So cool, so classic, so L.A.

Times Staff Writer

IF ever there were a home that told the quintessential L.A. success story, this is it. Not because the 1923 house on a shady San Marino street is classic Spanish Revival, with a russet tile roof and white stucco walls. Or that the interior is a visual surprise, open and contemporary, with flourishes of petrified wood and other natural materials. Or even that an imaginative sharp-angled pavilion shading the backyard pool somehow blends seamlessly with the main house.

It's because of the story that lives inside, the story of Cisco Pinedo -- born in a rural village in Jalisco, Mexico, raised in urban South Los Angeles and now leader of a multimillion-dollar home furnishings company, one of the few major furniture manufacturers that hasn't fled Southern California in search of less expensive factories and labor overseas. Pinedo's roots are now in L.A., and if anyone asks why, he can simply point to his house, which symbolizes just how far he has traveled to be here.

"I fell in love with this area because of the greenery," says Pinedo, 44, who saw San Marino first as a teenager, working with his dad on gardening jobs at the Huntington Library and the surrounding estates. "Back then I was thinking that one day, if it were possible, this would be a great place to live. It was very far away from where I was, but some way life made that happen."

Hanging on the wall of the master bedroom is a framed wooden cross carved by Pinedo's grandfather. Pinedo keeps it there as a touchstone to the remote village where he was born, Villa Guerrero, a two-hour drive from Guadalajara. He lived with his parents, three brothers and two sisters in a one-room stone dwelling with a wood-and-clay flat roof. "There wasn't a lot of money and people used natural resources," he says.

The son of a contract farm worker who spent months at a time in the United States and a seamstress mother, Pinedo remembers studying the rectangular structure, tracing his hands over the stones and thinking about the laborer who arranged them, piece by piece. Someday, he thought, he'd like to build houses.

"By nature, even before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, we were a culture with a sensibility toward craftsmanship," he says. "There has always been plenty of wood, stone, earth, labor and imagination in Mexico to make beautiful buildings."

Throughout his house are hand-made folk art pieces he's collected from Mexico and elsewhere that he mixes with modern furniture he has designed just for his home. Towering over the living room is a 6-foot-tall Buddha from Myanmar. "It's a powerful symbol made from a simple piece of wood," Pinedo says.

When Pinedo was 13, the family moved to South Los Angeles. "My dad was a guest worker for 30 years, going from farm to farm, but he wanted to settle here so his family could live better."

As the eldest sibling, Pinedo worked after school to earn money, translated for his Spanish-speaking parents and looked out for the younger children. "Cisco was the father figure," says his sister Rosie Pinedo Perez. "He's the one we worried about as far as getting permission to do something. Because of the language barrier, my parents would believe whatever we told them. A ‘D' on a report card? We'd tell them, ‘That's really good!' But we couldn't fool Cisco."

In junior high, Pinedo got an after-school job at a reupholstery shop. He'd pull the stuffing out of old couches and chairs, then watch the skilled workers remake them into showpieces. By deconstructing them, he saw how they were made. The antiques had crafted pieces of wood nailed together; they were covered in wool and cotton and finished with natural oils instead of stains.

The newer ones were assembled fast and cheaply with plastic and staples. He liked the traditional way better. "Hand-crafted furniture is something to hold on to," he says. "You don't see it tossed out onto the street."

AN 18th century French settee in the San Marino home's living room seems out of place amid the otherwise sleek decor. But it reminds Pinedo of the lessons he learned when he had to go to work full time instead of finishing high school because his father had been seriously injured.

Pinedo labored for years for other upholstery companies. Then, in 1985, he married his high school sweetheart Alba, and bought a house in South Los Angeles that was 600 square feet, the same size as the stone house in Mexico. "It was abandoned, with no doors or glass in the windows and trash was piled up outside, but we could afford it," Pinedo says. "We put in all the elements that made it our home."

They started a family there and in 1990, their business.

One day, as Pinedo tells it, he looked out the window of his garage upholstery shop and thought about what people really wanted. "When I was working for someone else, a lot of the furniture we did was big leather couches or splashy things with 10 coats of lacquer," he recalls while standing near the oversized portrait of his daughter Amanda hanging in the library. "Then people started spending more time at home and they wanted something less pretentious, something practical they could live with."

Inspired by Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic line, he started designing and making casual slipcovers. He took samples to showrooms like Civilization, the former Culver City store where Steve Melendrez worked, and soon orders poured in. "There were faxes all over the floor when he went to his shop on Monday mornings," says Melendrez, who now owns Living Room, a furniture store in Silver Lake that stocks Pinedo's current line of seating, tables and beds.

"We were successful from the start," says Alba, who at first hung on to her day job and did accounting for their business at night. "Everything was going back into the business. I remember how happy we were when we were able to buy a $7,000 pickup truck. Then the business just ballooned."

Cisco Bros. now has sales of more than $15 million a year, three showrooms, two stores, a factory and 175 employees, including a dozen of Pinedo's relatives and six of Alba's sisters.

"Cisco's company is all about home," says designer Agustin Garza, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists, a national design association with 19,000 members. "Most businessmen follow the path of numbers, but Cisco is a self-made visionary who makes residential furniture that is totally committed to the quality of life of the people who use it. He thinks of people sitting down and talking about love and the future of their children, of dads reading the newspaper and falling asleep in a deep chair. To Cisco, furniture has to be comfortable, durable, well made."

And environmentally friendly. For the last few years, Pinedo has been making furniture with reclaimed or responsibly harvested wood, organic fabrics, water-based glues and natural finishes. "I come from a poor family who appreciates what we have and we don't want to create waste," he says. He had to wait for months to get reclaimed teak for the floors in the kitchen and bedrooms. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he took four derelict brick buildings in South L.A., hired Los Angeles architects John Friedman and Alice Kimm and created the 80,000-square-foot L.A. Design Center, which houses several furniture showrooms, including one of his own. The stainless steel and painted concrete facade and exposed wood interior received an American Institute of Architects National Honor Award in 2004 and attracted national attention to a neighborhood that, Pinedo says, "had been abandoned by society."

"I think of him as one of the most courageous businessmen I've ever met," says Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who has worked with Pinedo on civic projects for a decade. "He's not afraid to take on anything. He's not tall in stature but he is a large figure in the community."

Pinedo's sister Rosie, who works at the firm, as do four other siblings, says, "He's following his dream and we're all going along. Many times I wonder what all of us would be doing if he never started this company. He introduced us to a world of beauty and design."

At first, Alba didn't like the two-story house Cisco was showing her in San Marino. It was too big. They didn't need 3,000 square feet. She appreciated the Spanish Revival architecture, but the inside was cluttered with 1970s-style heavy carpet, linoleum, drapes and cabinets.

Pinedo convinced Alba that the house was right for their daughters, Maurishka, now 20, Natalie, now 17, and Amanda, now 13: Look at the yard with its long stretch of grass. Think of the pool parties. Alba could imagine Cisco's vision for the house: light-filled and modern inside, with green landscape.

He again turned to architects Friedman and Kimm, who removed walls and enlarged windows to open views to the bamboo, palm trees and flowers outside. Damaged interior doors upstairs were replaced with green-tinted glass ones that nestle into thick plaster walls.

The combined living-dining room space is also a gentle mix of old and new. The original oak floors are restored and an end table is ancient: It's a petrified tree stump. There's an armless chocolate sofa facing the antique settee. On the walls are contemporary artworks by Rachel Sussman and Michael Faye.

When friends come to visit, Alba says, "They're surprised by the transition between the traditional front of the house and the inside. Our daughters' friends say, ‘This is so not San Marino.' "

The most striking contrast is the asymmetrical white facade that serves as a backdrop to the pool. Friedman created a cantilevered pavilion with a blank white stucco wall so smooth a movie can be projected onto it.

"The dynamic, angular form provides a counterpoint to the architecture of the house," Friedman says. "It's a powerful element that gives focus to the backyard, holds the edge of the swimming pool and is also functional as a place to retreat from sun and rain." Pool equipment is hidden behind a textured concrete fountain.

On the patio is a handsome but spare wood table of reclaimed teak that Pinedo designed.

"I love contemporary because it's so hard to deliver something that is simple and yet people can appreciate the craftsmanship," he says. "It's easy to appreciate an ornate Louis XV chair. But to be able to take a plain piece of wood, sand it and shape it so that it has enough flair in the design that people ask, ‘How did you get it here?' is an accomplishment."

Pinedo considers himself a craftsman although he also designs furniture. "Craftsmen," he says, "work with their hands to build the concept that's in their head. Designers work on the concept and drawings, then go to a workshop and work with the craftsmen to deliver their vision."

He points to the teak front door that was made in his workshop. When it was time to replace the molding around the door, he decided against it. Instead, visible to all, is the meeting of two craftsmen's work: the door framer's perfectly straight wood frame and the plasterer's perfectly straight trowel work.

"Molding is usually there to hide imperfections," Pinedo says. "There's nothing to hide here. I like to see where the craftsmen came together."




Well, it does rain in the forest

CISCO PINEDO jokes that he loves wood so much that he even found a way to have it on the floor, ceiling and walls of his shower. He installed Indonesian petrified wood, which is as hard as stone and was cut and polished into smooth tiles. Wood is petrified when all the organic matter has been replaced with minerals from water. These minerals change the color but not the shape or the grainy appearance of the original tree.

Copper in the water can turn the wood to a greenish blue color. Iron oxides makes it red, brown or yellow. Pinedo's shower has a mix of colors, mostly browns, in the rectangular tiles.

Two tree stumps that serve as nightstands in the master bedroom are purplish, a tint that can come from a combination of carbon, chromium, manganese or other elements seeping into wood from the water.

-- Janet Eastman

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