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TRIPPY TABLES : In Long Beach, Chairs Are Cheeky--and Furniture That's Functional Is Also Oh So Fanciful

April 08, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

It may never have occurred to you that you might need a dresser covered entirely in fake animal fur, topped with a pair of tall ears.

Or a low table with shelving mysteriously veiled in translucent white fabric.

Or an armchair with gaily mismatched arms (one is a red velvet panel; the other, an airy row of gold tassels) and a seat of blindingly polished aluminum that shrinks away from its wooden frame.

But once you see these fanciful objects--and others in "Functional Forms: Artists of Sci/Arc" at the FHP Hippodrome Gallery in Long Beach--ordinary furniture begins to seem ridiculously tame.

The exhibition, through April 17, consists of recent work by ceramic artist Peter Shire of Los Angeles and nine of his students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci/Arc) in Santa Monica. Four years ago, Shire began teaching a class in furniture design that attracted people with diverse talents including architects, designers and computer and animation artists.

Unlike purely decorative or conceptual art, of course, a piece of furniture has to be functional. The students were obliged to consider such factors as labor and material costs, and production strategies, as well as their own notions of taste and quality.

My favorite pieces, I have to admit, are the most outlandish: Robert Leonetti's pair of acrylic-covered metal dressers with rabbit ears. One piece is red, the other is done up in tiger-print, and both cunningly allow access to objects within by unbuttoning a flap (rather than opening a door or a drawer).

Then there is Jason Hill's austerely sensual set of oval wood and white Dacron "occasional" tables. One is partially balanced on shelves swathed in the thin white fabric, which evokes the subtle effects of theatrical scrim. In a witty repetition of this motif, three wooden arcs set into an oval cutout on the table top support a small, purely ornamental bubble of Dacron.

Steve Winawer's "Lamp" (and "Green Chair," the one with the mismatched arms, described above) combines different realms of culture in an amusingly slap-happy way. The lamp, built at a deliberately askew angle, marries froufrou crystal chandelier drops with no-nonsense perforated aluminum discs, a goofy acrylic blob shape, a metal sphere and retro-styled tapering wood legs resting on steel balls.

The designer team of Frank and Frisch has come up with a couple of nifty ideas. One is a plywood stool with two tall steel poles that shoot upward at angles like insect antennae (actually, they are coat racks). The other is an unlikely combo: a thick, oversized round green cushion attached to a utilitarian platform that also holds a maple plywood table with two stark rectangular cubbyholes. Suggestive of a cross between '40s boudoir furniture and a junior high school shop project, this piece has a bizarrely klutzy allure.

In this company, Margie Denton's more straightforward furniture--a table, bench and chair in trapezoidal shapes--looks a bit like a country cousin. Also, considering the renaissance of fine carpentry in recent years, it's disappointing to learn that Denton doesn't do her own woodworking. (Objects in industrial materials, on the other hand, seem apt candidates for industrial fabrication.)

Other work in the show is by Howard Juo, Alla Kazovsky and John Schaefer. All the full-size (as opposed to scale model) furniture is for sale, incidentally, at prices ranging from $250 for Hill's dramatically stark aluminum "Aero Shelf" to $3,000 for a chair by Shire--a medley of vivid, mismatched parts including a green skateboard shape, a tiny vestigial leather armrest, a cut-out wooden back and a set of oddly sized red casters.

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