Mastering the material

Special to The Times

At the trendy Suki 7 restaurant-bar in Westlake Village, tipplers might feel as if they've been launched into deep space, passing spinning galaxies. Or that they've plunged into the ocean amid amoeba-like creatures.

It's not the martinis. It's the decor.

The back wall is a dramatic expanse of black glass embedded with hundreds of oval swirls -- translucent slices of natural agate, backlit and glowing.

The decorative panels are the handiwork of Rachel Hoffman and Mike Skura, who run Livinglass of San Clemente.

The designer and her husband, a former architect and engineer, have poured their resources into designing and developing high-end glass for cutting-edge projects.

The pair often work side by side with clients, such as Davis Krumins, the designer responsible for Suki 7. Together, they play with the placement of the organic materials -- semiprecious stones, orchids, grasses and the like -- Livinglass specializes in.

"We are designers first and businesspeople second," Hoffman said.

That hasn't stopped the 15-employee firm from projecting sales of $5 million this year, up from $1 million in 2006.

The design duo expect revenue to grow again next year as they add a more affordable line of decorative panels as well as furniture and lighting that incorporate their high-end art glass.

"What makes these guys different is they work together with the designer to come up with unique, totally new concepts," said Krumins, a principal in Davis Ink, a design firm in Newport Beach that specializes in hip clubs, restaurants and hotels.

Livinglass' work appears in other chic destinations such as Nobu Fifty Seven restaurant in Manhattan, the Wynn Macao resort in China and, closer to home, Krumins-designed decor at Chapter 8 in Los Angeles and San Diego's Stingaree.

Sixty panels of the company's burnt-orange kimono flame pattern, which highlights translucent fabric, span the walls at the new Japonais restaurant in the Mirage in Las Vegas.

Glass is a hot material in the design industry these days, particularly in the hospitality sector -- the nightclubs, restaurants and hotels that often set the style for the design, architecture and building industries.

One of the biggest trends is eco-friendly, or at least eco-stylish, interiors and exteriors. "The big movement now is to go to more of the 'green' environment, which is more organic-looking," said Brian Pitman, marketing director at the Glass Assn. of North America.

Glass can deliver that look in a variety of ways, he said. With more glass companies jumping into the eco-fray, his Topeka, Kan.-based trade group added a decorative glass division last year to address that industry sector.

Livinglass, with its use of natural materials instead of the digitally printed images that some glass companies use, has benefited from the organic, sometimes dramatic, look of its products.

Skura, who focuses on manufacturing, and Hoffman, who handles the rest, have experimented with many organic materials to determine how well they will hold up under sunlight, wet conditions and the laminating process.

Materials that make the cut include fabrics, wood veneers, small river rocks, Capiz shells, butterflies and even jelly beans. They are treated with chemicals to preserve them.

The treated materials are arranged by hand on a sheet of glass, then topped by another sheet. A liquid resin is poured into the space between the glass sheets, where it hardens. The process results in a safety-rated architectural glass that can be used inside or outdoors, for walls or floors.

Now, Hoffman and Skura are ready to reach beyond the wealthy international clients who have helped launch their business but demand a lot of time and energy.

The owners are tinkering with their manufacturing processes, which are often carried out on machines custom-built by Skura, to make them more efficient. Their goal is to produce some of the designs more cheaply. That would allow the company to offer lower-priced panels for the mass market.

Hoffman is tight-lipped about what designs may make the switch, but she said the company would unveil a less costly line before the end of the year.

They are also in talks with furniture and lighting manufacturers who would make and distribute Livinglass-designed items that feature their decorative glass.

They unveiled several early prototypes at a major trade show in 2005, including a dining table and a streamlined bathroom vanity. But they realized that move was premature because they weren't prepared to make and deliver the products effectively on their own.

Though the early designs are still shown on their website,, the new furniture and lighting lines will contain a larger variety of products.

As they tackle furnishings and wider distribution of less expensive products, Hoffman and Skura hope to capitalize on the cornerstone of their business: the original designs and processes they have developed. They use a network of independent sales representatives to help market their current products to hospitality, commercial and residential customers.

So far, the company has used credit card debt, business loans and cash flow to pay its steep research and development costs and apply for patents to protect that investment.

Getting a patent is a key step smart entrepreneurs should not overlook, Hoffman said. "For every one truly creative company, there is a horde that follows behind and tries to reap the rewards with no investment," she said.

The company, which has used a free consultant with the Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE, to improve operations, hasn't ruled out taking on outside investors.

The owners are wary of giving up too much control, though, which they feel might crimp their design freedom. They know that their creativity is the soul of the company. "Many companies analyze market trends, figure out what people are buying, analyze the cost of riding the wave and, bang, there's the new product," Hoffman said.

"We have taken the opposite approach," she added. "Putting our stake 100% on originality. It's almost counterintuitive as a business proposition."



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Business: Decorative glass panels

Owners: Rachel Hoffman and Mike Skura

Founded: 2003

2007 revenue: $5 million, estimated

Employees: 15

Next steps: This year, glass panels priced for the mass market. Next year, furniture and lighting that incorporate the company's decorative architectural glass.

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