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The Eye by Barbara King

Everything must go

Harry Segil designs a future with less stuff and more room for fresh ideas. Is downsizing easy? No way.

September 09, 2004|Barbara King

"It's almost the history of design for the last three centuries," says Carolyn Mani, director of Sunset Estate Auctions at Bonhams & Butterfields, which will auction off a few of the most important pieces Oct. 17.

In the mid-'80s, Harry took the design world by storm after he opened an antiques showroom on La Brea, the HarRy Gallery, and began to fill it with wildly inventive furniture that he had first made "just for fun, just for myself." Like him, it had big personality -- a whimsy and theatrical posture that, from the get-go, captivated celebrities: Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Diane Keaton, Robin Williams, Philippe Starck, Valentino: In they came, out they went with his furniture.

Before long, he attracted international attention. Publications from France to Israel to Saudi Arabia ran stories about HaRry Art Furniture, as it was known. They viewed it as quintessential L.A. and a seminal expression of American pop culture and everything it conjured: pink Cadillacs, palms, rock 'n' roll, neon signs, the myth of Hollywood. It appeared in commercials. for Budweiser, Pepsi, Nike, McDonald's, Mattel, General Motors.

The NBC peacock chair? HaRry art.

His bold and energetic pieces pushed the limits of furniture design with their witty mix of materials and styles: cast-iron legs with lacquered backs, say, and a '60s picture on the side covered with vinyl. If he was capturing American pop culture at its most vivid, he was also recapturing his roots: the profusion of colorful flora from his native South Africa that affected his aesthetic sensibilities early on. "The universe is filled with color," he says. "There are no beige or gray flowers."

Although his designs were suggestive of any number of influences -- Noguchi, Vladimir Kagan, Art Deco, '50s diners, Warhol, Hockney, Dali, tribal African art -- they were wholly original.

But in 1992, he decided he'd had enough. "I couldn't stand all the attention anymore," he says. At his peak, he closed the high-profile La Brea shop. He moved to his old 4,000-square-foot warehouse on Venice Boulevard, which "remained a full, cluttered space until the past January, when I closed it, too."

His mother's death three years ago precipitated a long period of introspection, during which it became clear to him that he had to make drastic changes: "My house and my life were cluttered up with the past." It takes an event of this enormity, he believes -- death, divorce, illness, loss of a job -- to shock you into the reality of "who you want to be and how you really want to live."

Working every day and night for five months, he cleared out the warehouse: sold some things, tossed some, hauled five truckloads away to a thrift store. "It gave me the courage to take on my home," he says. "Now I'm fighting the dragon."

He's doing this not so much because he's tired of dusting all those surfaces and ceramics in the 3,300-square-foot house, but because he wants "new adventures and new experiences. We hold onto possessions and tired relationships, and eventually they tie up our emotions in barbed wire," he says. "But it's a helluva task to let go of them. I mean, there have been times during the last few weeks when I've felt choked, unable to breathe, numb, terrified. It's painful on every level."

With a small crew of hired help, he manages to sell off the bulk of the house's contents to dealers, friends, strangers who hear about the last-weekend estate sale.

Now, a month later, he's set up a well-lighted living quarters in less than 800 square feet, with a mere six or seven pieces -- easy, functional pieces by '60s designers. And very little adornment. "In this one small area I can read, listen to music, cook a meal, exercise, entertain friends, sleep or do a creative project. It's as much as I'll ever need."

Well, make that as much as he needs for a while. He admits it's a way station.

"I'm weaning myself from the traditional kind of suburban houses to create a bridge to the next place. I can live here without so much sentimental attachment to the place. When I'm ready to leave next time, it'll be easy. I'll just up and go." Lately, he's pared down his look, too. Elegant tailored slacks, custom shirts, a ring and a watch. Neutral tones. Some of the time, at least. With his shaved head and postmodern round glasses, he's sort of Ben Kingsley meets Swifty Lazar.

The simplicity and "the huge weight of responsibility" that's off him is already beginning to do what he hoped it would: Fresh ideas for designs, he says, are "engulfing his mind." The inspiration has struck to create an "institute of creativity" in his studio, open it up for lectures, exhibitions, workshops.

His new palette? White. White? Harry Segil, living without color? "White is a combination of all colors," he corrects me. "And besides, I can be colorful in white, I can be colorful naked, I can be colorful swinging from the treetops. But don't worry. I'll stick with the white part for now."

*

Barbara King, editor of the Home section, can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com

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