L.A.'s dream team

Special to The Times

Adam Blackman and David Cruz, owners of the antiques and design store Blackman Cruz, are not design snobs, far from it, but they nevertheless want it understood: They don't sell Eames chairs. Don't ask about the steel industrial furniture craze they ignited in L.A. back in the early '90s, either. They're over it. And as long as they're clearing things up, they're not an item. Blackman is straight. Cruz isn't.

But when it comes to business, they agree they're a match made in heaven, turning a shared eye for the fabulous into one of the city's most influential showrooms for statement-making furniture, art and objects. Utter the words Blackman Cruz and even the grandest titans of interior design start grasping for superlatives.

Monday, the partners will celebrate their 10th anniversary in business with a huge in-store bash. They've inaugurated the occasion with a run of 3,000 full-color, photo-filled brochures (with a portrait by the celebrity and fashion photographer Matthew Rolston) that perfectly captures the jauntiness and refinement of their aesthetic approach. Of those, only 500 will contain invitations to the party. "We've invited our best clients -- along with people we love who have never bought a darned thing," says Blackman.

Inside their La Cienega Boulevard shop is a world where a mint-condition midcentury Italian love seat mingles with a 130-year-old doctor's scale, where the quirky and quintessentially elegant keep intimate company, and where the everyday is transformed into the exquisite.

"Adam and David redefine L.A. style each morning at 10 a.m.," says Judith Lance, senior associate for Studio Sofield in Los Angeles, the design firm known for the streamlined spin it gives to interiors, from houses to Gucci boutiques.

Blackman sees it in slightly simpler terms. "There's enough competition for beautiful things in the world," he says. "I want what's different. I want things that excite me." It's an excitement shared by clients who are more like Blackman Cruz groupies, eager to get dibs on that 14-foot clock from a Chicago office building that they had to cut the ceiling to fit into the store, that French foosball game table from the 1930s, or those marble bathtubs that Blackman is always on the lookout for at antiques shows.

The fact that the 19th century Venetian bar mirror has a $15,000 price tag does little to deter the anticipation. They still come, usually in droves. In contrast to the museum hush of most antiques shops, this is one of the few that actually bustles. Regulars include everyone from Hollywood Regency reviver Kelly Wearstler to modernist architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner. Brad Pitt frequents the shop. So does Joe Pytka, director of commercials and owner of the restaurant Bastide, who comes in about every other month, scribbles a list of must-haves in silence and has his people deal with the details. Philip Johnson, a window dresser for Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, uses the store as a prop house, like the time when he borrowed two life-size mechanical ostriches for an off-kilter Vera Wang display.

"Blackman Cruz teaches designers to see what we've been trained to miss," says interior decorator Jay Holman, who consistently relies on the store for the unexpected. "I bought an 18th century Italian mirror there. The gilding was coming off and the frame was coming off. But it was extraordinary. It was the sort of thing most 'fine' antiques stores would have restored and sold for a lot more. I stuck it in the living room of an old Spanish house and the room needed nothing else."

Personality-wise, Blackman and Cruz are a classic case of opposites attracting. Blackman, 41, exhibits a wildly energetic enthusiasm, his thoughts spilling forth in a rapid-fire manner. Cruz, 51, is courtly, reserved and measures his words. Blackman is romantically unattached at the moment. Cruz is in a long-term relationship. Blackman has a degree in business. Cruz studied art.

On most days at the 3,800-square-foot showroom, you'll find Blackman, the New Jersey-raised front-of-the-house half of the team, chatting with clients about things like that beautifully battered 10-foot-long English leather sofa he found in San Francisco. Take a peek in the back room, behind the aluminum architectural panel, however, and you'll likely see Cruz at his desk, talking on the phone with all the mystery of a worshipped university professor who's hard to catch in the halls. "It's impossible to get him away from his desk," says Blackman. "Adam loves to talk," counters Cruz.

"They're like Astaire and Rogers," says Holman. "Adam has the showmanship; David is the aesthete. It's about the two of them together."

Their different styles find middle ground on the cement sales floor, where Cruz's more classical bent meets Blackman's fascination with the supersized, the out there, and occasionally the macabre. Mix the two together in artfully arranged vignettes throughout the store and their strange alchemy turns into a singular statement.

Behind the seamless mix of styles and eras, the store functions more as a collective than a partnership: Blackman buys and sells his own pieces, as does Cruz. Profits are not pooled, and each maintains his own approach to buying, pricing and selling.

"They balance each other so brilliantly in such a chic way," says designer Madeline Stuart, whose sophisticated-with-a-twist style is a favorite with A-list celebrities. "Tension in design helps things from becoming harmoniously dull. There's humor, spark and style that you can't find anywhere else in the country."

Even their own line of furniture and decorative pieces is run like a collective, with Blackman and Cruz each designing and selling their own pieces. The first collection, introduced in 1998, featured 21 pieces (store manager Lika Moore designed one of the line's bestsellers, the Tri-Ball lamp). This year, they introduced a new, more disparate and whimsical line in which the owners' styles are even further defined. The bat-shaped bronze incense holder and the hippopotamus-footed leather ottoman? That would be Blackman's brainchild. The classically proportioned cone lamp and the Mission-style adjustable oak chair? Easy.

But even if Cruz is by nature more attracted to a pair of Danish club chairs from the '40s while Blackman is more drawn to that enormous Sputnik light, both are staunchly devoted to mining less-familiar pieces from the past. Hence the Eames aversion. Consider it design beyond reach. Both would rather pioneer new territory with a lesser-known designer than repeat what they've already covered. "We're not going to become millionaires in the business anyway," says Cruz. "The fun part is finding new pieces."

Each goes about acquiring those new pieces in his own way as well. Blackman lives for the hunt, deep in the trenches of the largest antiques fairs in the United States. "You get up at four in the morning and you're going until eight at night," says Blackman, who communicates with a team of helpers with walkie-talkies during fair time. "You stop for food if you can. It's heaven."

In contrast, Cruz, who also speaks Italian and Spanish, works primarily with European dealers whom he visits three or four times a year. "I'm too old to get up that early," says Cruz. "I've made friendships with dealers. You go and have a drink and take a look at the shop."

Their methods reflect their past: Blackman's cites A.N. Abell Auction Co., one of L.A.'s largest auction houses, that he says sells "everything from washing machines to $100,000 paintings," as a primary influence. He spent three years as an estate buyer, and during that time he became able to spot the glint of originality amid truckloads of everyday objects.

"I learned at Abell's that certain things naturally kind of standout," says Blackman. "I started to know what was unusual and cool."

Cruz, on the other hand, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and studied graphic and interior design in Florence and London before moving to Los Angeles, where he received a master's degree in fine arts from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. A self-proclaimed history buff, he has always been fascinated with antiques.

The two met in the early '90s when they were both selling furniture at the now-defunct Santa Monica Antique Market and pooled their talents at a collective on Robertson Boulevard. From there they opened Blackman Cruz, where they first sold mostly midcentury industrial steel furniture when it was still a novelty. For Cruz and Blackman, however, that novelty was short-lived.

"We didn't want to be known as the guys with the steel furniture," says Blackman. "And we haven't done one specific thing since then."

Today, they've built a business out of dodging trends and inadvertently starting others. "We create our own competition," says Blackman. By the time Blackman and Cruz have discovered and had their fill of a less-heralded midcentury designer, chances are the auction houses are just catching on.

"From seeing the amount of stuff I saw at Abell's, I learned that when you start seeing the same thing over and over, it gets dull. It loses its sparkle," says Blackman. "We even get a little tired of pieces from our own collection. A lot of the stuff we made we've stopped doing."

It's a standard they take beyond the store and into their homes. Cruz lives in a minimalist 1939 Paul Laszlo-designed home in Whitley Heights with his partner of 20 years, Richard Hochberg, a theater director and actor. Aside from painting the exterior a deep, almost muddy gray-green and turning an upstairs room into a yoga studio of sorts, they've done little to the 2,800-square-foot house. "I don't want it to be really decorated and designy," says Cruz. "I don't want it precious. I want to put my feet on all the surfaces."

Cruz exercises expert restraint, leaving rooms looking relaxed and almost unfinished, with just enough objects in them so that they aren't drowning in design. In the living room, a simple arrangement includes a pair of white shag sofas from the '40s on either side of a Paul Laszlo coffee table, set in front of the fireplace, where a pair of 19th century brass Buddha-hand andirons bring in a sense of play. Likewise in the dining room, a Deco-style Charles Dudouyt French dining table from the '40s with French chairs from the '30s are virtually unchallenged by other pieces. In the bedroom, a pair of Renato Toso lamps from the '60s keep company with a heavily ornamented 1920s Bugatti opium chair that Cruz admits is usually covered in clothes.

Cruz's laissez-faire attitude toward his house contrasts with Blackman's approach to his own. Perched high in the mountains of Brentwood, the 1950 A. Quincy Jones cinder-block and redwood structure has been the focus of much of Blackman's attention during the last five years. Where Cruz has left floors a little scuffed and bathrooms a little outdated, Blackman has executed a top-to-bottom renovation.

With contractor Rick Cortez of RAC Design Build, whom Blackman speaks of in the reverential terms usually reserved for architects, he restored the home to its original indoor/outdoor condition while updating the kitchen and bathrooms.

No detail was overlooked: He had the heater vents copper plated, designed a three-part folding mirror for the bathroom and took an entire day to place three rocks in the rectangular fish pond outside the study. "I wanted it to be poetry," says Blackman.

With just as much care, Blackman has furnished the house to respond to the architecture. There's barely anything on the walls. Instead, the focus is on huge panes of glass that look onto trees and the garden. The furniture, mostly Italian pieces from the '40s and '50s, occasionally softens the austerity of cement floors and cinder-block walls, but rarely screams for attention. And, of course, there's the tension between the unexpected and the elegant. In the study, wooden louver blinds from a dental office keep company with a stunning Fritz Hansen Seagull chair from 1968.

Of all the objects, however, Blackman's pride and joy is his Dan Johnson-designed bronze Gazelle dining set, with brass and caned chairs and a marble-topped table that together "cost more than my car."

The set was made in the '50s after the late Johnson, a Los Angeles-based designer, moved to Italy. Only 150 pieces of the set were shipped to the U.S. and about 50 of those were destroyed in transit. With only 100 pieces remaining, they're remarkably hard to find in bronze (many more were made in aluminum), appearing rarely at auction and even more rarely in shops. As such, it's the quintessential Blackman and Cruz piece: created by a lesser-known designer whose look has yet to be appropriated by Pottery Barn, and made with luxurious materials and unexpected lines.

Blackman was able to purchase six of these dining chairs, along with three lounges and a marble-topped table from AK Eleven 14, an antiques shop on Abbot Kinney owned by his longtime friend Ken Erwin. He considered it an exceptional stroke of luck at the time, but one that was later repeated when another six chairs and a table were brought to the shop. That set went to Brad Pitt -- for his patio.

This year, the Gazelle chair graced the cover of the coveted Phillips, de Pury and Luxembourg auction catalog, as sure a sign as any that Blackman Cruz is already hot on the trail of the next small thing.

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