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He Broke In as Artist With Tile Sculpture


Marlo Bartels makes sculpture you can sit on, art you can eat off, end-table tops worth framing.

He creates his unusual furniture from broken tile.

You can find his work--hand-painted tiles and murals as well as the furniture--in places as diverse as restaurants, museums and beaches.

He collaborated with Barbara Lazaroff on the interior of Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main restaurant in Santa Monica; he made the frieze for the main dining room of the Copa de Oro in Costa Mesa.

At the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Bartels installed what he described as "a combination fountain-Jacuzzi-type thing, immense, confrontational, wacky. . . ." In 1981, the City of Laguna Beach secured his "Canyon Chess and Checkers" table and chairs for Main Beach.

But mostly Bartels does homes.

His sofas, chairs and tables may be found in the Rancho Mirage residence of interior designer Steve Chase, in the Scottsdale, Ariz., home of gallery owner Elaine Horwitch and in the Frank Gehry-designed Marian Wosk residence in Beverly Hills.

"It used to be that people would see this stuff, and they didn't know what to do with it," Bartels said at his studio in Laguna Beach. "They couldn't see it. Now when Steve Chase uses it . . . I'm getting calls all the time. I get $1,500 for a chair or a table. Boom, all of a sudden I'm a success."

Most of Bartels' work in Orange County has involved the tile basins and walls of bathrooms and kitchens; his largest installation was the bottom of a swimming pool in Monarch Bay featuring handmade, hand-painted tiles depicting fish, seaweed, coral and starfish.

Tile was the last thing on Bartels' mind when he began college.

He originally wanted to go into drafting and architecture but found the math too difficult. He earned a degree in physical education but found he "wasn't a great athlete." But a ceramics class ultimately led to a master's degree in art at Cal State Fullerton. "I found I had a strong desire to work with my hands," he said.

He cites as influences the Watts Towers, which also use "scavenged" materials, Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi and the California landscape.

"My wrinkle on the whole thing, my special contribution, is that I know how to make ceramics," Bartels said. "I use commercial tile for a lot of this stuff. But I also roll my own slabs to fit, say, the curved back of a chair." To make curved surfaces, he uses a special wall-mounted machine. "It comes out like pasta. I can make it whatever shape I want."

He uses basic black and sunset colors--"California colors, the colors of fiesta ware pottery," he said. "Landscape greens, sunset pinks and purples. . . ."

Bartels admits that the idea of chairs made out of tile isn't especially appealing at first.

"Everybody says they don't look comfortable," Bartels said. "When they sit in them, they're surprised. The chairs are designed for repose. The way I see it, when people sit and reflect, they're not making bombs, they're not making war."

Due to the special way in which he exploits his medium, Bartels said, most of his own frustrations are vented as he works.

"What does ceramic do when you drop it?" he asked. "It breaks. It's a release to break things."

Despite his artistic nature, it's obvious that Bartels' thinking is practical. He refers, for instance, to an elaborate, almost free-form sofa as "a lobby seating unit" with "a serpentine treatment."

He's a large man--6-foot-5--with large plans: He'd like to see his pieces in a corporate plaza, a playground or a park. The "ultimate," he said, would be a plaza on the scale of Isamu Noguchi's California Scenario in Costa Mesa's Town Center.

"I'm learning about planning and land use," Bartels said, "all the stuff that's necessary for getting this sort of project done. I'm also learning you have to collaborate, that sometimes you have to compromise.

"I used to be real anxious. Whatever happens, I'm not now. It's all part of the art game. If you play it right, you win."

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