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He Has Designs on an Image Change : Make-over: What do you do with a monolithic design center no one ever visits? Hire a mover and shaker like Andrew Wolf.

September 09, 1994|SCOTT SHIBUYA BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There they sit, two great gleaming hunks of green and blue, on one of the more precious patches of Los Angeles real estate. Six and nine stories high, they peer imperiously over West Hollywood, almost daring people to enter.

"There's nothing worse than coming into this building," says Andrew Wolf, the exuberant and unfailingly gracious ex-New Yorker appointed last January as president of the Pacific Design Center. "It's a horrible experience."

It takes a moment to realize that Wolf, of course, is kidding--that what he dislikes most about the cavernous space, with its 200-plus showrooms and 1.25-million square feet, is not the way it looks but how it appears: exclusive, inaccessible, aloof. As a place associated with the viewing of $25,000 armoires, it has been irrelevant to most residents and to the cultural life of the city.

It falls to Wolf to reverse that prevailing sentiment and to reintroduce the center to a public largely left cold by previous meetings. Given the market--a slumping one in which interior designers battle for low-budget projects they might have snubbed a few years ago--his is an unenviable job.

The center's occupancy rate stubbornly hovers around 70%, and rumors persist that many tenants are behind in their rent and that construction of a third and final phase--the Red Building--will not begin in mid-1995 as scheduled. The '80s may be long over, but the design industry is still hunting for antidotes to the ongoing recession.

"I'm getting a Ph.D," says Wolf, half-jokingly reflecting on the amorphous task at hand. "People ask, 'In what?' I say, 'Ambiguity.' Everything's ambiguous."

*

Wolf, the son of a New Haven, Conn., cabinetmaker and an interior designer, had run through a lifetime of careers before even thinking about interior design. Eleven months ago, he had left the United Nations after finishing an assignment to promote the Earth Summit and was idling over the possibility of opening a gallery. Before that, Wolf, 43, had spent five years at the CBS Company Foundation, raising money and awareness for liberal arts education. He had also worked as an attorney, in private practice and for the Federal Trade Commission.

The irony of presiding over an institution that embraces his parents' livelihoods is one that Wolf enjoys. As young as 8, he recalls, "I was holding up fabrics and telling my father, 'Dad, I think this one looks better.' "

An executive search committee sought out Wolf for the PDC post, which had been open for eight months since the departure of Richard Norfolk. "They were deeply in need of someone coming here who could understand the word \o7 design,\f7 " he says.

Although Wolf says that he tried to ease into the job, within days he began publicly stating new goals for the PDC. He wanted to make what had been a real-estate-driven entity--dependent on showroom leases and appreciating land values--more of a cultural nexus for design and related fields.

He suggested bringing an art school to the premises (a deal now in negotiations), as well as a culinary institute and a design school. He asked that signs be rewritten in four languages: English, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese, to emphasize the multicultural design industry. And promising designers were given spaces for nominal rent to display their work.

Wolf, who calls himself a cultural entrepreneur, looks at the changes as a way to not only weave the city's diverse elements into a common thread, but also to entice residents and tourists. "If you put the products of life into this building, it will come to life," Wolf says.

He also immediately began to redraw plans for the center's premier event, the annual WestWeek convention of 25,000 design professionals, arguing that it amounted to "a nice reception" without lasting significance. "I want people to be profoundly moved, given the money we spend on it," he says.

Possibilities for next year's agenda include a mini-convention within the larger one focusing on Mexican design, architectural excursions and helicopter tours of the city.

Wolf's need to invent and fine-tune seems inexhaustible. On a typical afternoon, he moves from project to project. One of them, DesignPlace, will house four new showrooms, a folk art and craft museum, a cappuccino bar and a display of futuristic design. "Our attempt to shake hands with the public," Wolf explains.

Talk then turns to the possibility of enticing the Nashville-based Home & Garden channel to base its Western operations at the center. Travel agents soon enter to discuss packaging of center-sponsored vacations to England to visit antique shops and fashion and design houses. The announcement of \o7 that \f7 tour, Wolf muses, could come during L.A.'s two-month UK/LA celebration (which started Sept. 7 and ends Nov. 14), during which Prince Charles might deliver a talk for children on architecture at the PDC.

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