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Show Features the Sturdiest Furniture West of the Pecos

March 28, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

Somebody said it looked like Fred Flintstone's bed and it did, at first. But, by George, it grew on you.

You had to be a Westerner to appreciate it, I suppose. It just wouldn't have held the same appeal for some fussy townie from Boston with a penchant for Early American furniture and ancestor worship.

"All that perchy stuff," Mimi London called it.

Pretty good word. Sparrows would have no problem alighting on, say, the back of a Colonial captain's chair, but just let any bird try to get a grip on the massive beams of London's bed. Zip! Straight to the floor.

It would be unfairly limiting to try to encapsulate one woman's design philosophy in a single piece of bedroom furniture--it's a canopy bed constructed from a series of what appear to be tree trunks of various sizes--but it's not a bad place to start with Mimi London, who was the guest of honor at the recent Market 92 at Design Center South in Laguna Niguel.

This year's Market was billed as "Wonders of the West," and it not only allowed the studios in the Design Center to strut their stuff for hundreds of designers and other industry pros, but it also attracted visitors with displays that included a pair of chairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and several pieces from London's Los Angeles design studio, including The Bed.

The idea was to spotlight the design traditions of the western United States, and London was a logical choice to deliver one of the three main lectures of the day. She is an elegant woman, and she designs elegant furnishings, but you get the idea that when she's not providing furniture for Cher she's at the nearest John Wayne film festival.

London grew up living in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel and spent her summers at various spots along the California coast and she's not a bit offended if you call her designs broad-shouldered. She's well traveled, but she's a Westerner to the core. She appreciates the more finicky furnishings of the East but to her they may be a bit like a set of brontosaurus bones: interesting to look at, but she wouldn't want to have them in her house.

"We live in big spaces out here and we tend to be uncomfortable" with more delicate, less substantial furnishings, she said. Her work was heavily influenced by designer Michael Taylor's large designs and is also "based on memories of my childhood in the West or on ideas I dreamed up while traveling in the West."

London would never make a good Bostonian. Eastern furniture tradition requires a kind of tinkering with small detail--an engraving here, an inlay there, a delicate little turn over there--that simply doesn't fit in with much of London's work. Listen to her speak long enough and eventually she'll bring up the chain saw as a design tool.

You have to use that sort of thing when you're working with entire trees and big rocks that you want to subdue. London said that in her search for natural materials such as wood and stone and rock crystal, she would rather begin with the materials in their raw, natural state than in anything so refined as, say, a plank from the lumberyard. No pre-cut plank for her; she wants the whole damn trunk, with the bark on. And if she needs a stone support for patio furniture, for instance, she goes crashing around in the woods until she finds a good one, then hires someone who knows how to saw it into the sizes she needs.

This is not the kind of stuff you'll see at Versailles. No, it's only in the West, where men are men and women are designers.

If you don't believe it, consider the chair that London calls her favorite: it's the sort of thing Magic Johnson would disappear into. It's all light hardwood and padded sheepskin--wide, deep, sprawling, sweeping, symmetrical and inviting. You'd try to sit in this chair even if your hips and knees were fused. It's irresistible.

Not to say that London's work--and Western design in general--will make the average home look like Paul Bunyan's mountain retreat. London said that the style has great adaptability when you're not afraid of the bold stroke. She has, for instance, recently begun to use intricate and colorful fabric from the Orient in detailing many of her pieces and rooms--at once flashy and delicate.

So if you're feeling a little too imperialistic after buying all that English Colonial stuff at the Bombay Co. and you're leaning more toward the furnishings you saw in that rerun of "Paint Your Wagon," give a thought to the Western tradition.

But, for John Wayne's sake, don't be shy about it. You want a bed made out of logs with leather-covered pillows, by God, get a bed made out of logs with leather-covered pillows. It's your birthright as a Westerner. They don't do that sort of thing in Connecticut. Just ask London.

Sure, she said, they occasionally dip their toes in and buy some good, solid Western furnishings. "But," she said, "only if they're told it's OK."

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