West Hollywood Legacy: How Design Pioneers Transformed One Neighborhood into a Style Mecca

West Hollywood Legacy: How Design Pioneers Transformed One Neighborhood into a Style Mecca
The Phyllis Morris showroom on Melrose Place circa 1953. ((Photos courtesy Phyllis Morris))

There has never been a place quite like West Hollywood. For nearly seven decades the city’s cultural and economic histories have been so closely interwoven with the interior design trade that many have come to consider the words West Hollywood and interior design as synonymous. There are only a handful of West Hollywood insiders active in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s who still recall the energy, excitement and zeitgeist of those early times. But what one sees, feels and savors about the West Hollywood design world today is the result of the visionary dreams and hard work of people who believed in what the community could become.

A 19-year-old Ronald Kates first became involved with the emerging design district in 1957. Kates had made a failed foray into show business when his father introduced him to developer Bert Friedman, who was tearing down buildings and houses along Beverly Boulevard between Robertson and Doheny and replacing them with showrooms for lease.

“West Hollywood was fascinating then, and it still is,” says Kates, himself now one of the city’s top real-estate brokers. “Beverly and Robertson were the main streets for the design businesses, with Melrose Avenue still yet to be developed. My friends were saying, ‘Why do you want to work in West Hollywood—don’t you know they’re all gay there?’ But I wanted to be there because I love a creative environment and I totally believed in the industry. Even as a teenager, I knew that this place was different.”

Many people at the time, including Kates, didn’t realize that just eight years earlier, in 1949, design history had already been made in WeHo. Legendary furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames had designed what would turn out to be their only enduring commercial building: a showroom for Herman Miller’s midcentury modern furniture at 8806 Beverly Boulevard, now home to DDC. (Still standing and sporting its original facade, the building faces an uncertain future due to development.)

The Herman Miller showroom at 8806 Beverly Boulevard designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1949, now home to the DDC showroom. Below right: Dorothy and Harry Lawenda,
The Herman Miller showroom at 8806 Beverly Boulevard designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1949, now home to the DDC showroom. Below right: Dorothy and Harry Lawenda, (Julius Shulman photo courtesy Herman Miller)

In the early 1950s, other West Hollywood design legends were being born. Phyllis Morris debuted her eponymous lamp showroom on Melrose Place in 1953 (she moved to Beverly Boulevard in 1960), and in 1955 Lou Sugarman opened his Decorative Carpets showroom at 144 North Robertson. That same year, just up the street, design-industry pioneers Dorothy and Harry Lawenda—who had already established themselves in San Francisco—opened the Kneedler-Fauchère showroom. These three companies—all still in business today in West Hollywood—together with dozens of shops, galleries and craftspeople became anchors for a community that was poised to expand, thrive and attract global attention in the years to come.

Phyllis Morris’s daughter Jamie Adler, who now heads her own West Hollywood company, Circa Wallcovering, recalls that her mother was transplanted from Chicago to Los Angeles as a teenager in the 1940s. “Phyllis grew up in the Chicago carpet store her father owned and was always surrounded by textures, colors and decorating materials,” Adler notes. “She never wanted to be a housewife, and once she was in Los Angeles, she put her design skills to work. That and her bravado for outrageous marketing tactics quickly attracted publicity, which in turn attracted a celebrity clientele.”

After Morris was photographed driving around town in a pink 1953 Eldorado convertible filled with pink-dyed poodles to match her iconic pink-poodle plaster lamps, her fame was secured: New York columnist Walter Winchell dubbed the petite blonde “the Marilyn Monroe of furniture.”

It wasn’t fame that Lou Sugarman was after: He wanted to get a foothold in the world of custom-designed rugs and carpets that he was so passionate about. Sugarman’s son George, who runs his late father’s business (now located on Melrose), remembers, “At the time the Robertson area was booming because the rents were very inexpensive, and that’s why my father moved there.” Almost from the time it opened its doors, Decorative Carpet’s bold designs and made it a favorite resource for designers and hotel developers.

When the Lawendas opened the Kneedler-Fauchère showroom at 151 North Robertson (it moved to the Pacific Design Center in 1976), they were anxious to bring the relatively new concept of the multi-line showroom to Los Angeles. (Prior to this, most showrooms promoted only one brand.) But Dorothy believed in gathering furnishings and accessories from artisans, craftspeople and manufacturers that complemented one another, showcasing natural materials and a handcrafted, sophisticated aesthetic.

Sally Sirkin Lewis opened her J. Robert Scott showroom at 8727 Melrose Avenue in 1972.
Sally Sirkin Lewis opened her J. Robert Scott showroom at 8727 Melrose Avenue in 1972. (Courtesy Pacific Design center)

Just as important, however, the Lawendas left behind a strong legacy of nurturing relationships with their clients, vendors and employees. Dorothy died in 2008 and Harry in 2011, leaving the Kneedler legacy in the hands of George Massar, now CEO and creative director, who joined the company in 1994. “Harry always told his employees to never fear change,” says Massar. “He knew that the design industry is always changing and always moving forward. And that’s something I keep in mind today when I’m reaching out to the next generation of designers and clients.”

Another alum of Kneedler-Fauchère is Thomas Lavin, who also joined the company in 1994 and worked directly under Harry Lawenda. Now a showroom owner himself and also a tenant at the Pacific Design Center, Lavin looks back with high regard at the time he spent with Harry. “I often say that Kneedler-Fauchère was like a design finishing school,” he says, “because many people who worked there or product lines represented there went on to have their own success and their own showrooms. The Lawendas embodied a spirit that invigorated several generations in our industry.”

Many members of the design community today are surprised to learn that there was a design center on Beverly Boulevard that preceded the Pacific Design Center by 11 years. Indeed, Ronald Kates was the leasing agent for that first design center before going on to become the lead agent for the PDC. The nine-story Los Angeles International Design Center at 8899 Beverly Boulevard, designed by architect Richard Dorman, opened in 1964 as the brainchild of art dealer Martin Lovitz, who believed that a design center should be as striking outside as the displays inside. And thus, Dorman designed the first-ever hub for the trade, festooned with 72 balconies and housing an array of mixed-use showroom, office and restaurant spaces. The center eventually closed due to lack of tenants and later became the headquarters of ICM.

In the 1970s the design pace in West Hollywood quickened with the arrival of a new generation of strong women—including Sally Sirkin Lewis, Janice Feldman and Rose Tarlow—who brought with them business acumen and a passion for style that once again transformed the West Hollywood design landscape.

A circa-1957 leasing ad for retail spaces near Robertson and Beverly boulevards, the nascent design district.
A circa-1957 leasing ad for retail spaces near Robertson and Beverly boulevards, the nascent design district. (Courtesy J. Robert Scott)

Sally Sirkin Lewis opened her J. Robert Scott showroom in 1972 at 8727 Melrose. “People said we wouldn’t last six months because I styled the showroom more like an actual residence instead of filling it to capacity with furniture in the typical manner of the day,” recalls Lewis, whose company celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. “The block I was on was still undeveloped, but I knew it was going to be the right place for me.” Lewis gutted a former restaurant with an eye toward creating something spacious and filled with light. “I found a way to mix the contemporary look of steel, Lucite and men’s suiting fabrics with my love for ethnic art, cocoa matting and tall potted trees that acted as room dividers.“ By the 1980s, Lewis’s style would become known to many as the “California look“ because of its use of abundant light, neutral colors and natural materials. Now the holder of more than 150 design patents, Lewis has never doubted her decision to open in West Hollywood. “And,” she notes, “I did it all my way!“

Within a stone’s throw of J. Robert Scott, the Pacific Design Center opened its doors in 1975. The gargantuan 750,000-square-foot blue-glass-sheathed structure designed by architect Cesar Pelli was built on top of the Pacific Railroad’s former Sherman Station railroad yard and was conceived by Pelli as a building whose “oversized fragments have fallen to earth.“ The building has withstood four decades of various ownerships, management teams, recessions and high times to become the defining architectural symbol of the West Hollywood design district.

In 1978 the 25-year-old entrepreneur Janice Feldman saw the still-new design center as the perfect venue to launch her own business, Janus et Cie. “I began working at age thirteen so I could buy my own princess phone,“ says Feldman. With an education in the fine arts, interior design and industrial design behind her, Feldman decided to take a leap of faith with her multi-line showroom. “I chose my own name as well as the name of the Roman god with two faces, one looking back and one looking forward,” says Feldman. “It represented both my respect for design traditions and my dedication to bringing future design innovations to my clients.“ Her late husband, Murray Feldman, who was the PDC’s first executive director, encouraged her to open the showroom, hence her emotional attachment to the venue and its locale. “West Hollywood is our home and our legacy,“ says Feldman.

For designer and antiques collector Rose Tarlow, the decision to be a part of the West Hollywood design community was a natural. In 1979 she moved her expanding business with its offerings of fine furniture and accessories from Melrose Place to 8540 Melrose Avenue, where she established herself as a resource for textiles, lighting and rugs. And Tarlow is still on the move, recently deciding to relocate to a showroom on Robertson. “The future for the design trade in West Hollywood is to band together,“ says Tarlow. “With Melrose Place and Melrose Avenue becoming more high-end fashion and less a design destination, it’s important for the pockets of antiques and furniture dealers to stay closer together and support each other.“

An architectural rendering of the Pacific Design Center, designed by Cesar Pelli, which opened in 1975.
An architectural rendering of the Pacific Design Center, designed by Cesar Pelli, which opened in 1975. (Picasa)

That’s the same reasoning that originally spurred artist Robert Kuo to become part of the West Hollywood design community in 1979: He wanted to have more access to designers and more visibility with the public. Since 1973 Kuo had been operating a studio and retail shop in Beverly Hills. But he had his sights set on something bigger. Not only did he want to expand his offerings to include jewelry along with his handcrafted vases, he wanted designers to rethink the possibilities that decorative techniques like cloisonné and repoussé offered for lighting and furniture applications.

Kuo began driving up and down West Hollywood streets until he happened upon an available property on the corner of Melrose and San Vicente, directly opposite the PDC. He snapped it up, tore it down and asked local architect Larry Allen to create a simple modernist structure, which opened in 1984. Over the decades Kuo has seen the changes in the neighborhood, but it’s not all bad news to him. “We’re still very unique here in that the new blood in West Hollywood is eclectic and not the usual chain brands,” he notes. “I’m still here because of the very reason I chose this location in 1979—it has energy and creativity.“

Though many West Hollywood veterans might consider him the new kid on the block, Martyn Lawrence Bullard actually put down his stakes in West Hollywood in 1994, launching his design empire from a tiny studio on Almont Drive. Now employing more than 20 people in eight countries, and with a newly opened shop of his own on Melrose, Lawrence has never waivered about his special love for West Hollywood.

“This city will always be a natural draw for those wanting to experience the best of the best in the design world,” says Bullard. “It’s cosmopolitan, it’s eclectic, it’s fueled by individual style. We invent the trends and forecast the future of design—and the fact that it’s all within walking distance is the icing on the cake.“