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He Designs Funiture : Craftsmanship: Using a whimsical style and bright colors, late-blooming designer Joseph Somers makes pieces with built-in chuckles.

August 15, 1993|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST LOS ANGELES — Joseph Somers, 63, makes dressing tables that look like stacks of suitcases.

He calls them luggature.

Obviously, Somers is a playful man. Indeed, his shop on the Los Angeles-Culver City border is filled with furniture whose function includes making people smile. People see one of his chairs that seems to have sprouted a hand or a table with boots as well as legs, and they begin to chuckle. "It's like somebody making faces at them," Somers said. "And they grin back at it."

Somers' functional whimsy has already attracted a small but growing celebrity clientele, including super chef Wolfgang Puck and wife Barbara Lazaroff and actor Jack Palance. People who tumble for his designs are willing to pay $3,500 or more for a carnival-colored desk that includes a working model train.

Smitten by a chair with twisting arms and legs or a steamer trunk with real hardware and simulated travel stickers, clients write checks of a magnitude that still causes Somers to swallow hard. They don't even complain when they're told they'll have to wait two to four months for delivery.

Creating shapes as bright and eccentric as Picasso ceramics, Somers is having a marvelous time living by his wits. The pleasure he takes in playing with shapes and paint, and getting paid handsomely for it, is all the sweeter because he has spent most of his life doing hard jobs that paid little.

When suddenly struck by his muse three years ago, Somers was a private nurse, caring for elderly patients in their homes. Before that, he had been a lay brother in a monastery, an Army medic, a surgical technician, a teacher of retarded children and the proprietor of a Westside pet shop. He had never painted or designed anything in his life. "I never had time," he said. "I was trying to make a living."

Then, three years ago, a friend asked if he could decorate a table that had been special-ordered in her unfinished furniture store. Willing to try, Somers covered the table top with a menagerie of fanciful monkeys, hippos and other animals, and a furniture designer was born.

Today, Somers is turning out custom-decorated pieces as fast as he can. He likes vibrant colors like those used by his favorite artists--van Gogh, Lautrec and Gauguin. And Somers finds inspiration in magazines, art books and his own newly unleashed imagination. "My mind is always going," he said.

The luggature, for instance, came to him in a flash. "I was working with squares, and I just saw suitcases," he recalled. His dressers, with suitcase handles instead of conventional drawer pulls, sell for $350 to $500 a drawer. Not bad for a self-taught artisan who once cleaned restaurants at night to supplement his income.

At first, Somers built his pieces from scratch as well as decorating them, using acrylic paints. Now a carpenter builds many of the pieces, using mostly birch and pine. And Somers also pays someone else to line the drawers of his steamer trunks and other storage pieces in suede or moire.

Somers is a soft-spoken, modest man who probably would have become a priest if he had had a better education. Raised in an orphanage in Upstate New York, he always had to work harder than the other kids in school, he recalled. It was only after he decided to go back and finish high school at the age of 57 that he discovered he had a learning disorder. "I always felt inadequate," he said, adding confessionally, "I still can't spell."

One of Somers' specialties is the venerable art of trompe l'oeil, or deception of the eye. The craftsman likes to incorporate subtle, comic touches in his work. Did someone leave a lit cigarette on that dresser decorated with Michelangelo motifs from the Sistine Chapel? No, Somers thought the piece would be more amusing if he painted on a cigarette burn. Did someone drop a copy of the Los Angeles Times on top of that coffee table? No. The newspaper is built into the piece. Lift it up and you'll find a hidden cubbyhole.

Somers suspects its lightheartedness is part of his work's appeal. It is hard to take something called a blah blah chair too seriously, especially when it features talking heads and high-heeled shoes. Even people with traditional taste often want one bright, eccentric object in their lives, Somers said. He says he is still not completely used to customers who say, as his often do, "I have to have that," and have the discretionary income to get whatever charming nonessential they want.

The late-blooming craftsman is delighted with his burgeoning success. "It's like a monster--a nice monster--feeding on itself," he said. The storefront he shares at 3806 Bagley Ave. can no longer contain the business. Later this month the Joseph Somers Studio moves into a larger space at 8710 Washington Blvd., across from the old Helm's Bakery. His work is also sold through galleries in Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley, Laguna Beach and La Jolla.

Somers still finds his good fortune a little hard to believe. "I just sit back and wonder, 'Well, what else is going to happen?"' he said, laughing softly. "If I had planned it, it probably wouldn't have happened at all."

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