Design--Centered and Otherwise

For an art that is so visual, textural and experiential, design certainly seems the object of an inordinate amount of talk these days. At least it was so at the recent Westweek, the trade show cum symposium that swirls annually around the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

Perhaps it was the balmy weather, coming after a few stormy weeks that made one restless, or that the ruminating, ramblings and rationalizations of the featured personalities sounded familiar, but the urge was to slip away from the discussions and wander through the showrooms to actually see, touch and use design.

On display "to the trade only" were the latest editions of chairs, desks and sofas; conference, coffee, dinner and all-purpose tables, wall systems, work stations, lighting fixtures, carpeting and almost everything imaginable that could lend life, function, detail and cost to an an interior space.

While the office chairs were comfortable, the conference tables varied and the work environments flexible, there appeared to be no particular radical departure in style, no unveiling of a new material or shade of pastel or color combination, nor a reshaping of a showroom, to stir excitement.

What turned out to be the most interesting display was the American premiere of an exhibit of 75 years of German furniture designs, principally from the Baden-Wurttemberg region around Stuttgart. Included were wonderful examples of the evolving influences of the Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Bauhaus movements.

And now that Westweek is over, the exhibit happily is open to the public, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Fridays, until April 26.

Though none of the designs was displayed, also of interest at Westweek was the announcement by Atelier International that with Cassina of Italy and in agreement with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, that it soon will be marketing reproductions of the architect's furniture designs.

As for the most engaging Westweek experience, it took place not at the Pacific Design Center but at the Esprit showroom at the northeast corner of Santa Monica and La Cienega boulevards. There, one morning, designer Joseph D'Urso, brimming with deserving pride, took waves of peers on a tour of his exquisitely crafted and delicately staged high-tech experience.

What others were trying to explain with words and photographs at the Westweek symposiums on "art, technology & design" a few blocks away, was on brilliant display in the play of light, color, texture and materials, and sense of space, in D'Urso's design. And of course Esprit is open to the public, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday until 6 p.m.

While interior design was being celebrated in West Hollywood, urban design once again was being brutalized downtown, in particular along a denuded Alameda Street in the vicinity of the city's historic El Pueblo park and Union Station.

On display there are the stumps of dozens of mature ficus trees that until a few weeks ago, had lent the area needed shade and grace, and for the rare turtledove a nesting ground. The rationale offered for the trees' destruction was that they had become a danger to pedestrians and motor vehicles.

One would think that judicious pruning and sensitive landscaping to accommodate the bulging roots could have corrected the situation. But once again, it appears that an unthinking bureaucracy was at work, this time the Union Pacific, Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads.

However, they could not have done it, or should not have done it, without the concurrence of the city.

There has been of late in the mayor's office as well as in the council chamber a growing awareness of the city's dwindling ambiance and fragile environment and a concern for urban design, at least judging from their statements.

But there still seems to be a gap between the rhetoric of urban design and the reality of the continued trashing of the city's streetscapes. And it is on the streets that the city's commitment to an improved quality of life will be tested, not in the reams of multicolored plans and flowery prose handed out at press conferences.

Meanwhile, the doves are looking for new homes and a Los Angeles that once was hailed as a garden city when the railroads were making a fortune selling land here is a little less habitable.

No doubt, if Joshua Freiwald was around he would have documented the destruction of the trees, and its effect on the cityscape and the passing citizenry. His sensitive photographs examining the shaping and misshaping of cities are on display through May 18 at UCLA's Wight Art Gallery. (Call 213-825-3264 for hours and tours.)

"The photographs reveal the incompleteness, the overzealousness, the grandiosity of the architects of this era, as well as the practicality, the efficiency and excessive speed of production of their buildings," declared UCLA professor and exhibit curator George Rand. No camera tricks on display here. Just honesty.

Though not always agreeing with its focus and opinions, and taking some exception to its design, I always looked forward to receiving Arts + Architecture magazine. Under the dedicated and determined editorial direction of Barbara Goldstein, there was always something in each issue to inform, engage and excite.

But there has been no issue for the last half year or so and little hope of one in the near future as the magazine is said to be suffering from a terminal financial illness. If this is unfortunately true, then it should be incumbent on the design community that Art + Architecture be laid to rest in peace, debt-free so that perhaps its spirit, and good will, will not be haunted.

Meanwhile, the urbanization of the West Coast continues to increase, as does the need for a greater public awareness of the critical role design plays in shaping lives and life styles. Art + Architecture had contributed to that awareness, and will be missed.

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