California dreamers

Times Staff Writer

In the eighth-floor library of the Pacific Electric Lofts, the 100-year-old landmark in downtown L.A. built by Henry Huntington, a group of 21st century California visionaries has gathered for a session of show and tell. Jacek Ostoya, an architect from Berkeley, examines Elizabeth Paige Smith's hollow acrylic Parsons table filled with yellow powdered pigment that clings and clumps to the interior surfaces. "It's fantastic," Ostoya says. "It's like having this cloud of color, what would be a big mess outside of the box, contained in a functional piece of art." Thinking outside the box is crucial for California furniture designers, who are often influenced by the wealth of Modernist architecture and the casual indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Here, they have the freedom to experiment with space, scale, materials and functionality, and to express their ideas in styles that include minimalism and extravagance. The seven California artists here represent a sophisticated talent pool that will keep the state on the design map in the years to come.


Maximum minimalism

At 40 he has already designed retail stores, airport facilities and restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, but architect Ostoya calls Mebel Furniture, his "micro architecture" business, his true passion. Along with his partner, millworker and Guggenheim Museum art installer Peter Breyshaw, Ostoya says their goal is "to make contemporary furniture with traditional New England techniques and craftsmanship."

The most interesting piece in their line is also the most deceptive and versatile. Composed of 20-inch-square walnut frames stacked onto steel rods, the Pivot screen is a room divider that "opens, closes, hides and reveals," Ostoya says. The individual modules can be arranged in a checkerboard fashion with spaces between the square frames that can be fitted with panels made from a variety of materials, including wood and rainbow-colored transparent or translucent plastic.

"Where I live it's always about the views," Ostoya says, "so it is a room divider that gives you the opportunity to create privacy or frame a view -- of the world outside or another part of your living space inside."

At Jules Seltzer Associates, the most established Los Angeles retailer of classic modern office and home furniture by manufacturers such as Herman Miller and Knoll, Mebel is a specialty line, available by inquiry.

"This is extremely well-made craftsman furniture," owner Grant Seltzer says. "They select their woods from sustainable forests and put love and feeling into every piece."

As a designer, Ostoya has the utmost respect for the glory days of midcentury design. The clean lines of his furniture hark back to Los Angeles' postwar Modernism, while the use of honest materials such as natural maple and walnut reference the 1960s studio furniture of Northern California.

"Successful design has a relationship to the landscape," he says. "California is all about living with nature, so we try to expose the beautiful character of the wood to evoke nature in every piece we build."

Mebel -- the name is the Polish word for furniture, a nod to Ostoya's ancestry -- was formed three years ago and made its debut at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York two years ago. The collection is distinguished by its simplicity of form -- long, low, rectilinear tables and benches as well as cubist chairs. Next year the company will introduce small-scale furniture under the imprint Mebel Baby.

The most common configuration of the customizable Pivot screen measures 98 inches wide and 80 inches tall and sells for $4,095. It and other pieces of Mebel Furniture can be ordered through My Own Space in La Jolla, (858) 459-0099, and Propeller in San Francisco, (415) 701-7767.

A catalog of Mebel pieces can be seen at Jules Seltzer, 8833 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 274-7243. For more information about Ostoya's company, call (415) 379-8689 or visit


Surfing a new conceptual wave

Born in Houston, raised in the Cayman Islands and schooled in fine arts at the University of Kansas, this L.A. transplant has been championed by Stefan Lawrence at his trendsetting contemporary furnishings gallery Twentieth. "Her work," he says, "perfectly straddles the line between art and design."

Of her latest home, Smith says, "There are such a wide variety of influences here. Los Angeles is an ADD society."

Attention deficit disorder notwithstanding, the city has responded well to Smith's stark white curvaceous Nude chairs and chaises shaped from fiberglass, as well as her monumental wooden dining tables covered in saturated tones of colored resin. Her designs have been purchased by Patricia Arquette, Kirsten Dunst and Ellen DeGeneres.

"The materials I use are more or less waterproof, raw but sophisticated," says Smith, an avid surfer who has adopted some of the technology of board shaping in her work. "I like to experiment with different combinations of processes and substances."

Her most arresting development is the Blow series, hollow clear acrylic forms that contain loose pigment powder, which is attracted to the inside surfaces of the plastic by static electricity. "The first ones were made with white powder," says Smith, indicating the origin of the table's tongue-in-cheek name. Although the low, largely see-through disc tables and square coffee and side tables appear to be as light and delicate as their creator, they are, in fact, intellectually and physically weighty.

Smith's Blow pieces make a statement, says David Rodgers of the upscale events design firm Rabin Rodgers. "When I am working on an event, I seek out pieces like this. The shapes are classic and timeless, but there is also a strong shock of vibrant color that is like adding an exclamation point to the room."

In the coming year, Smith plans to continue her exploration of materials for a different audience. Taking a cue from architect Frank Gehry, she has designed a line of sculptured corrugated cardboard lounging furniture for cats, priced from $220 on her website, "My work is becoming more abstract," says Smith, who has started to work on her own experimental films -- work that may seem wildly different, but "it's all part of the same creative process."

Pieces in the Blow series start at $1,140 and are available at Twentieth, 8057 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 904-1200;


Pan-Pacific pop artistry

"She's always on top of the next trend and seems to know what images -- be it flora or fauna, a feather or a chandelier -- people will want to look at, even before they do," says Brad Cook, owner of the Los Feliz home fashion store Show, which carries Ige's silk-screen print T-shirts.

What Ige brings to the table is an intricate update of traditional European marquetry, done with laser-cut Italian laminates instead of wood inlays. Her Chinois table, shown here, is 4 feet square on 13-inch stainless steel legs and features a masterful graphic interpretation of an Asian chrysanthemum print.

"The flowers and stems compose themselves within the square," she says. "If that sounds Zen, it probably is."

It is lso demonstrative of Ige's organic Pop Art approach, what she describes as "taking something mundane and giving it flair, resurrecting something from the past and applying a modern edge. Why cover up a decorative rug with a coffee table when you can elevate the pattern to the tabletop and put it on a simple rug or a bare wood floor?"

Ige, a Parsons School of Design graduate, came up with the idea while sipping coffee at a Formica-countered New York City diner.

"I love the idea of doing an old-school craft in a thoroughly modern way. The result is that it is tactile -- that when you touch it, you can feel how it was put together rather than running your finger across a printed surface."

Ige's original designs were largely Op Art geometric; moving into intricate floral patterns proved so cost- and labor-intensive that she opened a retail studio to showcase her eye-catching conversation-piece furniture. The store quickly became filled with Ige's other handiwork: printed fabrics and clothing and couture stuffed animals.

"With me, form always follows fashion," she says. "Fashion moves so fast that it's more exciting to be designing for the home in that kind of cycle." After designing Pacific Island floral tables, she recently moved into a style that she calls "new Victorianism," with prints that emulate turn-of-the-century cut-paper silhouettes and needlepoint cameos.

"Design is always evolving, and I don't want to get pigeonholed," she says. "I believe in adding something special to the vocabulary."

The Chinois table is available by custom order, from $4,800, at Ige, 7382 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 939-2788;


From Hollywood Modern to

Big Sur realism

As environmental design students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Lawson, 33, and Fenning, 38, opened Rm. 107 nearby, a vintage furniture gallery that gave them a retail platform to build their own furniture line. Their collection, which debuted in 2002, emulated the usual Modernist heroes while focusing on indoor-outdoor furniture. Their latest designs, named after Inland Empire cities, explore a new rustic territory.

The Redlands table, shown here, is made from a free-form slab of reclaimed Northern California redwood set on a cruciform acrylic base. It is a piece that vaults forward from early 1950s design to the crafty, crunchy look of the late 1960s.

Unlike the overly shellacked driftwood tables with glass tops from decades past, the Redlands sets the wood on a clear pedestal, a design that references the enormously popular work of woodworker George Nakashima and New York Modernist Vladimir Kagan.

"We like the juxtaposition of materials that are organic and slick," Lawson says. "L.A. is like that too, a combination of the natural and the plastic."

Interior designer A J Bernard says he "always finds intriguing things in their store."

"They have such a great eye for vintage Modern furniture and understand how to make new pieces that work with the midcentury classics they have always sold. A lot of contemporary furniture looks cheap next to vintage; theirs never does."

Although the team also creates architectural furniture and accessories using stainless steel, powder-coated metal, maple and white lacquer, much of their recent inspiration comes from visits to the Sea Ranch enclave in Sonoma County.

"That's where you see the quintessential 1970s redwood-sided California homes," Fenning says. "It's an ecologically sensitive vacation area, and we are influenced by that idea in our work. We gravitate to organic shapes and materials."

Lawson and Fenning, in addition to designing furniture and operating two retail spaces, have a thriving business decking out Hollywood production offices and fashion showrooms in Los Angeles' garment district. They have used the Redlands table in some of those commissions, but it is, they agree, an acquired taste.

"You have to combine the rustic look with slicker, more contemporary pieces," Lawson says. "If you do a whole room in it, it starts to become a lodge."

The Redlands table sells for $1,850 at the Lawson-Fenning store at 7257 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 934-0048. Rm. 107 is at 174 S. De Lacey Ave., Pasadena; (626) 432-4867. For more information, go to


Movie-star allure with a French accent

Five years ago he was best known as a French novelist, the author of "When Mary Was Miriam" -- an account, he says, "of Jesus' mother as a Jewish woman."

A friend asked what he was going to do when he stopped writing provocative books. "I told him I have always loved antiques," De Merry, 55, recalls with a gravelly Gallic growl. "So I thought, well, I will reproduce them."

With his partner, Christian D. Maroselli, De Merry began with exquisite versions of traditional French Deco club chairs in fine leathers and crystal chandeliers and bronze sconces, which became the basis of a line sold through their La Cienega Boulevard antiques store and recently added to the prestigious Holly Hunt showrooms in Chicago, New York, Miami and the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

"His work is unique because it merges neoclassical and Deco in an elegant 1940s style," says Holly Hunt lighting manager Sarah Henry. "It is transitional, which means it works with both traditional and contemporary designs."

De Merry recently did the interiors of shoe designer Jimmy Choo's London flat. This year he is dialing up the old Hollywood glamour in extravagant new pieces notable for their ball-gown curves, mirrored surfaces, parchment cladding and gilded finishes. They are very much in tune with the ornamentation and embellishment that is becoming a major trend in home decor. Kelly Wearstler, one of the architects of the Hollywood Regency revival, ordered custom versions of De Merry's signature pieces for her redesign of the cafe at Bergdorf Goodman in New York.

The Rimbaud console, shown here, is a gracefully scalloped black lacquer table with silver-plated bronze feet and a drawer pull in the shape of a Medusa head. At $8,345, it is, perhaps, the black tie-tails-and-spats version of a vanity table. Echoing the work of designers such as Jean-Charles Moreux and Serge Roche, who in the 1930s and '40s reinterpreted classic design motifs from the 18th century, De Merry's contemporary spin includes naming the Rimbaud after the legendarily hedonistic Parisian poet.

"The inspiration is not only French but also Hollywood designers like Billy Haines," he says. "Movie star glamour is not always Jean Harlow."

It is, however, certainly Jean de Merry who says, "You cannot worry about how much a piece costs or whether it matches your other furniture. If you buy it because you love it, it is all going to work." 927 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (310) 289-0991;


Punk functionalism

"I don't conform," declares this raven-haired rock 'n' roll carpenter, who doubled as a swashbuckler while building sets on the sequel to "Pirates of the Caribbean." "But my furniture does. It conforms to functional Modernism. 'Less is more' is my philosophy."

Casny puts the fun into functional with the Flippertop table. Constructed of a wood base with a cantilevered top, the $750 piece, shown here, references Bauhaus with a twist: The top has colored plastic laminate finishes on both sides. It can be unscrewed, flipped over and remounted to create a new look for the table, and by extension, the room that it's in.

Although it relates to the geometry of Case Study architecture, Casny believes that the table is by no means limited to contemporary homes.

"It's a very versatile piece," he says. The base is available in blond wood and walnut, which has a beachy feel. The tabletops, which can be customized, also reflect his affection for California, his home for a dozen years.

"I like palm trees, blue skies and orange sunsets," he adds. "Not drab East Coast or European color palettes."

Helene Ige, who hired Casny to build the sales counter at her Beverly Boulevard boutique, calls the Flippertop design "quite imaginative, something that is functional, transformable and stylish, which is quite difficult to achieve these days without looking retro."

Casny, 36, a third-generation stone sculptor from Switzerland, began an apprenticeship at 16 in Bern. In a case of Swiss boy meets American girl, he moved to Los Angeles and fell into carpentry for motion pictures.

"I fell in love with woodworking," he says. "As opposed to sculpture, I discovered that I like adding things instead of subtracting."

The inspiration for the Flippertop came from a visit to Tokyo.

"Because of the small spaces, everything in Japanese homes is multifunctional," he says. "I was very influenced by the idea of furniture that can be put away or turned into something else."

His new project: a Murphy bed-style table mounted to the wall. "You can pull it down," he says, "but once it's back against the wall, the tabletop becomes a piece of art."

The Flippertop can be ordered through Show, 1722 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 644-1960. For information:

David A. Keeps can be reached at

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