THEY'VE crunched the numbers: Tens of thousands of new condos and apartments in the heart of Los Angeles equals millions of square feet needing to be furnished. Skeptics might disagree, but Willard Ford and John Brady are gambling that the city's next design district will be none other than downtown.
Their new showroom, Ford Brady, already looks promising. A cocktail party in the space -- a renovated Chinatown movie theater -- drew a crowd estimated at 2,000, and the venture joins an emerging assortment of design businesses downtown: retailers such as Loft Appeal and the Dock, as well as the studio and furniture showrooms of Team HC Workshop and Orange 22, producer of bent metal and laser-cut tables that have won so much attention at recent design exhibitions.
"We want to contribute to something happening downtown," Ford said, "to create a place where creative people can find each other."
Because of the well-established design thoroughfares in West Hollywood, Culver City and Santa Monica, Ford Brady is trying to carve its niche with distinctly modern furnishings for tenants in the converted industrial spaces and newly constructed open-plan lofts dotting the city's core. It's a wager that other downtown pioneers say still carries plenty of risks.
Clarence Chiang Jr.'s Team HC Workshop has operated out of the Bradbury Building since 2004. He just finished designing and furnishing a 3,000-square-foot penthouse loft for a walk-in client downtown, but most of the firm's clients live elsewhere.
"People will say they think it's cool for you to have a studio there, but it's hard to get them to come," Chiang said. "I think it will take some time for downtown to catch on."
Dario Antonioni, founder and creative director of Orange 22, has given it three and a half years. His retail showroom is on 4th Street near Spring Street, but he plans to relocate in the next few months to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice.
"Downtown has a lot of creative energy," Antonioni said. "But it hasn't made the transition as quickly as we had hoped. We were hoping the loft dwellers would become customers, but they are nonexistent. They only come out at night and on the weekends, when we are closed." The neighborhood is a great place for an art gallery, he added, "but if you are a shopper looking for a retail experience or a retailer looking for foot traffic, you are in trouble."
FOR Ford and Brady, a furniture showroom downtown wasn't exactly planned. Brady, a former pro bicyclist, and his friend Ford were riding through the neighborhood one day when they spied the Kim Sing, an old movie house that seemed ripe for development. With Xten Architecture, Brady and Ford transformed the lobby into a strip of storefronts that could provide rental revenue. They turned the heart of the theater into a living space for Ford.
When it came time to shop for the new space, Ford said, "I thought there must be better design out there."
The search for unique furniture quickly defined a new venture: a showcase for contemporary furniture designers, open by appointment for architects and interior designers as well as the public. Ford dedicated much of the living space in his two-level residence to the furniture and accessories, which includes the work of 10 designers from Los Angeles, New York and Thailand. Local pieces include Tao Urban's Hex-Loc, a set of octagonal ottomans that can be linked together -- "like a DNA chain," Ford said. L.A. designer Guy Clouse's minimalist aluminum storage units painted cherry red also are showcased.
Most of the furniture is eco-sensitive. Thai designer Singh Intrachooto turned reclaimed teak into pieces that are monumental in scale and angular in form -- more sculptural objects than comfy seats. Architect Duangrit Bunnag steam-bent teak into a rocking chaise called Lazy. New York designer Akemi Tanaka's Tagei is a space-efficient bamboo plywood coffee table that pulls apart to become an upholstered bench with side tables.
"We wanted the materials to speak for themselves," Ford said. "The whole midcentury trend is played out and co-opted by Design Within Reach. We didn't want to compete with B & B Italia and make a more comfortable couch. It's important to have diversity in design, and we're hoping these are the classics of tomorrow."
Ford Brady's entertaining approach may help. The showroom plans monthly parties for those who couldn't view the furniture in the crush of its opening night a couple of months ago, when guests included Ford's actor father, Harrison. Ford Brady will host a party for CA Boom, the spring modern design exposition in Santa Monica. Last week, Ford mingled with about 100 fashionably attired guests, including his godfather, art gallery owner Earl McGrath, who hangs work from his Robertson Boulevard space at Ford Brady.
"Art makes furniture look better," McGrath said as he searched the kitchen for vodka. "It's the first time we've ever done this, and it's nice to bring it out of the gallery."