Now 36, Fleishman studied architecture at USC and is still a practicing architect. After graduating, he worked for a concrete construction company but became bored with designing park- ing structures. In 1973 he established his own studio and workshop. At first, he experimented with interlocking slotted panels for cube-shaped and dome-shaped play structures for children, but in 1975 he began the development of a chair.
It would have a minimum number of pieces to fit together, Fleishman decided, and no hardware. It would be comfortable and beautiful. He cut into the wood with ribbon-like, labyrinthine motions, converting the solid sheet into a design that resembled a flat spring or one of those zigzag fireworks that jumps about when lit. He used a saber saw for the prototypes, but for production pieces he found a router more effective. His first chair design was all straight lines, like something by turn-of-the-century Viennese designer Josef Hoffmann. Later designs incorporate hairpin loops, and Fleishman found that reducing the size of the loops gave the chairs greater flexibility. They also were comfortable, easy to assemble and dismantle, and full of decorative zest.
Gradually he developed a range of chairs, in- cluding a rocker, and added a series of tables, both rectangular and octagonal. They are all of natural wood, the sheet surfaces coated with a plum-red or brown resin. They can be water- proofed with varnish for use in the garden, but Fleishman prefers the natural finish and suggests that the furniture be brought indoors after use.
At present, he does most of the work himself, using a hand router or a pin (overhead) router. He plans to acquire a numerical (computerized) router, which will enable him to make 200 chairs a week instead of the current 30 or so. Eventually, he wants to make the chair of plastic. Would that not be a betrayal of his craftsman principles? "In a sense, yes," Fleishman says, "but it will provide a product at a lower cost, with higher versatility and in a wider range of colors. It will also solve the waterproofing problem."
There is an element of whimsicality in Fleishman's temperament--a quality that leads him to invent weird, Jules Verne-like traveling machines. (Suspended from the ceiling of his La Cienega workshop are eccentric velocipedes cased in transparent plastic, including a tricycle with two small wheels at the front and a big one at the back.) The names of his chairs reflect this endearing quirkiness: Three of them are called "Papa Bear," "Momma Bear" and "Baby Bear," and the rocker is dubbed "Rock 'n' Roll." Another chair has the expressive name "Lumbarest," but that was not Fleishman's idea. His father's chiropractor, who considered the chair to be therapeutic, had one in his office and held a competition among his patients to determine the best name; Lumbarest was the winner.