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His imagination -- uncorked

Times Staff Writer

PLEASE, sit down, he says politely. Make yourself comfortable. And so you do. You follow Reza Feiz’s welcoming palm as it sweeps toward an empty chair, a chair that looks and feels unlike any you’ve seen before.

It’s a minimalist cube, stark and sensual, with a cutout back that is monolithic in proportion, yet elegant in form. It hovers above the floor, the secret to apparent weightlessness held only by a discreet walnut base. Surprisingly, it’s comfortable.

But none of that fully explains what sets the chair apart. The magic, you soon find out, is the cork.

A chair covered in cork seems implausible, if not impossible, but after two seconds you realize it’s true: thousands of airy wood cells affixed with heat to a cloth backing -- a soft, supple, organic patchwork. You run both hands over the armrests and think, So this is what stardom feels like.

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Cork is what first got Feiz’s work in magazines, in stores such as Barneys New York, in celebrity homes. It has become his signature look. And now it has become his biggest question: How does an up-and-coming designer make his name with a breakout piece without getting pigeonholed by it?

“Meg Ryan’s not going to be the cute girl anymore. Well, I don’t want to be typecast as ‘the cork guy,’ ” says Feiz, 37, his eyes wandering to other pieces in the living room -- bold designs realized in stainless steel, glass, wood and, yes, cork. “I never set out to say, ‘This all would look great in cork.’ Cork is just a material. I care about much more than that.”

As he leads you through his Studio City house, you understand what he means. You see a house full of ambition and determination, imagination and innovation. But you also see a sweet success story, that of a struggling actor who became a furniture designer largely by accident, and along the way transformed a rundown ranch house into the chic Modern nest he and his wife always wanted.

As Sheila Griffiths tells it, the three-bedroom house for sale on the Valley side of Mulholland Drive was beyond a mess. She couldn’t comprehend why her husband was so thrilled. The previous owner was a “sort of senile” man, she says, who was obsessed with chandeliers and had rigged the house with “weird, crazy” wiring that posed a fire hazard. The carpeting was not only orange and shag, but also stained -- by the homeowner’s dog and by the homeowner himself, who had a favorite corner of the living room that he marked as his territory.

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“I just didn’t have a vision for it,” Griffiths says, laughing at her understatement. “But Reza, he did have this vision. He knew it could be this beautiful, finished thing if he could just get his hands on it.”

When competing bidders on the house fell out of escrow four years ago, Feiz got his chance. He and Griffiths bought the property and, after a year and a half of renovations, the dated ranch house emerged as a bright white shadow of its former self.

The gray and black volcanic rock exterior is gone, replaced with smooth, hand-troweled stucco. Front windows and garage door panels employ an opaque glass -- two sheets of clear glass sandwiched around a white film that provides privacy while still transmitting natural light.

You’ll see no vestiges of the partial wall that once cluttered the entry, just a clear path into the living room, sunlit and airy, which opens to the backyard through an expanse of glass. The double-sided fireplace has shed its volcanic rock facade too, a polished stucco finish providing a clean slate.

And that shag? It’s long gone, the concrete slab underneath buffed smooth and stained black.

But what truly defines the space are the furnishings, which chart Feiz’s evolution as a designer. You see the two cork-covered BBC club chairs that launched his career in 2003, the result of his quest to combine a dynamic form with upholstery that had never been used before. Today they sell for $2,300 apiece. These are prototypes, early versions weakened by flaws that Feiz later addressed. But to the designer, they are family -- “my children not yet grown up,” he says.

A stereo cabinet is a portrait of simplicity, with an alcove for just one component, the amplifier, and thoughtful consideration of the electronic music age.

“Everybody seems to have their iPods with them, so when we have a dinner party, everyone lines up their iPods here,” he says, pointing to the stainless steel cabinet top. “There’ll be seven or eight iPods, all taking turns in the dock. It’s fun.”

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The heart of the house is the dining table: a 4-by-8-foot plane of beautifully finished walnut, set atop 4-inch-wide legs of solid stainless steel. It’s Feiz’s favorite piece, and one that likely will never be reproduced for sale because of the extraordinary width: Commercial planers can’t process lumber that wide, he says.

“No matter how many people you add, they just all seem to fit,” Griffiths says. “We’ve had so many wonderful dinner parties, so many wonderful memories around that table. By the end of the night, you have bottles of wine and all these plates, and the table just seems able to handle it all.”

It’s no mistake that such a modern house feels so warm and welcoming, says Richard Klein, publisher of Surface magazine, which in 2003 heralded Feiz as a designer to watch. “There is a true poetic minimalism to his work,” Klein says, “without being at all cold.”

WHEN Feiz and Griffiths met in the early ‘90s in Washington, D.C., minimalism wasn’t a choice but an unfortunate necessity. He had grown up in the city and was studying acting at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts and bartending at night. She was earning a pittance as an inner-city teacher and moonlighting as a waitress at the same restaurant where Feiz worked. They fell in love, got engaged and moved to New York, where they scraped together a humble existence in a 500-square-foot apartment with practically no furniture.

It was Griffiths who landed the first break, a job as a producer on “Politically Incorrect,” which brought the couple to Los Angeles. They lived in an apartment off Crescent Heights Boulevard, then moved to a small house near Universal City while Feiz tried to develop his career as an actor.

His most promising call came from casting executive Marc Hirschfeld, who wanted Feiz to audition for a bit part in “Seinfeld.” “I was supposed to play a cabbie who tells Jerry and Kramer that Kramer can’t have chicken in the cab,” Feiz says.

The problem? The Iranian-born Feiz -- already urged by his agent to change his name and not get typecast in stereotypical Middle Eastern parts -- was supposed to play the cabbie with a thick foreign accent.

“I was too cocky,” Feiz says. He panicked, fearing that this one scene could ruin his career as a serious actor. “At that age, everyone thinks he can be the next De Niro,” he says, rolling his eyes.

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So at that moment, seated at a table with Hirschfeld and “Seinfeld” executive producer Larry David, facing the biggest opportunity of his acting career, Feiz did the only thing he thought he could. He walked away, settling for commercial work for Taco Bell, Honda and Coca-Cola, among others.

Griffiths got bad news of her own: “Politically Incorrect” was canceled -- on the same day escrow closed on their Studio City house. With the couple unable to afford fine vintage furnishings or contemporary Italian decor, Feiz channeled his artistic energy into creating his own. His first dining chairs looked great but were pitched too far forward. “Our dinner guests were practically falling onto their food,” Feiz says, still wincing at the thought.

He learned from those mistakes, and eventually friends and acquaintances encouraged Feiz to find an audience not for his acting but for his design work. So he did, sourcing materials and finding fabricators on his own, starting his own brand called Phase (www.phasedesignonline.com), then getting his work into Los Angeles retail outlets such as Orange, then Blackman Cruz, and finally the fine art and furniture gallery Twentieth. Providing advice and encouragement along the way was his older brother, Khodi Feiz, co-founder of an Amsterdam design studio whose clients include Alessi and Cappellini.

“Four or five years ago, I noticed a change,” Khodi says. “I think L.A. did a lot for him in terms of the ‘50s architecture, the modernism. A light bulb started to burn.”

Today the house is filled with not only symbols of Feiz’s success as a designer but also the sweet relics of the journey there -- from a time when, as Griffiths says, “we started with absolutely nothing.”

The platform bed with floating side tables in the guest room is something Feiz found in pieces on the street, when they lived in the Crescent Heights apartment years ago. He sanded, stained and reassembled the piece into what now looks like a classic piece of midcentury furniture, something they have kept for 10 years. “No matter how successful we may become, I never want to let it go, because that’s Reza for you,” says Griffiths, now an executive producer of “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

When the couple couldn’t afford a complete kitchen remodel, Feiz improvised. He left the existing cabinets and countertops and found a supplier who could custom-cut panels of stainless steel. Now the entire space is sheathed in sleek stainless, with new orange Formica cabinet doors adding a punch of color.

The home office is a converted bedroom, its closet doors removed to create an alcove for a desk and computer. An artful but inexpensive Artemide fixture proves, Feiz says, that interesting lighting can add personality without great expense.

It’s here in the office where past, present and future meet. Calls come in from magazines wanting to photograph Feiz’s work. Off to the side is Feiz’s Pose chair, the model that a furniture showroom says fashion designer Tom Ford purchased. And in the middle of the room is a coffee table, its center cutout filled with a removable seating cube upholstered in -- what else? -- cork.

TYPECASTING can be the bane of artists. Sculptors, fashion designers, furniture designers -- many make a splash with a particular motif only to drown in it later when the desire to grow creatively succumbs to the inertia inherent in success. Tony Whitfield, chairman of the product design department at Parsons the New School for Design in New York, says changing impressions or expectations is out of an artist’s control. “Sometimes it’s just sticking it out and being committed to your work.” Whitfield says.

Just because an artist gains wider recognition for his varied talents doesn’t necessarily mean he’s evolving as a designer. “Look at Karim Rashid,” Whitfield says. “These days his designs are as much about recognizing Karim in the product as anything else. It’s not really about how the design changes how we live.”

“Who designed the honey dipper? Who designed the stapler? The paper clip?” Whitfield asks, adding that the best designers leave a mark by being practical and relevant, not just trendy.

It’s a message taken to heart by Feiz, who settled on cork cloth not only for its appearance but also its eco-friendliness, comfort and resiliency to stains.

“I want to be known for my designs, not a material, but it’s hard.” Cork, he says, has become “a bit of a security blanket.” Indeed, it’s hard to let go of past work when top interior designers such as Brad Dunning are showing interest.

“The cork is an organic look,” says Dunning, who chose the water-resilient pieces for the ivory and marble bathroom of a celebrity client, whom he declined to identify. “They’re sweet little chairs with a really nice presence.”

But clearly Feiz is ready to move on. He pulls out a notebook filled with mad sketches: a chaise that looks like it’s from the 22nd century; towering Modernist planters that elevate potted plants to eye level; a faucet set inside a sink basin, so the countertop remains dry when you turn off the water.

“It’s very contagious,” he says of the design bug. “Once it comes into your pores, you can’t really turn it off.”

The metaphor is echoed by Karolina Waclawiak, manager of Twentieth.

“His excitement about design is infectious,” she says. “We have some artists who haven’t come up with new things in years, but Reza is constantly designing, coming up with new ideas.”

Griffiths says that at least once a week she comes home to a new piece of furniture or some new object that Feiz has designed -- perhaps a vase with a fresh blossom, or a stunning photograph he has taken.

“Some mornings I’ll wake up and find him in the garage in his underwear or his pajamas,” Griffiths says with more admiration than embarrassment. “Some amazing light is coming through the garage door, and he’s taking a picture of a flower. His mind is always moving, always trying to capture beauty or wanting to design something interesting.”

Khodi Feiz says his brother is just beginning to find his own design voice -- “his own handwriting, so to speak, his own alphabet.”

“It takes a lot of courage to do something in a field in which you’re not formally trained,” Khodi says. “I find that very remarkable. That basic naivete helps him to create something that is very personable, very much for himself.”

As proof of his intent not to rest on past success, Feiz taps his hands on the cork club chairs that launched his career. He runs his hands over the surreal bark cloth and says he wants to give them a new skin -- a different upholstery, something that isn’t cork.

Don’t they have sentimental value? you ask. Don’t you want them to keep their cork forever? Quite the contrary, Feiz says. “I like them too much for that, so I’m going to dress them up. I’m going to buy them a new suit.”

Craig Nakano can be reached at craig.nakano@latimes.com.


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