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Design, art and fun

Roy McMakin creates furniture, paintings and drawings, juggling functionality and expectation with a sense of play. His work is soon to be the focus of a MOCA retrospective.

March 16, 2003|Susan Freudenheim | Times Staff Writer

Seattle — The big pink chest of drawers has knobs that don't match and a couple of odd-colored drawers. Finely wrought in every detail, it has some knobs that are a little too big, others a little too small. Colors change almost randomly -- a top drawer and one of the middle drawer's knobs are white, the bottom drawer and its knobs are red.

This is not your grandmother's bedroom bureau, although at first glance that's what it looks like.

Enter the looking-glass world of Roy McMakin, where simple design is not that simple and familiar forms are altered just enough to throw perception off balance. An accomplished artist as well as a designer of furniture, interiors and architecture, McMakin knows that the ordinary can be raised to new heights by small adjustments and a sense of play.

"I think it's part of the 'how to make an archetype be both more of an archetype and not' series I have been doing since my first table," McMakin says of the "Swofford Chest of Drawers" (2001), named after Beth Swofford, who commissioned it. "The form is slightly overscaled, which I think has to do with memory, and the various colors and knob sizes are about calling attention to something."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Hugh Davies -- A profile of artist-designer Roy McMakin in Sunday's Calendar section identified Hugh Davies as director of the San Diego Museum of Art. Davies is director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 23, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Hugh Davies -- A profile of artist-designer Roy McMakin last Sunday identified Hugh Davies as director of the San Diego Museum of Art. Davies is director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Soft-spoken and friendly, McMakin, 46, displays none of the airs one might expect of someone whose clients include many on Hollywood's A-list, and his dedication to the 20-some artisans and architects who work for him underscores his commitment to quality craftsmanship -- utilitarianism with a twist.

Hard to classify, he is best known for his Domestic Furniture Co., which he first established with a showroom on L.A.'s Beverly Boulevard in 1987. There, his work caught the eye of many in the world of entertainment and art, and he quickly moved from selling individual pieces to overhauling entire homes. But he wasn't happy living in L.A., where for a variety of personal and professional reasons he had given up making art in favor of design.

In the early 1990s, he fled to this city outside the arts mainstream, a place plentiful in lumber and lovers of crafts. As he downsized his L.A. showroom -- he now has a small space on Wilshire Boulevard, near Fairfax Avenue -- he slowly built up a workshop here that continues to serve his national clients and also gives him greater freedom. In the process he became what he is today -- equal parts artist, designer and businessman.

McMakin now moves easily between making paintings and drawings, creating vast arrays of furniture, and designing and renovating houses. And with the help of a manager, he juggles the day-to-day affairs of a business that relies on keeping his clients happy. He talks about his clients as "best friends" and his staff as family. Such close, ongoing relationships are clearly important to him -- trust is what allows him to make work that moves beyond expectations.

His furniture is often traditional in its forms, but the range can be huge -- from overstuffed upholstered armchairs to simple daybeds to ornate library tables. His style is modern and nostalgic at the same time, open to incorporating delicate Regency style in one renovation project and rustic ranch style in another. His artwork, too, ranges in style and mediums. He's made sculptures that can be used -- what looks like a bureau on one side is a bookshelf in back. And he's made others that look functional but aren't -- such as a painting of a vanity that can't be opened.

These days he's also making public artworks, including major commissions for San Diego, San Francisco and a piece for a park in West Hollywood. And he's spent a good deal of his time in recent months putting the finishing touches on a retrospective of his art and design work, "Roy McMakin: A Door Meant as Adornment," opening next Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Pacific Design Center.

"I used to think that I was about simplicity," McMakin says. "Now I find that more and more I'm about complexity and denseness and piling up." Distinctions between craft, fine design and art fly out the window. This is a man who appears to know everything there is to know about wood, but calls himself a conceptual artist.

"Basically, because of the time we live in and my education, I think I live my life as a conceptual artist," he says. "My art is expressed in a variety of ways, and some of them exist to serve people and some are done as art, but while I segregate them in the way they're consumed and partly how I think about them, ultimately they're not separate. They're just different endeavors interpretable by the user."

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