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Pure solutions

Simplicity informs the designs of two who got their start designing tanning salons, and now bask in the glow of success.

March 04, 2003|Susan Freudenheim | Times Staff Writer

As daylight fades on a nondescript Beverly Boulevard strip mall, a pastel-blue light snaps on in a translucent window, bathing an outdoor terrace in its ethereal glow. The ordinariness of the space disappears, transformed by this silent homage to a light sculpture by James Turrell. In a divine L.A.-style marriage of art and commerce, the source of this transformation is an illuminated bed in a tanning salon.

Designing interiors for tanning salons might seem an unlikely way to kick off an avant-garde architectural practice, but sparks sometimes can fly from even the most mundane commissions. For Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena, the subtle palette of light that emanates from a salon's beds spoke to their taste for minimalist art. In 1997 they designed a pared-down salon in Beverly Hills, their first of three for Electric Sun owner Brian Heberling. Intrigued by the changing colors that ooze from the private spaces as each machine is turned on and off, they incorporated the illumination as an ever-evolving design element.

The project won them an honor award from the L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and also was a trigger for their inclusion in the upcoming "National Design Triennial: Inside Design Now," opening April 22 at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Their young firm, formed in 1995, is one of just 80 design teams represented in the prestigious exhibition, the museum's second survey of architecture, product and graphic design, fashion and new media.

Yet despite their success, Escher and GuneWardena remain almost apologetic about their tanning salon designs, the last of which, completed in 2001, employs colorful wall panels printed with plant-like graphic images by L.A. artist Jonathan Williams. In a transient business, this third, the most dramatic of their designs for Electric Sun, is also the only one that still exists.

GuneWardena rolls his eyes when he thinks back to the early conversations on the projects. "Who wants to do a tanning salon?" he remembers thinking.

"We've never used them," adds Escher.

But they're glad they didn't walk away. They now compare the final salon to lanterns blinking off and on in a variety of configurations. The effect on the space is, says Escher, like "images from Kabuki theater."

Don Albrecht, curator of the Cooper-Hewitt show, cites such greats as Mies van der Rohe as among those who turned rudimentary buildings into works of art. "One of the nuances of design these days is to make a connection between art and architecture," he says, lauding Escher and GuneWardena's ability to "take something so ordinary and make it beautiful."

No signature style

Partners in life as well as work, both architects are more inclined toward bookish pursuits than the sybaritic image a tanning salon might represent.

Escher, 42, was born in the United States but raised in Switzerland from the age of 5; he studied architecture in Zurich and moved to L.A. after graduation. He has edited a monograph on the work of L.A. modernist John Lautner, whose archives he oversees. He also serves as president of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, a nonprofit group that promotes dialogue on architecture and urbanism.

GuneWardena, 43, is doing research for a book on Buddhist temples in Los Angeles. Although born in Sri Lanka, he was not raised Buddhist, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 8. But he has become increasingly intrigued by the contemplative quality of the religion and the spare design of its prayer spaces.

The duo's projects are not defined by a single signature style, although their block-like shapes often share the simplicity of, say, minimalist sculptor Donald Judd's compact, dense concrete cubes. Like Judd, Escher and GuneWardena intentionally pare down their designs as much as possible, aiming for only the purest solution to a problem. "Our work is not so much about developing forms," says Escher. "It's much more about developing what we refer to as quiet spaces."

"We aim to reduce any distractions from the project to only what is required for the space," adds GuneWardena. "Whether it be light or materials."

Despite their cultural differences, the architects say their sensibilities meet in the middle. "Ravi has more tendency to absorb a situation and respond to what is there," says Escher, "and I probably have much more tendency to control a situation. But I think our work is good because it gets worked on from both ends."

Although they have done many commercial projects -- including the Ruth Bachofner Gallery in Santa Monica, the installation design of an exhibition of photography by Sharon Lockhardt at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and a Vietnamese restaurant, called Pho, opening soon in Silver Lake -- their residential work allows them the most room to experiment. Two residences completed in 2000, one a restoration and the other a ground-up design, are defining works for the team.

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