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DESIGNING MINDS / An occasional look at emerging and
established artists. Today: Joshua Triliegi

The Art of Simplicity

This artist's approach to his furniture, sculpture and design concepts parallels his life philosophy: Don't force it.

July 01, 1999|MAIRI HENNESSY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When artist Joshua Triliegi sculpted the interior of the Atlas Bar & Grill in Los Angeles for designer Ron Meyers in 1989, it wasn't about the money.

"It was never a business for me," Triliegi says. "It was a love and a desire."

This love and desire were crafted in an antiquated metal shop equipped with handmade tools and an old stamper from World War II. There, two Cuban metal smiths taught Triliegi the basics of blacksmithing.

"I learned to do things with a hammer, an anvil and a piece of metal. That's it. No frills. It's a great way to start," Triliegi says.

Fast-forward 10 years: Triliegi still sculpts in the same East L.A. shop, still shuns machinery and still strives for simplicity. His original furniture, sculpture and design concepts have spread through Los Angeles more publicly than his name. His metalwork adorns properties in the Hollywood Hills. His furniture has been snatched up by celebrities like Demi Moore. And his commercial projects range from a stairwell inspired by Salvador Dali's mustache in Cava restaurant on 3rd Street in Los Angeles, to organic, tree-like tables, chairs and leaf-detailed doorknobs for the Nicole Miller showroom downtown.

Not the self-promoting type, the 33-year-old Triliegi has let the work speak for itself.

"I've been sort of a secret in Los Angeles," he says.

Rebecca Lee of San Diego, possibly his greatest fan, has been collecting Triliegi's work since she first laid eyes on it seven years ago. She's acquired several of his paintings--including a self-portrait he did in Vienna--sculpture and ironworks. When not collecting, Lee is busy turning her friends and daughter into collectors.

Three of his 6-foot trellises stand in her garden.

"I can't describe them, they are so beautiful. They literally stop traffic," Lee says. "His work is outstanding from every angle, no matter where you stand."

Over the years she's noted a slow progression in his work.

"There's more maturity, more depth now," she says.

For Milwaukee-born Triliegi, his earliest interests in art and design sprang from childhood. From a family of artists--his father was a potter, a grandfather made cardboard reliefs--he continues to evolve and to explore a variety of media, including wood and glass. Last summer he designed his first glass-and-spun-metal chandelier for the restaurant North on Sunset Boulevard.

"It's rare to find a guy like that," says North owner Marc Smith. "He gets right into the groove. He had a great feel for what we wanted to accomplish. Some designers think it's all me or nothing. Not only is Joshua a good solo designer, he can work in a group."

Most recently, Triliegi has launched his first noncustom piece--the Vulcan occasional table, fusing aerospace tooling and '30s Deco shapes.

"I really became exclusive and got off on this whole exclusive edge. That's why I wanted to come up with the Vulcan objects--to get more into the public," he explains.

He's working on expanding the line. The table, which retails for $450, is on sale for $299 at Linder Design on La Brea Avenue in West Hollywood. In comparison, the price tags on his original works range from $1,000 and up for a bed, $2,000 to $3,000 for sculptures and $8,000 to $10,000 for handcrafted ironwork gates. Current commercial projects include light fixtures for two of designer Ricki Kline's nightspots, the recently opened Playroom and the venue formerly known as Hollywood Moguls.

Culling inspiration from Paris to Vienna to the jungles of Bali, both the artist and his work have metamorphosed over the last decade. And what started with sculpting classical realist objects in clay has led to furniture design.

How?

"Curiosity," Triliegi explains. One day he decided to make a chair. So he did. And the second time around he made a comfortable one. "But I don't want to make a chair every year for the next 50 years. I like to mix it up--including different materials."

In Pursuit of Balance and Simplicity

After seven years of working with metal, Triliegi needed new material.

"When working with metal," he says, "you take this base material, and you're responsible for shaping it, and you're responsible for banging it. You have to hit it very hard. I became a hammer--even in my personal relations. I was shaping the whole world around me.

"That's fine when you're in your 20s, but as you get into your 30s, if you want stable relationships, you can't force things."

In 1996, he set off to Indonesia to search for something more Zen-like. Turning to wood sculpting, he developed skills opposite of those he had applied to metal work.

After shaping and controlling, it was about taking away. He studied with a master carver of Hindu icons, who told him: "In every tree there is a man, and you must remove [the negative] to find the positive image of the man."

Triliegi explains: "With the wood, you just take away what you don't like; take away the bad things and what you have left is the beauty. And in a way that's what I needed to do in my own life. Subtract things."

The philosophy gained in the jungles of Bali is manifested in his furniture design. Even with its space-age spin, the Vulcan table is simple and balanced.

Triliegi is the first to admit he's not in the same place he was 10 years ago, nor does he wish to be. But one theme has remained constant.

"I have always had simplicity."

Joshua Triliegi can be reached at (213) 892-6830. A 10-year toast to his career will be celebrated at a reception Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Atlas Bar & Grill, 3760 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

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