Design museums build themselves up

Times Staff Writer

Design and architecture buffs have two new spaces in which to explore their passion -- although neither venue is exactly new and each employs a certain latitude in using the term “museum.”

The more visible space is the A+D museum, a kind of high-class vagabond that has hung its hat, since its 2001 founding, in the stately 1893 Bradbury Building downtown, in a Santa Monica space for a single night, in the former Playboy Club building on the Sunset Strip and now in a new location across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The A+D museum, which is officially A+D Architecture and Design Museum>Los Angeles, is at 5900 Wilshire Blvd. in a building that previously housed the Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures.


“Design and architecture surround people all the time, every day,” says director Tibbie Dunbar, who came to the museum in December 2004 as its first and still only full-time employee.

(The place also has a president -- L.A. architect Stephen Kanner -- a board of trustees and a board of advisors, and a small army of volunteers. It does not, however, have a permanent collection.)

Dunbar says the new location “makes a lot of sense, sitting on Museum Row and across from the LACMA. It’s a much better, more trafficked area for us.”

A+D opened this month after being closed for almost a year.

The new space is 7,000 square feet, with 15-foot ceilings, large rectangular windows, newly sealed concrete floors and a gently industrial look in places.

“It’s an exposed ceiling; you see all the duct work and cables,” Dunbar says. Fountains buffer the building from Wilshire.

A+D’s current show is “New Blood: Next Gen,” which Dunbar calls L.A.’s “real emerging talent in architecture and landscape architecture.” The exhibition, which runs through Aug. 18, offered scaffolds to 39 design firms; some treat their scaffolds as large brochures, with promotional copy and scale models of recent projects.


Others are more eccentric: The firm of Mark Tessier Landscape turned its into a container for tree branches, with chalk provided to mark up its exterior. In another, a display screen shows architect Whitney Sander describing his ambition: “Nothing less than a new way of building houses.”

Above-ground figures such as Hernan Diaz Alonso and the firm Escher GuneWardena sit near lesser-known teams such as Workshop Levitas, which does most of its fabrication work on weekends and whose scaffolding includes instructions to “SIT HERE,” next to a book by Italo Calvino.

Dunbar, a native of Montreal who holds a master of fine arts degree and still works as an installation artist, says the museum’s mission -- to bring architecture and design to a broad swath of the public -- hasn’t changed. But she’s especially interested in “cross-pollination, between film, literature, the art scene -- making people see that they’re all connected,” as well as drawing audiences that don’t think of themselves as design aficionados.

On that note, she’s looking forward to a spring 2007 exhibition on NASA’s aerospace design which “will have a real broad-based appeal,” as well as upcoming shows on the work of Richard Meier and Louis Kahn.

If initial turnout means anything, the museum, which has started charging admission but survives mostly through membership, donations and in-kind contributions from volunteers, drew about 1,000 for its June 1 reopening, and almost 2,000 people to a June 9 party that followed events at LACMA and the nearby ACE Gallery.

MODAA Gallery

Less ambitious but appealing in its own, more focused way is the just-opened Museum of Design Art and Architecture Gallery, part of a new Modernist complex built and occupied by Studio Pali Fekete architects of Culver City. (The firm served as executive architects of the Getty Villa, helped restore the Greek Theater and is designing the new cultural center in Beverly Hills.)


Long housed in an old warehouse on South Robertson Boulevard (which included a much more modest exhibition space), the firm recently moved into its new space along Culver City’s Washington Boulevard, which has been recently revitalized by art galleries and chef-run restaurants.

Appropriately, when principal Judit Fekete designed the firm’s new 28,000-square-foot space, she and partner Zoltan Pali wanted not only a spacious office, lofts to rent out and a place to live -- they have two children together in addition to sharing the practice -- but also space for a gallery and restaurant as well.

“It just seemed like a natural thing,” Pali says of opening the gallery space in an area that also includes Blum & Poe, Western Project and others. “But the whole idea for us is never to sell work: We’re not interested in competing with the galleries.” (For the record, the whole complex -- offices, lofts and all -- is called the Museum of Design Art and Architecture.)

Without sales, the MODAA gallery -- which fills 2,000 square feet, has 20-foot ceilings and currently has an exhibition of works by L.A. abstract painter Charles Arnoldi on view -- has no clear revenue stream.

It also has no permanent collection and isn’t a museum in the strict sense of the term.

“In a way it’s a little bit of soft marketing,” says Pali, who explains that it has helped attract people to the architecture firm. “I don’t know if it’s directly led to work, but it doesn’t really matter. And we thought it would be fun to have a cafe next door -- a great community of food, art and architecture.”

“You’ve just described our lifestyle completely,” Fekete adds.

Still, after planning to run their own bistro next door, the two ended up renting out the space for the new restaurant Wilson, named for chef Michael Wilson, former chef at the now-defunct 5 Dudley in Venice and nephew of Beach Boy Brian Wilson.


As for the gallery, shows will rotate every few months and will range from painting and sculpture to exhibitions of unsung architects and even, Pali and Fekete hope, thematic shows in which several designers tackle a common theme.

Unlike A+D, the gallery has neither an official mission statement nor a clear financial plan.

“It allows us every three or four months to have a party,” Pali says. “That was the real reason.”


Design museums

What: A+D Architecture and Design Museum>Los Angeles, 5900 Wilshire Blvd.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Price: $5, $2.50 for students and seniors

Contact: (323) 932-9393;


What: MODAA Gallery, 8609 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 558-0902;