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Living vroom : Furniture Fantasies Come to Life in Revved-Up Designs Sparked by the Imagination


When John Wilson puts you in the driver's seat, you can push the pedal to the metal, crank up the tunes and cruise--all without leaving the comfort of your home.

The Dana Point designer-craftsman specializes in bringing furniture fantasies to life.

Take his signature '57 Chevy chair, for instance.

The bumpers, the grille and other outer markings are vacuum-formed plastic, which is lightweight but gives the illusion of heavy metal. The plastic is the same as that used by Mattel for its model cars.

The upholstery is authentic, much of it the same materials used in the original cars, but overstuffed for comfort.

"My affinity or love affair for cars is what motivated me to design the '57 Chevy chair," said Wilson, 46, who took three years to perfect the design, which he hopes to have produced by a furniture manufacturer soon.

While car furniture is currently the center of his attention, his interests do not stop there. He has turned a number of rooms on their ears, created sets for television shows and helped design real-life things--such as prototype cars for Chrysler and Disney's Splash Mountain in Tokyo.

He combines his expertise in design, upholstery and soft sculpture to bring his or a client's fantasies into the three-dimensional world. Have you ever wanted to walk on clouds--the puffy, fluffy ones that resemble cotton balls? He can pluck them out of the sky and turn them into a chair.

You may have seen his jungle scene couch with trees attached. It was his first showing at the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, which is where the comedy television series "Silver Spoon" saw it. The show leased the couch for its set, giving weekly national exposure to his work. Other TV shows bought Wilson's pieces, too, including car props for the opening scenes on "My 2 Dads" and an oversize hamburger-and-French-fry chair showcased on "The Price Is Right."

Wilson recently designed and built an elaborate playhouse for the children of a client in Beverly Hills. For this project, which he completed about four months ago for about $250,000, Wilson really let his imagination run wild.

Next to the house, he constructed a larger-than-life, two-level concrete tree with nine massive limbs. It is connected to the outside of the house and gives access to an attic playroom. One of the limbs is used for a swing; a slide from the second level is positioned between two other limbs. There is a door into the tree on the first level that leads to the playroom stairs.

The tree is landscaped with a waterfall and a garden, along with three-dimensional fabric pumpkins, a mailbox and fireflies that light up at night as a special effect. Wilson fashioned 500 vacuum-formed leaves (detailed down to the veins) on the structure, giving it a realistic, but cartoonish, tone.

He carried this fanciful mood inside the playroom, which has 12-foot-tall Dutch doors and a big window to the outdoors. The room is divided into vignettes, including a jungle, a beach and undersea area and a train room with switcher.

"It's all padded and very colorful," Wilson said. "There are 30 fish and kelp I hung from the ceiling by fishing line. For the ocean and beach, I used different colored carpets with seashell cutouts.

"In the jungle room, I used bamboo all around and animal chairs with faces that have a cartoony feel. All of the animal faces are made from latex in a soft-sculpture style, but bigger than scale. . . . In the train room, the hat rack is also the switcher."

Wilson hired several people to help with the project, including longtime high school pal Terry Robideau of Burbank. Robideau, who has helped Wilson with a number of his creations, was in on the initial brainstorming for the tree/playroom.

"One of the jewels of our relationship is the brainstorming," Robideau said. Wilson "basically creates fantasy environments. He can nearly re-create the wheel; that's his nature.

"If you give the guy something to go on, the wheels immediately start turning."


For Wilson, wheels are where it all started.

He attended L.A. Trade Tech in 1972, specializing in automobile upholstery. At the time he was restoring an old MG but had problems with the seats, so he took the class to learn the basics. With that knowledge, Wilson flourished.

"I'd restore cars or trucks, then at some point along the way, I started getting tired of upholstering," he said. "I'd been doing it for eight, nine, 10 years.

"It wasn't creative enough. So I got into doing off-road racing seats. I would take a normal job that I could probably whip through, and I would always complicate it by making it jazzier, building the seats up, doing something fancy."

After spending a year at the Art Center of Design in Pasadena in 1986, he worked as an independent contractor for Disney. He learned a lot there, he says, "because at Disney, you're really scrutinized. They're very particular; everything you do has to be right on the money."

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