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Quintessence of Kitsch : Harry Segil Leads L.A.'s '50s Design Revival

Bevis Hillier

July 26, 1987|Bevis Hillier

Southern California has a genius for absorbing kitsch and transmuting it into a form that delights. It is like the oyster turning a piece of grit into a pearl. Hollywood has done it for years, from Busby Berkeley's extravagant dance routines to the mingled bathos and pathos of "Tootsie." Now it is design's turn.

If there was one period that, more than another, was regarded as the quintessence of kitsch, it was the 1950s. That decade marked the zenith of the rampant materialism against which the hippies and dropouts of the 1960s would later rebel. But now in the 1980s, the style of the 1950s is being enthusiastically rehabilitated.

Books published in the last three years have helped to give the revival momentum. Alan Hess's "Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture" (Chronicle Books, 1985) asserted that the 1950s coffee-shops of Los Angeles--including the Googie chain--far from being "visual huckstering" or "honky-tonk development," as hostile critics had claimed, were full of vitality; they "democratized" architectural theories that had formerly been the preserve of an elitist clique. Thomas Hine's "Populuxe" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) surveyed the 1950s as a "glorious vanished world of hopes and dreams and cock-eyed optimism." (The publisher's blurb writer still felt it necessary to forewarn Hine's readers about "this rather peculiar Golden Age" and its "slightly bizarre" aesthetic.)

But the person who has done most to revive '50s style in Los Angeles is South African-born Harry Segil, who in his emporium, Harry's, at 148 S. La Brea Ave., sells a mixture of genuine 1950s relics and new furniture that expresses his own flamboyant reinterpretation of the '50s. A straight copy of a '50s umbrella stand in the "atomic" or "cocktail-cherry" style (struts with colored bobbles) is $39; a metal hat-and-coat stand of the '50s is $395. A "doggie-bone"-shaped sofa of the '50s, re-upholstered by Segil with original fabrics of the period, including a cloth that he describes as "sea-foam green," is priced at $1,400.

"I wanted to give it a Popsicle look," he says. "I like to play with the energy of an original piece but still put my own feeling into it and give it a look that's cheerful and stylish and modern." A trapezoid chest of drawers that is much more 1980s than 1950s has a blonde-wood (maple) frame and drawers lacquered in lemon yellow, flesh pink and turquoise. Two of the drawer handles are chrome-plated logos from a Chevrolet. Chairs are decorated with zebra stripes or covered with vinyl with a mica-like sparkle in it.

Born near Johannesburg in 1947, Segil, a physician's son, was literally a child of the 1950s; though the '50s style he now loves impinged less on South Africa than it did on America or England. Today he is bearded and bald; has a stream-of- consciousness vocal delivery that makes James Joyce's prose seem a feeble trickle; and wears clothes as demonstrative as his wares.

After graduating in business administration and economics from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1969, Segil became a financial executive in a large engineering firm near Johannesburg that manufactured air-conditioning units.

"Well, needless to say, my spirit did not like that. It made me sick to deal with velocities of fans and quotations and people who had very little imagination or creativity. After about a year there came a day when I felt like standing on a desk, taking off all my clothes and spraying myself pink. I didn't do it; but if you want something to happen in life, you have to program it as a possibility in your mind."

In 1970, Segil married Valerie Kay, whom he had met on a beach in Cape Town. (Now separated, they have two sons, 15 and 13.) With $1,000 borrowed from his father-in-law he opened a shop near Johannesburg and sold furnishings and accessories, "just things I liked." He began with mostly new things and very few old. Eventually, he sold only old things.

In 1980 the Segils decided to move to America. "I was always fascinated by the idea of America," says Segil. "I was the first kid on the block to get a ballpoint pen; we had an uncle who traveled to America and brought things back. I read American comics and magazines. I was struck by how visual things were in America, how many choices there seemed to be. And those cars with big fins in wonderful colors, and station wagons, and rock 'n' roll and polka dots and people outside having barbecues and balloons and dressing up on Halloween--all those kitschy things that God forbid you introduce into the living room."

Segil made a two-month reconnoitering tour of America in 1980. He visited several big cities. "Los Angeles didn't have anything old that I could respond to in the way I do in London or Paris; but I could see things changing here and growing, and I thought: 'This is the city that has potential, and I want to be part of a city that's growing and exciting because I get bored so easily. And I am part of that growth now."'

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