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His imagination -- uncorked

Reza Feiz trained to be an actor, but one cork-covered chair changed all that. His home in Studio City is filled with pieces that document the journey of an accidental designer.

April 13, 2006|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

PLEASE, sit down, he says politely. Make yourself comfortable. And so you do. You follow Reza Feiz's welcoming palm as it sweeps toward an empty chair, a chair that looks and feels unlike any you've seen before.

It's a minimalist cube, stark and sensual, with a cutout back that is monolithic in proportion, yet elegant in form. It hovers above the floor, the secret to apparent weightlessness held only by a discreet walnut base. Surprisingly, it's comfortable.

But none of that fully explains what sets the chair apart. The magic, you soon find out, is the cork.

A chair covered in cork seems implausible, if not impossible, but after two seconds you realize it's true: thousands of airy wood cells affixed with heat to a cloth backing -- a soft, supple, organic patchwork. You run both hands over the armrests and think, So this is what stardom feels like.

Cork is what first got Feiz's work in magazines, in stores such as Barneys New York, in celebrity homes. It has become his signature look. And now it has become his biggest question: How does an up-and-coming designer make his name with a breakout piece without getting pigeonholed by it?

"Meg Ryan's not going to be the cute girl anymore. Well, I don't want to be typecast as 'the cork guy,' " says Feiz, 37, his eyes wandering to other pieces in the living room -- bold designs realized in stainless steel, glass, wood and, yes, cork. "I never set out to say, 'This all would look great in cork.' Cork is just a material. I care about much more than that."

As he leads you through his Studio City house, you understand what he means. You see a house full of ambition and determination, imagination and innovation. But you also see a sweet success story, that of a struggling actor who became a furniture designer largely by accident, and along the way transformed a rundown ranch house into the chic Modern nest he and his wife always wanted.

As Sheila Griffiths tells it, the three-bedroom house for sale on the Valley side of Mulholland Drive was beyond a mess. She couldn't comprehend why her husband was so thrilled. The previous owner was a "sort of senile" man, she says, who was obsessed with chandeliers and had rigged the house with "weird, crazy" wiring that posed a fire hazard. The carpeting was not only orange and shag, but also stained -- by the homeowner's dog and by the homeowner himself, who had a favorite corner of the living room that he marked as his territory.

"I just didn't have a vision for it," Griffiths says, laughing at her understatement. "But Reza, he did have this vision. He knew it could be this beautiful, finished thing if he could just get his hands on it."

When competing bidders on the house fell out of escrow four years ago, Feiz got his chance. He and Griffiths bought the property and, after a year and a half of renovations, the dated ranch house emerged as a bright white shadow of its former self.

The gray and black volcanic rock exterior is gone, replaced with smooth, hand-troweled stucco. Front windows and garage door panels employ an opaque glass -- two sheets of clear glass sandwiched around a white film that provides privacy while still transmitting natural light.

You'll see no vestiges of the partial wall that once cluttered the entry, just a clear path into the living room, sunlit and airy, which opens to the backyard through an expanse of glass. The double-sided fireplace has shed its volcanic rock facade too, a polished stucco finish providing a clean slate.

And that shag? It's long gone, the concrete slab underneath buffed smooth and stained black.

But what truly defines the space are the furnishings, which chart Feiz's evolution as a designer. You see the two cork-covered BBC club chairs that launched his career in 2003, the result of his quest to combine a dynamic form with upholstery that had never been used before. Today they sell for $2,300 apiece. These are prototypes, early versions weakened by flaws that Feiz later addressed. But to the designer, they are family -- "my children not yet grown up," he says.

A stereo cabinet is a portrait of simplicity, with an alcove for just one component, the amplifier, and thoughtful consideration of the electronic music age.

"Everybody seems to have their iPods with them, so when we have a dinner party, everyone lines up their iPods here," he says, pointing to the stainless steel cabinet top. "There'll be seven or eight iPods, all taking turns in the dock. It's fun."

The heart of the house is the dining table: a 4-by-8-foot plane of beautifully finished walnut, set atop 4-inch-wide legs of solid stainless steel. It's Feiz's favorite piece, and one that likely will never be reproduced for sale because of the extraordinary width: Commercial planers can't process lumber that wide, he says.

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