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SUNDAY BRUNCH

The Fabric of Their Lives

July 19, 1998|CLIFFORD ROTHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It started with a dusty, antique silk-screen machine sitting unused in the corner of a warehouse in central Mexico. Over drinks in a local bar, Michael Parker, on a whim and remembering his fascination with the hand-printed T-shirts of his teens, bought the press. With no instructions and trial and error, Parker and his artist wife, Laurel Huggins, began concocting original formulations for dyeing and printing fabrics.

Eight years later, the couple's work is eliciting nationwide attention, as the velvet pillows, throws, wall-hangings and other fabric goods coming out of their Ventura factory are proliferating in venues including Barneys New York, Nordstrom and the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.

Their story is the collective dream of millions of baby boomers with counterculture roots: Avoid the corporate rat race, start your own business creating your own art, collaborate with your life partner--and hit it big.

Even their venue seems charmed. The couple has set up shop in a shuttered, turn-of-the-century brick factory, a former meatpacking plant, where a close-knit staff of seven dyes fabrics in the cellar, assembles and prints on the main floor, and relaxes over cocktails on the rooftop overlooking the Ventura hills on one side, the Pacific on the other.

Huggins, 49, and Parker, 51, work together and play together with their two children, Baylee, 8, and Alexander Maxfield, 4. They don't make a move without each other, complete each other's sentences and collaborate on their creations.

"Michael and I will look at a picture, or just some image, some little thing, and start toying with it with each other," Huggins says. "It'll just click for both of us, and we'll say to each other, 'Isn't that cool?' We'll brood over it, add a line here, take off lines here. We have designed a whole bedding line from some little element."

Their gross sales have climbed from $45,000 in 1996 to $170,000 last year.

"We're estimating about a half-million dollars this year," Parker says.

*

The combination of Old World European styling, dusty exotic colors, natural dyes, antique-inspired designs and the sensual feel of their special dye process won the couple the best of the show award at last year's New York Home Textile Show.

Their sensibility is in touch with the new millennium hunger for the traditional. The couple's velvet creations are taking off at Southern California trendsetters like Fred Segal on Melrose, Room With a View on Montana and Scenario in Brentwood.

The couple makes pillows from tiny to oversized with fringes or piping, unprinted or printed with 20 designs. They do bedspreads, ottomans, duvets, bedskirts, drapes, flags, sofa throws, table runners and tablecloths as well as clothing and purses.

As they give a tour on their showroom, Huggins lifts a luxurious spread of material.

"This is what got us into fashion," she says. "People started wearing our table runners and our sofa throws. You just want to wear it, it feels so good. So we started to create pieces as fashion accessories."

Huggins and Parker had moved around in the arts, looking for their metiers separately and together. Huggins was reared in an artistic environment.

"My father was a sign painter and a silk-screener. We grew up in his studio," Huggins says. "He trained me in the classics. I did portrait painting."

She moved into commercial graphics--album cover design, film promotion art--and interior design and murals.

"I'm probably best known for the abstract paintings. I used to do monster abstracts in lacquer," she says. Her work was shown at two galleries, Karl Bornstein in Santa Monica, and Foster White in Seattle.

Parker experimented with three-dimensional art in metals and woods but earned his living as a carpenter and cabinetmaker. He met Huggins in Carmel in 1987, and she asked him to help her build a showroom and studio.

"We worked together for five months, as just pals," Parker says.

"You know, where you tell everything you wouldn't tell in a prospective romantic relationship," Huggins says.

They were expecting their first child when they moved to Mexico.

"We had been talking about doing something different with our lives," Huggins says.

"Having the baby was more important than anything," Parker says. "Even though the studio we built was just finished, we sold everything and decided to take a few years off."

When Parker bought the ancient fabric-printing equipment, Huggins says, "I looked at it, and thought, 'Oh, no.' All I remembered, from my father, was [silk-screening] being messy."

That the machine turned out these mystical colors and fabric with an extra sheen was a serendipitous accident.

"I couldn't read Spanish," says Parker. He mixed the chemicals and operated the old equipment on intuition. Out came ethereal shades of pink, blue, gold, green on rayon velvet.

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