Designing Women

Cleo Baldon has an office overlooking Venice Beach, with its sunbathers, peddlers of gold chains, and break dancers doing their five-minute stints of flabbergasting gyrations that are followed by bursts of applause. Baldon, design director of Galper-Baldon Designs, does not have much time to look out the window. She is a woman of power. As we were talking, assistants would come in and thrust blueprints under her nose, asking for instant decisions on whether a wall should go here or there .

Baldon is unmistakably a nice and generous-spirited woman, but you get the feeling that you would not like to thwart her. At one point, the bright sun was getting in my eyes, and I slipped on my sunglasses. She stopped talking mid-sentence. "I'm sorry," she said, "I can't talk to you with those damn dark glasses." Off they came.

Landscape architecture is the chief specialty of Galper-Baldon Designs, and Baldon masterminds virtually all the residential work, except for plantings. "I don't understand plants," she says, "and don't intend to. But my partner, Sid Galper, is a fabulous horticulturist." She is proud of the prefabricated fiberglass spa with contoured seating that she designed 10 years ago. "Up to that point they were straight-sided things with benches in them." But she has also had a profound effect on the furniture industry in California.

Baldon was born "in the geographical center of Washington in a town so small that it didn't have a hospital, so I'm not a native of my native town. I was born in Leavenworth, and the little town was Peshastin. Apple ranching was the only local industry. Oh, no, there was one other industry; they made boxes for apples. Maybe that was my introduction to furniture making." Her father taught woodworking in the local high school. "He allowed me to pound nails when I was 3," Baldon says. "It was the first thing he allowed me to do. He had no sons. I was being the son, I suppose."

Baldon came to California to study interior design at Woodbury. After graduating, she practiced as an interior designer--"color planning, architectural work, some industrial design." Interior design led naturally to furniture design. "I think that all architects have a chair in the back of their heads," she says, "and so does every interior designer. A lot of it develops out of need. You do an interior and you need something that you don't find, so you do it; you do it custom. It's often easier to draw what you need than to shop for it."

Baldon never approached a furniture manufacturer with designs. She was too busy for that. But she happened to do a house for a client who had a manufacturer friend, and in the early 1960s she began supplying designs to the firm. They were largely upholstered-seating designs, and Baldon believes that she was influenced by the outdoor trappings of the West--by saddles and cowboy boots. (Some of her cushions were attached to chairs with straps like those that fasten a saddle onto a horse.) She also acknowledges some influence from the Mission-style chairs that she remembers from an aunt's home.

In 1965 she and Galper founded the Terra company. The idea was to sell a line of quality outdoor furniture "because there was nothing but Brown Jordan to put in the yard." That was not quite how things turned out, however, because Baldon introduced a line that sold phenomenally well. What she did was to turn the metal legs and struts at an angle, so that instead of the flat edge being presented to one's eye, the right angle at the corner is what's noticed first. "It's more sculptural; it gives you another dimension. I've only seen it once anywhere else--in the grilles of a medieval house in Verona."

Another successful Terra line is oak furniture coated with polyurethane. "The oak keeps moving under it," Baldon says. "Maybe that's why the Druids favored oak--because the material is never dead. Cut it up and it wiggles in the night."

Baldon thinks that the way furniture is constructed should show in the finished product. "I admire Louis XVI furniture," she says, "but it doesn't appeal to me personally because you can't see how it's made. I want to see things going through other things and being caught on the other side. I like to wrap fabric around, run a rod through it, and hold it with two other rods. I want to see the construction."

Baldon lives in the Hollywood Hills in a "comfortable old Spanish house." Does it contain furniture that she designed? "Yes. A designer's house is always full of things that come back from the job. Rejects from the client--things that didn't quite work, things that were a little too long, not quite the right color. But I tend to do things that go together. Therefore, the things in my house go together."

Still, her taste is catholic. She happily mixes old and new, sophisticated and primitive. ("I like those old masks that are dyed, I think, with mulberries.") She recently returned from a visit to Peking "and I'm waiting to see what goes on the drawing board next."

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