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STYLE & CULTURE | DESIGN

The wow room

Santa Monica, a city with a long-standing interest in design, is becoming a retail center for sophisticated furniture and furnishings.

November 27, 2002|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

It's impossible for guests not to gawk: Truly, that's some crazy-kinky vertical sofa Brad Pitt's standing next to at the new Vitra furniture showroom.

The store's opening-night party is a Spin-Art swirl of faces from the entertainment and design worlds plus several hundred others dressed in art gallery black, including a pair of shy nuns from Mexico City. Among the head-turning objects positioned on concrete tiers and wood planks are Frank Gehry's sturdy corrugated cardboard Wiggle chair, which goes for $995, and the $12,000 talker, Verner Panton's carrot-colored "Living Tower" sofa, which can stack four people above one another.

Vitra, which opened last week, is the latest in a string of high-end European and contemporary showrooms to situate within blocks of one another near the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Tree-lined streets and big display windows in this, the Bayside District, beckon browsing pedestrians.

In July, Boffi, a luxury Italian kitchen and bath company that boasts $37,000 tubs carved from Bihara stone, moved into a dramatic two-story brick building on 4th Street. And in August, San Francisco-based Design Within Reach converted a bookstore on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 4th Street into a product gallery housing Philippe Starck's Hula Hoop swivel chairs ($595) and George Nelson's Saucer Pendant lamps ($335).

Now there's Vitra on 5th Street. It's here, in a former military recruiting center with exposed ceiling rafters, rather than elsewhere in L.A. because of "professional links ... and our people told me we should be here," says Rolf Fehlbaum, CEO of the Swiss company that makes designer home and office furniture. (Five days earlier they launched a showroom in New York's meatpacking district.)

There are reasons he was steered toward Santa Monica. The Bayside District is a creative environment that attracts sophisticated furniture and furnishings shoppers who have a fondness for a well-placed curve. And there's space to lease, thanks to a series of economic waves.

In the 1990s, film and TV studios, production houses and advertising agencies settled in the city. Many of these right-brainers liked living and playing close to work, and the renovated Third Street Promenade near the Santa Monica Pier became a watering hole. As the area's popularity rose, so did rents; art galleries and other independents were replaced by formula stores and other big-buck operations. Dot-com and software companies went poof in 2001, and rents softened enough to entice furniture companies to follow the footsteps of Dormire, the ICF Group and Knoll.

The city has never offered incentives for design-based companies to set up shop. "They just come here," says Mark Richter, economic development manager of the 8-square-mile of earth that's boxed in on three sides by the City of Angels and opens to the ocean.

'A counterbalance'

From the vantage point of the bookstore he manages on the promenade, Douglas Woods has watched the design scene unfold like an unleashed bolt of fabric. Professionals, celebrities and -- by all appearances -- regular folks in worn shorts and flip-flops spend hours hunched over visual arts books in his store, Hennessey + Ingalls. Then they continue their education by window-shopping the neighboring furniture stores.

"In the 20 years we've been here, Santa Monica has gone from a sleepy, seaside community to a design hub," says Woods, who collaborated with the Eames Office Gallery on nearby Main Street to create a window display in the bookstore on the furniture designs of Charles and Ray Eames, who were based in Santa Monica.

"The showrooms moving into the neighborhood create a counterbalance to the chain stores that bring a same-old, same-old atmosphere," Woods says. "The showrooms make the neighborhood more interesting and bring like-minded people here."

Across the promenade from the bookstore is the playful accessory store, Ultra House, where passersby pause to check out the inflatable 9-foot plastic ball called the Chillout Room ($500). Five people can crawl inside and gaze through its transparent bubble ceiling. Says the manager who goes by one name only, Dawid, "People here understand cool."

The Santa Monica connection

Two blocks away, the walls of Vitra's showroom are adorned with spiral graphics that repeat the lean lines and stylized angles of the designer furniture on the floor: Jasper Morrison's Ply chairs ($775); Maarten van Severen's .03 chairs ($465) and Jean Prouve's Gueridon tables ($1,165).

Vitra chief Fehlbaum acknowledges that his company owes a lot of its success to Santa Monica. One of his first coups -- in 1957 -- was landing the European rights to reproduce the Eameses' pieces. That deal propelled the Swiss company from one that made glass display cases -- vitrines -- into an internationally known furniture manufacturer.

And there's another strong tie: Fehlbaum and longtime Santa Monica resident Gehry go way back. They met in the 1960s, and the architect's first European commission was the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, in 1989.

Before arriving in Santa Monica, Vitra spent two years in a "cave-of-a-space without street exposure" in the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, says the store's space planner Jess Mullen-Carey. The easy access to the storeroom's new home brings not only celebrities and style setters to its doors but also regulars who appreciate good design.

Mullen-Cary says a worker laying telecommunications cable in the store before the opening was scholarly in his knowledge of the Eameses' output and bought a wood miniature of one of their chairs his mom used to have.

And those sweet nuns at the party? They know design too. They worship at a gold-paneled altar in Mexico City's Tlalpan Chapel, a gift from Pritzker Prize-winning architect Luis Barragan.

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