The Play of Light : Artist Jim Defrance Transforms a Downtown Warehouse Into an Airy Studio-Home

<i> Meredith Preston is a Los Angeles writer. </i>

Space and light in a workplace are high on an artist’s list of needs. The search for those attributes drew artists to Paris after World War I, to New York’s SoHo in the ‘60s and, most recently, to downtown Los Angeles. Inexpensive warehouse living quarters in each city have provided artists not only with generous amounts of square footage but often with high ceilings and skylights as well. Once downtown, however, the artists have transformed the industrial spaces into more than studios with living areas; they’ve become works of art in their own right.

To get to the studio-home of L.A. artist Jim Defrance, you park behind a downtown men’s shelter, walk through a gate in a chain-link fence to an unmarked wooden door and yell hello up to the studio window. If it’s evening, the neon of the Little Tokyo theater and cafes across the way serves as additional reference points. Once the front door of the warehouse has been unlocked, you walk down a dimly lit corridor, past a variety of debris, up a creaky staircase and into a world as clean and precise as Defrance’s work.

Defrance has turned the 3,500-square-foot studio-loft space into a simple but elegant working area, art gallery and living quarters. The kitchen, interior walls, furniture and lighting are his creations, as are the painting studio and darkroom.


He acquired the loft in 1979 from artist Norman Sunshine. It was a large, empty space that had served as a sewing workshop and then as a print shop. Parts of the floor were soaked with industrial oil, which would bubble when the sun hit the wood.

The condition of the interior space, though, was far less troublesome to Defrance than was the outside environment. “To find a large studio, artists seek places like this one, in industrial parts of town or even on the edges of Skid Row,” Defrance says. “Making a beautiful space inside buffers what goes on outside.”

The 550 square feet of the work area was Defrance’s primary consideration in designing the loft, and, consequently, space and light--important tools to an artist--are the controlling features. The loft’s entire western wall is glass, so that he can work from sunrise to sunset using natural light. Everything but his artwork is white, trimmed with wood. Defrance added interior walls to delineate spaces, but the walls are either half the normal height or made of corrugated fiberglass so that light can still spread throughout the L-shaped loft. The long wall that separates the gallery from the living area is the only wall that reaches to the ceiling.

The absence of high walls, however, made space definition difficult, especially in the 1,400-square-foot living area. Defrance again used light as a solution, fitting the high ceilings with hanging industrial lights. Separate lights clearly define the living, dining and kitchen areas at night; the divider is darkness, rather than walls, and a visitor gets the impression of sitting in a structured, intimate room.

By design, there is little furniture here, and Defrance--whose father is a cabinetmaker--made most of what there is, as well as all the perfectly finished kitchen and studio cabinetry. Defrance grew up watching his father at work; while he was going to school, he even worked with his father. In college, Defrance began studying architecture, then switched to painting and later incorporated into his painting technique the woodworking processes that he learned as a boy. “I’m obsessive about perfectly finished edges, well-defined spaces and the painted surfaces of my pieces. A major aspect of my personality is a concern and focus for detail.”

Defrance started painting seriously while he was a graduate student at UCLA, and his style has altered drastically since the late 1960s. A change in the style and form of his art brought career changes as well, and in the late ‘70s, he left Los Angeles to teach at the Chicago Art Institute and at two universities in Virginia. “When I came back to California, my work had gone through quite a shift, with my exposure to different cities.”


At mid-career, Defrance has had solo shows in Los Angeles and New York, and has been included in museum surveys in the United States and abroad. Also, he has a one-man show scheduled for next spring at Los Angeles’ Jan Baum Gallery.

“Making paintings,” Defrance says, “is a full-focus, locked-in activity--not something that you can turn on and off.” Ideas occur to him, he says, when he is not working, and he likes to be able to go into the next room and use his woodworking equipment whenever the spirit moves him. When you’re not able to live and work in the same place, he says, “things get out of balance. You focus too much on your home or your studio, and one or the other suffers.”