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Geometric Shapes Bring an Added Dimension

High-end textile and furniture designer Sally Sirkin Lewis ditched her politically incorrect animal hides in favor of circles and stripes.

May 25, 2000|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a way, Sally Sirkin Lewis can attribute her new collection, with its bold geometric designs, to environmental consciousness.

Not hers, other people's. Since the 1960s when she started designing textiles and furniture, Lewis has established an international reputation for her signature look--airy "California" rooms in whites, beiges and neutral tones with sharp touches of color--something that "jumps out and makes a statement."

These might be zebra stripes, leopard or other animal hides, or a beautiful piece of tapestry. Lewis, 67, who grew up in Brooklyn influenced by her artist mother and clothing designer grandfather, was surrounded by rich fabrics and leathers.

But as environmental awareness heightened during the 1990s, she recalled, "People started telling me, 'You'd better get rid of the zebras.' "

If animal hides were out, that left tapestry. Ten years ago, Lewis began sketching a new vision of tapestry. A passionate collector of modern art (she once moved to a larger house to accommodate abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb's 9-foot "Pink Smash"), she has long wanted to translate the energy of abstract contemporary designs into the woven texture of tapestry.

"I wanted something with more impact than the pastoral and floral patterns you always see," said Lewis, whose own art collection is such a dramatic part of her Beverly Hills home that she has been included on Museum of Contemporary Art tours.

"All I could think of was a geometric kind of design." The resulting new Tapestry collection of chairs and sofas in stripes, interlocking circles and sweeping curves dominates her West Hollywood showroom on Melrose Avenue. The collection is punctuated by bursts of lemon peel, green and persimmon.

"While I have been called the 'queen of beige,' I absolutely love color," insists Lewis, who, nonetheless, acknowledged that she added neutrals to the colorful mix when a "reality check set in."

As president and chief executive of J. Robert Scott design house (named after her son) in West Hollywood, Lewis is its sole creative force. Her upscale furniture (sofas range from $4,500 to $8,000) and signature classical-modern look have attracted such stars as Barbra Streisand, Glenn Close and Joni Mitchell. And her determination is legendary.

"When Sally decides to do something, it comes true," said designer Keith McCoy, whose neighboring Melrose Avenue showroom features fabrics and wall coverings. "I'm sure there were lots of trials and errors in bringing this process to fruition, but it is totally unique and very, very 'today.' "

The innovations in Lewis' new collection are not only in design but also in production.

To achieve visual impact, she wanted to revive a centuries-old weaving technique that loops each piece of yarn individually as it goes through the loom, producing a textured needlepoint look.

Originally used in Europe to produce a famed brand of Wilton carpeting so fine it was used for the interiors of the Rolls-Royce among other things, the loop technique isn't considered cost effective by manufacturers today because the loom must move at very slow speeds to create an even, heavy loop surface, or pile.

"Most mills did not want to touch this project," said Lewis, who personally deals with textile mills in 12 countries to customize her high-end furniture. "Their looms are set up to spin out thousands of yards a day."

She had to persuade a family-owned company in France to restore a loom that hadn't been used for 100 years.

It took years of campaigning. When Lewis first approached the owner of the company, she got a flat no. Later, she tried his eldest son and got the same answer.

"Then two years ago the youngest son, Benoit Le Clerque, entered the business, and I finally found somebody who was interested. I think his family wanted to kill him at first, but now they are all proud of the project."

The loom that had to be resuscitated is so large that workers had to use scaffolding to reach the top of it, she said.

"Essentially she is using a very old weaving structure to produce a very contemporary design," said Mark Merlie, J. Robert Scott's vice president of textiles. "Sally and I crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean for years to get this going. They actually had to take some new technology and add it to the loom."

In a second departure from normal production, the tapestry is not woven in a continuous roll but, rather, in single panels, which each take four hours to weave.

Each panel, which provides enough material for one wood-frame chair, has dotted cutting lines like a pattern to designate the covering for a chair's back, seat and armrest pads. To accommodate large chair designs, panels are an oversized 54 inches wide.

Lewis, who is seeking a design patent on the single-panel construction, says, "People can buy the panels and put them on their own chairs, or buy our chairs." (Panels start at $540, and the Tapestry chairs start at $2,000.)

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