Make it in California
Thanks to a strong manufacturing base, affordable studio spaces and an increasingly active community of design talents, Los Angeles is emerging as a key focal point of the American design scene.
Gaurav Nanda used to work as an automotive sculptor for General Motors. Now, his company Bend Goods makes whimsical furniture pieces, mainly chairs and tables, which he creates by hand-shaping and spot-welding metal. “Working in the auto industry and building models kind of led me to metal,” he says. “It’s always fascinated me how you can take a material like metal and mould and shape it into something very sleek and beautiful.”
Step into the new Bend Goods showroom on Melrose Avenue and you’ll find a colourful collection of powder-coated furniture and home accessories all designed for the city’s airy, indoor-outdoor lifestyle. “I was really drawn to the California indoor-outdoor aspect of what I do,” says Nanda, who came to the Sunshine State from Michigan. “The colours too: some of them are very vibrant and full of life. You see that out in nature at times of the year, when things are so green and bright, when flowers are blooming.”
In addition to automotive sculpting, Nanda’s list of skills further includes T-shirt printing and clay-pot throwing and in some ways, this makes him typical of LA’s current design crop. What sets LA apart from other capitals (aside from year-round sunshine and complete car dependency) is the level of craft and artisanship, says Haily Zaki, co-founder of the Los Angeles Design Festival.
In LA, Zaki says, architects and designers are also makers. “They know how to make stuff because LA is such a manufacturing city and there’s a rich pool of resources to draw from,” she says. “It’s like the Wild West of design. You can fabricate pretty much anything here.”
Over the last decade, as cities like New York have become prohibitively expensive for artists, Los Angeles has seen an influx of creatives seeking studio space, she says. “We have a lot of industrial space and people can reinvent themselves here.”
Zaki founded the LA Design Festival in 2011 with a purposefully broad definition of design, incorporating everything from architecture and interiors to graphic, industrial, fashion, set, costume, and experiential design.
The annual event now takes place over four days at ROW DTLA, a former industrial marketplace that, like much of downtown LA and the neighbouring Art District, is being transformed into a creative mix of office space, galleries, retail and dining.
Highlights from the 2018 festival included a site-specific Urban Cabin that local architecture firm FreelandBuck installed on the roof. The project was spearheaded by car brand MINI to explore possibilities for the future of living and had previous runs in London and New York.
For the LA edition, FreelandBuck looked to Southern California’s warm climate and tradition of outdoor living and incorporated panels that could swing open. This allowed the bed to be rolled outside so the occupant could sleep under the stars, and windows to take shape in the otherwise closed facades.
FreelandBuck, which was founded in 2009 by Brennan Buck and David Freeland, both graduates of UCLA’s architecture programme, is increasingly landing on lists of must-watch emerging firms. This year the studio is also a finalist for the 2018 Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program.
Recent commissions include a dazzling office renovation for Hungry Man Productions, for which the studio crafted a series of ‘tumbled’ cubicles that challenge the regularity of the typical office. “With each project, we hope to assemble a tiny portion of a more stimulating, aesthetically engaging and challenging world at the scale of the building,” the architects say.
Though LA’s architecture community was hard hit following the financial crisis and economic downtown, recovery – along with reinvestment driven by the art world and growing private-public partnerships – has drawn a number of international architecture studios to the city. Mexico City’s Productora Architects and FAR Frohn & Rojas have both opened offices in LA, as has Beijing’s MAD Architects.
MAD’s first residential project in the United States, a terraced arrangement of glass villas with pitched roofs, is currently under construction in Beverly Hills. Named Gardenhouse, the 18-unit project is founded on the idea of coalescing nature and the built environment and giving residents an experience similar to that of living in a hilltop village.
“We want to bring the green atmosphere into what would traditionally be considered compact, condo living, by breaking down the scale and massing of the building,” says MAD’s Ma Yansong. “Rather than develop architecture where nature exists around the building, we want to give residents the experience of being in the middle of nature, while they enjoy the conveniences of big-city living.”
In other, less verdant neighbourhoods, prominent architecture firms are also building big, altering a skyline that remained largely unchanged for decades. In the Arts District, Herzog & de Meuron has designed a project called 6AM that will feature a pair of 58-storey towers with a mix of residential units, hotel rooms, and ground floor retail space.
Early renderings show six 34m-high concrete structures that span across the eastern side of the property, arranged in rows to mimic the industrial setting, and a network of pedestrian promenades and green space interspersed between and beneath the buildings.
And at the Arts District’s opposite end, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has designed 670 Mesquit, a project aligned directly with the edge of the LA River that articulated as a large composition of gridded concrete frames filled with various types of usage: office space, 250 residential units, and two specialty hotels, as well as a collection of open air, publicly oriented facilities designed to connect the neighbourhood with the river.
“Ten years ago, the Arts District was pretty much empty. You would definitely have your car broken into,” says Zaki. “But that has changed. Now you have high-end luxury retailers and a Soho House moving in. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in LA at a greater level.”
Of course, all of this development raises the question of whether local designers will manage to continue their work as the industrial studio spaces they rely on are increasingly ‘remade’. It is a situation common among American cities of today: existing industrial and underground arts neighbourhoods are remade as urban suburbs and repopulated by wealthy inhabitants.
“If LA becomes this global design city, will that change that rogue quality? Will that dilute the specialness of LA?” Zaki asks. Only time will tell.
This story appears in the November issue of Perspective magazine