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In the NoHo Arts District, 'I' stands for Isermann

The artist's bold geometric tile design brings a lively look to an apartment building.

June 01, 2005|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

The wild pop of color and pattern is difficult to miss, blazing from the exterior of a new apartment building where balconies frame geometric designs in interlocking red, black, ochre and white tiles. In the building's lobby, visible through glass, the design repeats, floor to ceiling.

The effect is as unexpected on the quiet North Hollywood street as is its source: Jim Isermann, a Palm Springs-based artist with an international reputation as an innovator who blurs the distinctions between fine art and contemporary design.

Isermann is known for decorative, bold-patterned domestic designs, work that includes furniture, wall coverings, rugs, paintings and fabric-covered sculptures. In addition to solo and group exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, he has designed site-specific installations for a number of public spaces.

His geometric tile design for the just-completed mixed-used Ticino building in the NoHo Arts District came about as a result of the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency's requirement that developers earmark 1% of project costs for public art.

The six-story building on McCormick Street was designed by DE Architects of Santa Monica and built by JSM Construction, which now occupies the building's ground-floor commercial space. Ten of its 103 residential units are reserved for low-income tenants.

The building's clean-lined design, reminiscent of midcentury modern architecture, "is very bold, graphic," said arts consultant Kathy Lucoff, who was hired by JSM and brought Isermann to the attention of the developers, architect Don Empakeris and the redevelopment agency's board.

Isermann said his interest was sparked by the fact that his artwork was envisioned as part of the building's architectural design, not as an afterthought.

"I think public art works best," he said, "when it's just integrated into a building and becomes identifiable for the people living there as a kind of everyday experience. They're not knocked over the head with it being art; the more time they spend with it, the more they understand it and start to see the kind of repeating patterns in things that I'm drawn to."

Originally, only the building's 10 iron-mesh balconies were to feature Isermann's tiles, but the artist suggested that the design be carried over into the lobby, to give residents "a close, intimate experience, in addition to seeing the tiles from much farther away."

Isermann found inspiration for his "I"-shaped tiles -- more than 1,400 of them -- in the building's roof-level exposed I-beams and in the work of David Hicks, the late interior designer.

"One of his famous patterns was this interlocking 'H' pattern, 'H' for Hicks," Isermann said. "So, I was kind of playing around with this idea of interlocking I's, for Isermann."

He credits DE Architects' project manager, Russell Rocker, with making it possible to realize the design by rescaling the balconies.

"He and I worked together to resize them so they were perfect," Isermann said, "and that was critical to how the [tile] pattern repeats. We actually adjusted the height and the width of every balcony."

The building's "color palette was tweaked" too, Isermann said, to match the tile colors.

The opportunity to work with Heath Ceramics to create the tiles was another plus. "I've been wanting to work with Heath for years, so I was really happy that finally happened," he said.

Heath, a Sausalito-based manufacturer of handcrafted dinnerware and architectural tiles, developed a tool to cut Isermann's I-beam pieces. The bowed edges and the light-catching surface undulations created in firing give each tile Heath's trademark handcrafted look, as does the depth of the colors.

"When you do an interlocking shape," Isermann said, "there's a decision you have to make about whether the tile is cut before or after it's fired. When you cut it before it's fired, the shape can distort when it's heated. So that was the big thing to work out.

"But the distortion reflects the process. It's very hard to notice on the balconies, but that's one of the things that I love about the lobby. You actually get to see that distortion. I think it's very beautiful the way the top and the bottom of the beam of the 'I' is kind of curved, so you get this irregular grout pattern, which is one of the beautiful things about the tile.

"And nobody but Heath Tile can do saturated colors like that, so I was thrilled about working with them."

Heath's co-owner, Robin Petavic, was equally enthusiastic. "We love it when people like Jim come to us with a custom design that challenges us to do something creative, not just pump out tile," he said.

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