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Seems like new times

One man's exhibit spotlights the timelessness of classic California decor.

November 03, 2005|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

GERARD O'BRIEN wasn't expecting a reunion. An avid collector of 20th century California furniture and decorative objects, he simply wanted to stage an exhibit of pieces defining an era and a sensibility.

"Postwar California was a hotbed of creativity," says O'Brien, 40. During that time, industrial designers such as Charles Eames and studio artisans such as ceramist Peter Voulkos set the pace. The state ranked second in furniture production, with Glenn of California, Brown Saltman and other companies employing top-tier architects of the day.

For his exhibition running through the month, O'Brien begged and borrowed pieces from clients and drew from his personal collection. More than four dozen artists are represented, filling two floors of O'Brien's La Cienega Boulevard furniture showroom, Reform, with more than 200 classics, from tiny enamel ashtrays to racetrack oval dining suites that can seat eight. He spent more than $10,000 to stage the show -- a pittance for a museum but a sizable investment for a retailer, especially when a good number of items are not for sale.

"The payoff for me was the opening night," he recalls. Looking around his gallery, O'Brien saw woodworker Sam Maloof sitting in one of his hand-carved walnut rocking chairs and esteemed ceramist Otto Natzler describing the glaze on a bowl he had made some 50 years ago. He saw Jerry and Evelyn Ackerman, who had exhibited in all 12 "California Design" shows that ran from 1954 to 1976 at the now-defunct Pasadena Museum of Art. They had brought O'Brien rare examples of their work, including magnificent equine door handles made from cast brass with vermillion agate stone inlays.

Eudora Moore, curator of "California Design" from 1962 to 1976, called those shows a "coming-out party for industrial design and the craft movement." Seeing the work at O'Brien's exhibit decades later, she says, "validates my impression that it was a glittering creative time. It is amazing how well the work holds up. It doesn't look dated at all."

Not that it should. Looking through the goods at home decor stores -- hand-wrought Modernist tables, Jonathan Adler's woven textiles, the volcanic glazed ceramics of Atwater Pottery -- is like lifting the lid on a time capsule.

O'Brien first became aware of the breadth of California design while selling vintage furniture at an outdoor flea market in Manhattan. Visiting local 20th century design galleries in New York City, he came across intriguing works by architects Paul Laszlo and Paul Tuttle. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in late 2001, he had found his calling.

Made-in-California midcentury furniture and accessories had a distinctive character, yet were largely ignored by East Coast Modernist dealers and local retailers. "There was a simplicity in form and function, and the materials used for manufacturing furniture -- metal, redwood, rattan, laminates and plastic -- were always innovative and expressive," O'Brien says.

Equally important were the one-of-a-kind studio pieces in glass, clay, yarn, wire and wood. Notable for their tactile quality, these craft items represent the organic side of California design.

"Not to sound corny, but they have a soul. It wasn't so much about commerce as it was about craftsmanship," he says.

"I love to tell the stories behind the designers and how they fit into the modern movement," adds O'Brien, who "brought things full circle" by commissioning midcentury architectural photographer Julius Shulman to document the show.

Local dealer Sam Kaufman says the exhibit is a natural progression for O'Brien, as "his passion for the material preceded his realization that he could make a living by handling it, and it remains his main motivation."

Adds Jerry Ackerman: "There are a lot of dealers in Los Angeles who are hep to who did what back then. Gerard is putting his money where his mouth is. I don't think there's a better collection."

Jo Lauria, co-author of "California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style," a recently published Chronicle book on the Pasadena Museum exhibitions, gives high marks to O'Brien's first venture as a curator.

"I saw things I had only seen in photographs before -- beautifully handcrafted wooden furniture by John Nyquist and a large collection of the Ackermans' textiles, which range from folkloric figurative designs and mythical scenes to absolute minimalism," Lauria says. She was particularly impressed with the enamels on display by the late Jackson Woolley and Annemarie Davidson, who is still working in Sierra Madre, and calls the show "a very good sampling of what the 'California Design' exhibitions were all about."

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