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Crazy for Custom

Tired of Mass-Produced Items, People Are Opting Instead for Those That Are Handmade and One-of-a-Kind


Step inside Pearl Maremont's Montana Avenue store, Raw Style, and it's obvious this isn't your ordinary furniture shop. It's a riot of color and a mishmash of shapes and designs, from the hand-painted chair decorated with dizzying rows of dots to the handmade ceramic bank shaped like a toaster and the table with faux marble top that looks, even on close scrutiny, like the real thing.

"People say, 'What do you call it?' " Maremont says. "I just say, it's 'anti-style.' It's going against what's expected, putting totally contradictory objects together to create style and balance."

It's also part of a growing trend in American interiors: filling homes with furniture, accessories and decorative items that are handcrafted and one-of-a-kind.

This is not about crocheted toilet paper covers, which to some are still the embodiment of handmade crafts. It is about skilled artisans who work in wood, glass, clay, metal, textiles and other media to create unique, often functional, home furnishings.

It's anticookie-cutter decorating. For years homeowners and apartment dwellers felt secure only if every inch was decorated in American country, cottage style or contemporary.

They're becoming bolder now, mixing tribal masks with antique Wedgwood. Credit the popularity of the Home & Garden Television cable channel, an increased interest in antiques and vintage items, and the scads of high-gloss shelter magazines, all of which encourage individual style and eclecticism.

Margaret Kennedy, editor of House Beautiful, offers another explanation: "This counteracts the sensibility of everything being so high-tech. I was recently at a furniture show in New York, and a lot of the participants started out thinking they would be architects but suddenly discovered the creativity of working with their hands. I think it's an antidote to technology, and the appreciation of these things is being reassessed."

Maremont agrees.

"You practically have no contact in any way with humanity anymore," she says. "This gives you that. There's someone doing this with their hand, their thought, their love."

Relief from technology is precisely what one customer wanted when he came to Carl Mueller's Piecemaker store on 3rd Street near the Beverly Center, which features his designs of handmade, hand-painted Shaker-style pine furniture.

Mueller recalls the day this "total techno guy" wandered in looking for a place to stash his arsenal of stereos, VCRs and other heavy-metal audio-visual items.

"He wanted something where the doors would shut and he could have his things disappear," Mueller says. "He wanted a simple piece to look at, and wood grain is so nice. It's timeless."

Not all crafted furnishings fit into the "country" realm; artists work in everything from contemporary to classic to ethnic to Victorian styles.

"You can have any look you want," Kennedy explains, "and there is a design somewhere that will fit with your look, whether it's minimalism or traditional."

Taking the concept even further, some artists will create custom designs for the home, garden or office. And if that's not enough one on one, some store owners with interior design backgrounds will advise customers on how to integrate these one-of-a-kind pieces with their existing furnishings.

"Sometimes a customer will commission an artist to do a certain subject matter with certain motifs and color schemes," explains Denise Saker of the Rosetta Stone Gallery in Los Feliz, which offers artist-made items, plus antiques and imported furniture. "I will often align someone with an artist who can do something that will look wonderful in their homes."

In the design world, at least, "Support your local artisan" may be the rallying cry of the next millennium. Here are some places to get a head start:

Combining Aesthetics and Practicality

Mueller's Shaker-style pine furniture is at once unpretentious, warm and sturdy. The traditional Shaker severity is softened with hand-painted folk motifs and distressed patinas executed in muted shades of butterscotch, hunter green, barn red and eggplant. They complement the strong, clean lines of his armoires, tables, chairs, cabinets, dressers and accessories, such as birdhouses, bread troughs, mirrors and trays. (Prices range from $45 to $215 for accessories and from $150 to $700 and up for furniture.) Combining function with aesthetically pleasing, livable design has become his signature.

"I guess it's my pragmatic side, but I've never been big on froufy stuff," says Mueller, explaining his affinity for Shaker. "It's a beautiful piece because it's doing what you want it to do."

Inspiration for pieces sometimes comes from sheer necessity. His 4-year-old daughter, Claren, was the spark behind the Claren Closet, a vertical cabinet that can hold children's clothes. As a baby, she inspired a shelf that can hang above a changing table, with ample space for towels, diapers and powder.

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