San Juan Capistrano Hopes to Build West’s First Design Museum

If all goes according to plan in the next few years, the city with the famous mission will be the home of a new tourist attraction: the West Coast’s first design museum and study center.

The plan, a project of Libros y Artes, the cultural support group connected with the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, is to divide the museum and center among several buildings, all within a stone’s throw of one another.

Two of these buildings, now part of an antique store, will be available by next summer. The third, Michael Graves’ addition to the library he designed, should be completed in the next couple of years. The fourth building is an Art Deco structure currently used by the city as a continuation school, which may take longer to acquire because the school will have to be relocated.

Five roomfuls of 17th- and 18th-Century English and Irish furniture willed to the museum by Palos Verdes resident Melville Martin will form the core of the collection. Martin has specified that pieces from the collection may be exhibited during his lifetime.


The museum and center will also contain a 20th-Century decorative arts collection, a specialized library, temporary exhibits and, possibly, a decorative arts school.

Funding for the project will come mostly from private and design industry sources. Libros y Artes, which will manage the museum, receives $10,000 annually from the city. The group has one paid staff member--and an army of dedicated volunteers.

One is Gep Durenberger, president of the Decorative Arts Council. “It seems that architecture and the decorative arts are just a natural here,” he said in a recent phone conversation from his San Juan Capistrano antique shop.

Indeed, the city, in addition to commissioning the Graves building, has commissioned a new city hall from Charles Moore, another leading American postmodern architect. At the other end of the time line, the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society is committed to restoring local 18th and 19th-Century landmarks.


Libros y Artes’ original concept, Durenberger said, “was to offer a wide range of cultural experiences. We’ve tried (exhibiting) everything from rare books to films to valentines and doll houses.

“After a couple of years of soul-searching, we decided that if we are to make a contribution to culture, one area very lacking (in attention) is the decorative arts. Because of our interest, we were made the beneficiary of (Martin’s) outstanding collection. . . . So then we decided (public) interest was boiling over, and we better not wait until ‘someday.’ ”

By next summer, two of the buildings that house G.R. Durenberger Antiquaria on Camino Capistrano will be installed with model rooms. (At Durenberger’s death, title to the property will be transferred to the city.) Graves’ addition to the library, expected to be in place by 1989, will contain out-of-print books on architecture and the decorative arts from private collections promised to the institution. The addition will complete the west side of the library, where a temporary arrangement of trellised gazebos has proved to be a security hazard.

Acquiring the Art Deco building, which would showcase the 20th-Century collection, is “kind of a domino thing,” according to Councilman Gary L. Hausdorfer, chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency. “As part of the deal which led to the library and City Hall, the city has promised to build a sports facility for the high school and relocate certain educational facilities. At the present time there is no specific timing (for the relocation of the school).”

Whenever it finally comes together, the museum will fill a significant educational need. It will be “the logical place to study furniture construction, textiles, wallpaper--all those things we live with on a daily basis,” Durenberger said. “We have had tremendous support from the design industry and from fabric companies. (They) realize the need for education . . . (Many) young decorators haven’t a clue (of the difference) between Chippendale and Louis XIV.

“We hope to reinterpret what ‘museum quality’ means,” said Durenberger. “Not just royal patronage. We’re more interested in . . . (displaying rooms from) homes of the more prosperous upper middle class.

“We want to be as academic as we can--but still lighthearted. The whole issue of hushed conversation in front of a piece of furniture . . . is a joke.”