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Starting from sketch ...

L.A. is filled with talented artisans who are ready to furnish your dreams with reality.

May 15, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Most of us who shop for furniture ultimately take what's out there, whether it's perfect or nearly so or just the best we can find for the price. But the furniture secret of Los Angeles is that there is a thriving custom-made world -- in some other genre, like music or film, you might think of it as an underground -- populated by craftsmen who will make original pieces on demand. Quickly. Inexpensively. And well.

This world is mostly traveled by designers, architects and furniture store owners catering to picky clients. But a small number of people enter unescorted, armed only with a desire to have something translated from their heads into something for their homes.

To these people, half an inch has a lot of power. It can make a coffee-table top look elegant or clunky. A few more inches in the chrome legs might mean two drawers can be tucked underneath to hide magazines and remotes. And perhaps the table could double as extra seating when the party's going.

As in the movies, anything is possible. Especially in California, which has more furniture makers than any other state except North Carolina. Some learned their trades before moving here; others learned in Hollywood set shops.

Many labor far from the public view, in cramped workrooms alongside muffler shops and turquoise motels with barred windows. But they're willing to take an order from anyone who enters their doors. Even someone with just a rough sketch and a vague vision of a piece made out of wood, metal, plastic or foam.

"There's no question that people are more design savvy here," says Leslie Shapiro, who sells her contemporary line at 407 Furniture on Fairfax but doesn't turn away those with a different idea. "People might really like a piece of furniture they see, but something's off -- the quality, the price, the wood color. That's when they want to make something that's perfect."

The trick for do-it-yourselfers is ending up with a functional piece of furniture that doesn't look like it should be showcased in your next garage sale.

One designer with a showroom on La Brea Avenue can only imagine disaster when a customer works directly with the workroom. He compares it to the telephone game, in which a simple sentence gets reinterpreted each time it's passed on to the next person. "The idea has to go from your head to a workman's tools, and how the thing comes out is anyone's guess."

Some workrooms will make blueprints based on dimensions given to them by people who use their hands to describe what they want or who bring in images of furniture parts they want cobbled together. There are also showrooms that offer made-to-order furniture. Shoppers can pick out the parts they like on the showroom floor -- it might be a leg on one piece, a knob on another and the finish of a third.

Sketching something is the easy part, says Peter Di Sabatino, who heads the environmental design department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Clearing the other hurdles -- materials, function, structural stability, durability, safety, craftsmanship, cost -- requires skill or, at least, a high threshold for trial-and-error agony.

For David Rodgers, a special-events producer, a simple drawing on a cocktail napkin prompted a journey through the foam shops, discount fabric stores and furniture workrooms of Los Angeles, then back to his office on Hollywood Boulevard with a khaki-colored chair shaped like a packing peanut.

His basic design went through a prototype stage in which it was built with lesser quality foam and fabric. He made refinements, such as making the back taller because the weight of his body squished the foam too much, lessening the back support.

Once he was happy with the design, he started again, using high-quality polyurethane foam and cotton twill.

The uninitiated usually learn about workrooms through word of mouth, by thumbing through telephone directories and doing Internet searches using the keywords "Los Angeles" and "upholstery," "foam," "metal," "glass" or "plastic." Or they stumble upon workrooms on busy streets in South Los Angeles, the Mt. Washington area and other pockets where they tend to cluster.

"If you go to one shop and they don't do that kind of work, they are so well connected they know someone who does," says Rodgers.

He recommends the first job you take to a workroom be a small project. That way, you can test the workmanship and see how closely the final cost matches the estimate.

To make sure it turns out as you see it, take as many images of what you want to the workroom as you can. If you have a sketch that is exact, have it scanned, enlarged to actual size and printed on heavy bond paper to serve as a template. Kinko's charges $12 per square foot for this service.

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