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The Bad Boy of Architecture : Brian Murphy Designs Glass Bathtubs, Flashlight Chandeliers and Wave-Shaped Roofs. Is This Witty Iconoclasm or Self-Indulgent Trash?

July 09, 1989|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein is a contributing editor of this magazine.

INSIDE THE crates marked "fragile" stacked in the reception area of architectural designer Brian A. Murphy's small Santa Monica office are the first pig chairs he has ever commissioned.

To be precise, what's sitting in Murphy's office are two otherwise ordinary chairs with finely detailed pigs carefully painted on them. And not just any pigs: pigs elaborately decked out in full Elizabethan garb--porcine princesses. "These are period pigs," says Murphy, deadpan, peering inside the boxes.

The pig chairs came from an artist in Berkeley who specializes--is this redundant?--in unusual furniture. They are on the way to the home of rock star Belinda Carlisle and her film producer husband, Morgan Mason, which Murphy is renovating. Carlisle--is this redundant?--has sort of a thing about pigs.

Pig chairs might sit somewhat uncomfortably in the offices of most architects. Not here. During the past seven years, Murphy, 40, has built a thriving design business through calculated outrageousness. He is a builder from the other side of the looking glass, a designer who thrives on employing familiar materials in unfamiliar ways.

That's putting it mildly. For a client who wanted a nautical motif in his house, Murphy has stained the oak floors in the dining room a startling shade of turquoise, covered a wall with glass block, built a dining-room table of glass, ornamented it with aluminum chairs and illuminated the room with chandeliers composed of police flashlights shining through three sheets of glass, the middle one of which was shattered to give the light a wavy, shimmering effect. In a dark Santa Monica canyon a few years ago, he built a five-story tower for himself and anchored it with four whimsical bridges that improbably crisscrossed the hillside. For actor Dennis Hopper, he built in Venice a fortress-like shell of corrugated metal that miraculously opens into an airy retreat.

Murphy has mounted slate from a pool table on car jacks for a dining-room table; he has assembled triangular coffee tables from aluminum diamond plate, the material used in the cabs of trucks; he has built a chandelier from Christmas lights and concocted a chair from a surfboard mounted on two pieces of metal and skateboard wheels.

In this portfolio, no one would stumble over a few pig chairs.

Is this brilliant iconoclasm? Sly commentary on the throwaway society and architectural convention? Or just overheated self-indulgence? Murphy has received a huge amount of attention from architectural and interior magazines around the world, but he sends critics running to opposite corners. To Paul Goldberger, the New York Times architecture critic, Murphy's "work seems in a very strange way to be both the brashest and the nicest of L.A.'s young architects. It is visually a little more startling than the other work. But as you get into it, you discover it is actually more comfortable and more likable." To Sam Hall Kaplan, design critic at the Los Angeles Times, Murphy's fireworks only "fulfill the cliche of Los Angeles being lightweight and faddish." But for those on both sides of this jagged line, Murphy personifies the innovation--and excesses--of the new "freestyle" architecture that has defined the cutting edge of L.A.'s style for the past decade.

RESERVED AND somewhat guarded, Murphy seems an unlikely figure to generate such passions. He was born in Whittier, but he spent most of his formative years in the proximity of water and sand, surfing, sailing, basting on the beach. His father was a construction administrator, and Murphy grew up with the tools of the building trade around him. "I used to draw on the back of blueprints just as other kids color," he says. "I always had every kind of drawing utensil, lots of drawing supplies, stuff like that around."

When he finished high school, he attended junior college, then transferred to UCLA, where he thought briefly about a career as an art historian, painted, took a degree in art and graduated in 1970 with no particular clue about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He spent most of the next two years studiously avoiding the question--skiing in Vail, sailing in Mexico--before hooking on as an assistant to an architect in Laguna Beach. Working there rekindled the interest in architecture that he'd felt while growing up, and he returned to UCLA in 1972 to study at the graduate school of architecture. But he found his second bout with academia no more congenial than the first, and he dropped out after one year.

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