Art Center College of Design builds toward the future

Students work on projects at the Art Center College of Design's south campus in Pasadena.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Brandon Mamone works on his science-fiction-themed paintings in a studio with a coveted feature: a window that lets in a lot of natural light. The Art Center College of Design student said he was lucky to get the space in the college’s new building in Pasadena, close to restaurants, art supply stores and a Metro Gold Line station.

“It’s nice to be around an urban environment,” said Mamone, 23, a fine arts major from Sacramento.

He said he hopes the setting will encourage more people from the art world and the public to visit the student galleries than they do at the college’s main, and more secluded, campus in the hills above the Rose Bowl.


“It’s a lot more easily accessible,” he said of the recently opened building, a former postal depot on South Raymond Avenue. “It feels much more connected.”

His new work space is a result of the well-regarded design school’s expansion into a former industrial and commercial zone next to the northern terminus of the 110 Freeway and the mainly dormant cooling towers of power plants. It is part of Art Center’s plan to become a two-campus school in the same city.

While keeping its main hillside campus five miles to the north as its headquarters, the college soon will have three buildings on the southerly L-shaped property along the Gold Line tracks. A decade ago, it adapted a former 1940s-era airplane testing facility on Raymond Avenue into studio and exhibition space. Now, just up the block, it has renovated the former two-story postal facility as a home for its illustration and fine art departments, with galleries and computer labs.

And this month, it is poised to buy a six-story office building across the Gold Line tracks on Arroyo Parkway for more classrooms and offices.

In the next few years, the 1,700-student school also plans to construct its first dormitories on an adjacent parking lot, helping to create a 24-hour campus in a city that also is home to Caltech and Pasadena City College.

Like Mamone, the school’s leaders hope that the south campus will help boost the public profile of an institution that is known for training graduates to design consumer products, graphics, movies, advertising, automobiles and fine arts.


Founded in 1930, Art Center College of Design has had a somewhat troubled history of campus moves and abandoned construction plans.

In 1947, the school relocated from downtown Los Angeles to Hancock Park. In 1976, it moved to a bridge-like building designed by modernist architect Craig Ellwood, set on 165 hillside acres in Pasadena’s Linda Vista neighborhood. Fifteen years ago, Art Center flirted with, but rejected, invitations to return downtown.

In 2008, then-President Richard Koshalek was ousted over his plan to build on the hillside a $50-million library and studio, designed by Frank Gehry, that faculty and students deemed too grandiose and unrelated to educational needs.

Construction in Linda Vista also is hindered by opposition from neighbors concerned about traffic. Expanding instead into the more urban, 7-acre south campus is more economical: acquiring and renovating existing buildings was about half the price of building from scratch, according to Art Center President Lorne Buchman, who was hired in 2009.

Now, Buchman said, the college is on a solid path toward having two equal campuses linked by shuttle and online services. “That is what is needed for us to build the future that we want,” he said.

Plans call for raising Art Center’s enrollment to about 2,000 over the next five years and to expand transportation studies and programs in how people interact with technology and their environment.

Buchman has experience running a two-campus design school; he led the California College of the Arts’ facilities in Oakland and San Francisco when he was president there in the ‘90s.

“One of the nice things but also one of the problems with Art Center is that it is tucked away. People have this vague sense that it is somewhere in the hills of Pasadena,” said Aaron Smith, associate chairman of the illustration department and an alumnus. The new location will “change the game.”

“When you get off the Pasadena Freeway, Art Center is going to be the first thing you see,” he said.

The former postal facility at 870 S. Raymond was purchased and renovated for $13 million, mainly with donations from foundations and alumni. Architect Darin Johnstone directed the artsy makeover to a black exterior and white interior, with doorways wide enough to accommodate large sculptures. The full move-in is expected by the fall, but “870,” as it is called, is already bustling with students working well past midnight.

Around the corner, the school is planning to buy the office building on South Arroyo Parkway for $27 million, partly from a $15-million donation from Peter Mullin, an insurance magnate and classic car enthusiast who is an Art Center trustee, and his wife, Merle; the rest will be financed by bonds. Planners hope a plaza or bridge over the train tracks will link that building to a future garage and dorms, starting with space for 330 students.

Unlike most rival design colleges, Art Center offers no housing, and students scramble to find affordable accommodations with a decent commute. Buchman said the school, which charges $36,500 a year for undergraduate tuition, should provide lower-cost housing and enable students to further cut expenses by walking to class and taking public transit.

Mamone, the painter, lives in Alhambra, while Katelyn Hill, who is studying illustration design, lives in Pasadena but wishes she could be even closer. “A lot of students are still at school 3 and 4 in the morning,” said Hill, who plans to start a firm designing swimwear for women.

“If home is right next door,” she said, “that’s a lot safer than driving at 4 a.m.”

Twitter: @larrygordonlat