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Fanciful Containers Bring Tiers to the Eyes

July 07, 1988|CHRISTINE ZIAYA

Po Shun Leong builds palaces of wood--tiny, intricate boxes with miniature columns and stairways and bridges.

The Canoga Park architect calls them "FACADE" containers--they are a series of boxes, which, when stacked together, have the facade of a building. He shapes them with elements of past architecture--ancient Greek, Roman, Oriental and North American Indian--because he believes that people are intrigued by this and easily respond to historical roots.

The types of wood that Leong uses in his art are scattered across his garage. Mahogany, Hawaiian koa and rosewood. And his favorites--cherry burl (the knotted part of the wood), walnut and olive from the San Fernando Valley, delivered by a local tree-trimmer.

"These trees are usually old and dying and have had to be cut down and thrown away," he said. "But their wood grains are beautiful, and their colors are warm and rich."

In April, Leong was among 100 artists chosen to participate in the prestigious Washington Craft Show, sponsored by the Women's Committee of the Smithsonian Associates. His works have also appeared at such local galleries as the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Del Mano, Free Hand and Contemporary Art Form.

Actors Robin Williams, John Candy and Robert Culp are among those who have purchased Leong's "FACADE" containers, which range in price from $1,000 to $7,000.

When Leong moved to Southern California six years ago with his wife, Poh Suan, and their two sons, he intended to design furniture. He soon realized that breaking into the business was difficult.

But Leong firmly believed in his ability, so he purchased woodworking machinery to build his own prototypes. He wanted to prove that his handsome furniture was also comfortable and practical.

One of his earliest pieces was an elegant but simple hardwood dining chair for which he won a 1982 Daphne Award from the National Hardwood Lumber Assn. His success led to a contract with a manufacturer interested in producing and marketing Leong's designs.

In 1984, Leong won another Daphne, this time for a folding chair.

During the same period, the architect and his wife attended various craft fairs in Southern California. Seeing the success that others enjoyed from making wooden boxes, Leong decided to try his hand at that craft.

He had always felt "a box should be more than something with a lid." So, besides being functional, he wanted his sleek, modern creations to be visually appealing. The boxes began selling well and, within the second year of this new venture, Leong and his wife were turning a reasonable profit.

Experimented With Burl

Then, over time, an evolution took place.

New shapes took form. Leong began experimenting with burl. A pyramid-like container ensued. Intricacies started to predominate. His mind envisioned the sublime.

Twenty years' experience as an architect combined with self-taught woodworking skills and what resulted was a structure with a building's facade. Always there was a tangible blueprint that preceded construction of Leong's mini-palaces, although he did a lot of improvising in the process of building. It was the element of surprise that he strove to capture, and the results could be deceiving.

The buckeye wood that Leong picked up in Visalia appeared much like exotic stone. Secret compartments were like pieces to a puzzle, fitting together to create the solid whole. Then a swivel or a twist transformed the illusion, as formerly hidden spaces were revealed.

There was more. Pivoting compartments, finely carved arches and a stage with dramatic lighting beckoned imaginations to wander.

'Sense of Accomplishment'

"It was a great satisfaction," Leong said. "As an architect, you sometimes have to wait two years before you see a building you designed completed. But now, I could immediately build what I had designed. The sense of accomplishment came quickly."

Leong's premiere models, which he began building in early 1987, were only 6 to 12 inches high. He took them to a major craft show in Baltimore and quickly sold out his inventory.

Afterward, it was back to California--and the drawing board--where he began building structures from 18 inches to 6 feet tall. These larger pieces allowed for more creativity.

So he continues to construct tiny palaces with a band saw, table saw, drill press, planer and sander. Leong is preparing for the American Craft Enterprises show in San Francisco in August, an exhibit at the Carlyn Gallery in New York in September and the Philadelphia Craft Show organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in November.

And already he is dreaming up the next phase for his "boxes."

"When you open it, it will become something completely different, the way a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly," he said.

Ziaya writes regularly for Valley Calendar.

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