Building on the Past

Peter McQuaid last wrote for the magazine about a party by designer Kelly Wearstler.

Across a conference room table at their West Los Angeles offices in a converted warehouse, architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner are a study in contrasts. With his mane of brown hair, Radziner, wearing old Gucci jeans, beat-up Prada boots and a thermal pullover, comes across as the Zen half of this duo. Marmol, dressed in a starched white shirt, gray Italian slacks and a black zipper jacket, is sturdily built and full-featured, with closely cropped silver hair. He seems the more hyper and mercurial of the two.

They are both admittedly obsessive, however. “We’re looking to do buildings that are timeless, that have integrity and will last materially as well as aesthetically,” Radziner says. “That’s the only way we know how to do it. That general attitude drives everything. We build much of our work ourselves, and we want to build things that will endure in a city that isn’t really known for that.”

“We’d rather fail at perfection than succeed at mediocrity,” Marmol adds.

They’re pursuing that lofty ideal in a city more infamous for erasing its past with strip malls and gargantuan faux-Mediterranean boxes, but Marmol and Radziner have an eye trained on L.A.’s architectural heritage as well as its present and future. “There is really a willingness to continue to destroy artifacts from our past,” Marmol laments. “Every day we see important buildings being destroyed, and it’s a crime. It will hurt us culturally not to hang on to what it is that made what we are today.”


A growing number of design-conscious Angelenos--fashionistas such as Cameron Silver, John Ward, Chan Luu, journalist Lisa Eisner, designers Tom Ford and Trina Turk--hired the duo for their sense of history combined with a futuristic vision.

The “work” includes everything from fairly rigorous restorations of 20th century gems built by Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, Albert Frey and Frank Lloyd Wright. Original projects include the Costume National boutique, The Mark Taper Center’s Inner-City Arts school, offices for Propaganda Films, TWBA/Chiat/Day’s San Francisco headquarters, the TreePeople’s Center for Community Forestry in Beverly Hills and a day-care center at Los Angeles International Airport. They also have a healthy business in enhancing houses with good bones but fading complexions.

The firm, which has its own construction crew as well as a woodworking shop, also produces a line of furniture, consisting of Schindler designs as well as its own original pieces. This month, Cal State Long Beach is presenting a retrospective of their work.

“They get it,” says Silver, owner of Decades vintage clothing store, who describes himself as “their poorest client.”

What they “get,” clients and critics say, is an appreciation of L.A.’s formidable, but until recently unheralded, wealth of great architecture and the effect of good design--old and new--on the psyche of a city and its people.

In Silver’s case, the house in question was a neglected Schindler. “I didn’t want to live in a museum,” says Silver, who wanted a modern bathroom and kitchen. So the pair restored and updated those facilities in a way that maintains Schindler’s original mid-century vision.


“The cabinetry in those rooms is a homage to Schindler. They understand the fine line between living anachronistically and in a modern way. They can update but there’s reverence for the history of the house,” he says.

It’s an approach--”improving” a classic--that is not without some controversy in architectural circles. Such was the case with the Helen Rose House in Beverly Hills. Rose, a costume designer most famous for her work with Esther Williams, commissioned Buff, Straub and Hensman to build her a home in 1961. Nearly four decades later, Marmol/Radziner was commissioned by the new owners to, as they put it, “clarify” the design.

“The original structure was there,” Radziner says. “But the level of finish wasn’t as high as the client wanted it to be. The ideas of the house are right out there, it’s just a cleaner aesthetic. We took out the red Mexican tile and replaced it with white terrazzo, simplified some of the details and made it cleaner. The doors and windows are all new.” They replaced the oak cabinetry with white lacquer cabinets.

“Someone could walk into that house and believe it was always like that,” Radziner says. “I don’t want someone to say, ‘It’s a Marmol/Radziner house.’ ”

“What is most gratifying to us,” Marmol adds, “is that Don Hensman, [one of the original designers], liked what we did with the house, and he’s actually referred a client to us.”

Fashion designer Trina Turk and photographer husband Jonathan Skow got involved with Marmol/Radziner after a fire ate through their 1936 Streamline home in Palm Springs just as restoration was nearly finished. Faced with rebuilding, the couple turned to the architects, who had just completed work on the Kaufmann House, designed by Neutra, in Palm Springs.


“At the time,” Turk says, “my husband was transitioning from styling to photography and he became obsessed with the project. Fortunately, they [Marmol/Radziner] work at a certain quality level and they’re equally obsessive. They kept to the original design of the house, made it work for now, without making it look like a restoration done in the late ‘90s. People are pretty surprised to find out it’s 75% new construction.”

All that would be nice, but what really sets this duo’s work apart is the impeccable level of finish. Space, lighting, storage, finishes--no matter how simple--reflect a level of craftsmanship not often seen.

A stroll into the sleek Costume National boutique in Los Angeles confirms the commitment. The pair not only designed the interior, but also designed and built the display cases, shelving and lighting. The result is clean and disciplined, without the Stonehenge severity that plagues so many modernist/minimalist structures, particularly clothing boutiques.

John Ward, owner of the Three Dots clothing line, and his wife, jewelry designer Chan Luu, hired the firm to build their home in Rustic Canyon as well as Luu’s Los Angeles store, which features her jewelry and Ward’s clothing.

“The store project was an offshoot of the house,” says Ward, who credits Marmol and Radziner’s interpretative ability and their willingness to riff on the original. “We weren’t looking for something like Costume National. We knew they could do different interpretations of what people needed,” he says.

The result is a marriage of old-fashioned craftsmanship and clean modernism. “It’s new, but it has elements of naturalness,” he observes.


A walk through the couple’s soon-to-be-completed home is a different experience entirely. A series of boxes linked by bridges and perched on a steep grade, the house, with its clear walls is anything but old. Three years in the making, the home has, as Ward says, “a strong point of view.

“It’s a risk. We built a very unconventional house. We didn’t want something that’s neither here nor there, and I think they gave it to us.”

But Marmol and Radziner aren’t just about glam. They have done numerous projects for nonprofits and see that as part of their commitment to the city as a whole. They’re concerned by the erosion of public space and the erection of walls and fences. “We do schools and day-care centers where they really have to turn their back on the street, and I understand where our clients are coming from,” says Radziner. “It’s a much bigger issue in society, and the more it’s done, the harder it is to stop.”

“The same desire that makes us build walls makes us stop transportation,” Marmol says. “We don’t want the train coming out to West L.A. because it might link West L.A. with South L.A. and East L.A., and that’s seen as something negative.”

Both see the city fighting the inevitable.

“What we really need to do is create a bit more density in the city,” says Radziner. He and Marmol favor building second units onto existing single-family lots.

“Our political tendency is to down-zone to make things less dense,” Marmol says. “We’re going in the wrong direction. We need more flexibility. We’re not allowing the city to grow in a natural way.”