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California dreamers

January 05, 2006|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

In the eighth-floor library of the Pacific Electric Lofts, the 100-year-old landmark in downtown L.A. built by Henry Huntington, a group of 21st century California visionaries has gathered for a session of show and tell. Jacek Ostoya, an architect from Berkeley, examines Elizabeth Paige Smith's hollow acrylic Parsons table filled with yellow powdered pigment that clings and clumps to the interior surfaces. "It's fantastic," Ostoya says. "It's like having this cloud of color, what would be a big mess outside of the box, contained in a functional piece of art." Thinking outside the box is crucial for California furniture designers, who are often influenced by the wealth of Modernist architecture and the casual indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Here, they have the freedom to experiment with space, scale, materials and functionality, and to express their ideas in styles that include minimalism and extravagance. The seven California artists here represent a sophisticated talent pool that will keep the state on the design map in the years to come.


Maximum minimalism

At 40 he has already designed retail stores, airport facilities and restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, but architect Ostoya calls Mebel Furniture, his "micro architecture" business, his true passion. Along with his partner, millworker and Guggenheim Museum art installer Peter Breyshaw, Ostoya says their goal is "to make contemporary furniture with traditional New England techniques and craftsmanship."

The most interesting piece in their line is also the most deceptive and versatile. Composed of 20-inch-square walnut frames stacked onto steel rods, the Pivot screen is a room divider that "opens, closes, hides and reveals," Ostoya says. The individual modules can be arranged in a checkerboard fashion with spaces between the square frames that can be fitted with panels made from a variety of materials, including wood and rainbow-colored transparent or translucent plastic.

"Where I live it's always about the views," Ostoya says, "so it is a room divider that gives you the opportunity to create privacy or frame a view -- of the world outside or another part of your living space inside."

At Jules Seltzer Associates, the most established Los Angeles retailer of classic modern office and home furniture by manufacturers such as Herman Miller and Knoll, Mebel is a specialty line, available by inquiry.

"This is extremely well-made craftsman furniture," owner Grant Seltzer says. "They select their woods from sustainable forests and put love and feeling into every piece."

As a designer, Ostoya has the utmost respect for the glory days of midcentury design. The clean lines of his furniture hark back to Los Angeles' postwar Modernism, while the use of honest materials such as natural maple and walnut reference the 1960s studio furniture of Northern California.

"Successful design has a relationship to the landscape," he says. "California is all about living with nature, so we try to expose the beautiful character of the wood to evoke nature in every piece we build."

Mebel -- the name is the Polish word for furniture, a nod to Ostoya's ancestry -- was formed three years ago and made its debut at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York two years ago. The collection is distinguished by its simplicity of form -- long, low, rectilinear tables and benches as well as cubist chairs. Next year the company will introduce small-scale furniture under the imprint Mebel Baby.

The most common configuration of the customizable Pivot screen measures 98 inches wide and 80 inches tall and sells for $4,095. It and other pieces of Mebel Furniture can be ordered through My Own Space in La Jolla, (858) 459-0099, and Propeller in San Francisco, (415) 701-7767.

A catalog of Mebel pieces can be seen at Jules Seltzer, 8833 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 274-7243. For more information about Ostoya's company, call (415) 379-8689 or visit


Surfing a new conceptual wave

Born in Houston, raised in the Cayman Islands and schooled in fine arts at the University of Kansas, this L.A. transplant has been championed by Stefan Lawrence at his trendsetting contemporary furnishings gallery Twentieth. "Her work," he says, "perfectly straddles the line between art and design."

Of her latest home, Smith says, "There are such a wide variety of influences here. Los Angeles is an ADD society."

Attention deficit disorder notwithstanding, the city has responded well to Smith's stark white curvaceous Nude chairs and chaises shaped from fiberglass, as well as her monumental wooden dining tables covered in saturated tones of colored resin. Her designs have been purchased by Patricia Arquette, Kirsten Dunst and Ellen DeGeneres.

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