Los Angeles: Ahead of the Curve on Craft

Los Angeles: Ahead of the Curve on Craft

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Matin gallery in Beverly Hills showcases a wide variety of objects by both national and international artists, including Christopher Kurtz, who created this bent wood sculpture, Out of Nowhere.

Noah Webb

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The craft scene in and around Los Angeles is as sprawling and diverse as the place itself, a rich blend of old and new that eludes easy definition. Like the freeways, craft here goes in many directions that intersect and connect into a remarkable whole.

For starters, there is L.A.’s importance to the post-World War II studio clay movement, the stellar list of influential figures who have lived in or had ties to the city. “So much of what is great about contemporary ceramic art got its start here in Los Angeles,” says Harold Nelson, guest curator of American decorative arts at the Huntington Art Collections in San Marino.

Yet Los Angeles has offered fertile ground for all the craft media (as the legendary “California Design” survey shows organized by Eudorah Moore at the now-defunct Pasadena Art Museum showcased in the 1960s and 70s). And if today we’re seeing a fuller integration of craft-based work into the international art mainstream, L. A. has long been ahead of the curve.

“Contemporary artists in Los Angeles don’t see a distinction [between disciplines],” observes Frank Lloyd, whose Santa Monica gallery presents ceramic work in a fine-arts context along with painting and other forms of sculpture. It’s an attitude rooted in L.A.’s lively postwar artistic community, when designer-craftsmen such as the potters Gertrud and Otto Natzler mixed with the likes of the architectural photographer Julius Shulman, and Peter Voulkos took students down to Central Avenue to hear jazz. “The mind-set was open and free,” says Lloyd, a native of Virginia who came here in 1959. “That integration and lack of hierarchy is the hallmark, and strength, of Los Angeles and Southern California. It allowed and fostered that kind of development.”

These days local institutions are taking significant note of craft, both as expressive medium and as part of California’s modernist heritage. Last year the Getty Research Institute hosted “Craft at the Limits,” a scholarly symposium that explored craft as practice and concept, while the Museum
of Contemporary Art presented the exhibition “Poetics of the Handmade,” featuring artists from Latin America. Down the coast, the Orange County Museum of Art mounted “Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury,” now on national tour. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has unveiled new installations of craft, and is planning a major show for 2011, “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.”

On the gallery front, the market for modern thrives, and L.A. dealers are finding a very receptive audience for the era’s craft masters. At Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, specialists in the abstract, “we are overjoyed to show the beatnik and hippie craftsmen and women who took modernism to a warm and organic place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s,” says part-ner Damon Cardwell. “The ‘craft’ pieces we show are affordable and lovely to live with, and make the gallery accessible to a new and enthusiastic breed of collectors.”

Today’s generation of L.A. makers, meanwhile, are riding a new wave of interest in the handmade. At shops from Silver Lake to Beverly Hills, “there’s a lot of activity focused on handcrafted design,” says Rose Apodaca, a fashion journalist turned design retailer. Fueling the boom in part are the sort of cultivated Angelenos in their 30s and 40s who are restoring mid-century modern, Spanish-style and Craftsman-bungalow homes, and seeking out well-made items to enhance their lifestyle. “There’s an explosion of design stores in Los Angeles, but it’s also connected to an explosion of foodie-obsessed restaurants and fashion-forward boutiques, and a highlighted interest in architecture,” Apodaca observes. “There is much more enthusiasm for design and, even one step beyond, design which has been hand-touched, meaning craft. And it’s new, not just retro. Artists are building on that legacy. It’s not a revival so much as a revolution.”

“The thing I like about L.A. is, there is that history,” says Adam Silverman, one of many here who, as he says, “walk the line between art, craft and design.” After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, Silverman migrated west in 1987 and practiced architecture (at one point also partnering with the Beastie Boys in a clothing company called X-Large) before deciding to turn his longtime love of clay into a full-time career in 2002. Working under the studio name Atwater Pottery, he’s found a market not only for his elegant sculptural vessels, but also for a series of lamp bases he’s been producing for a high-end interior design clientele. Silverman sees Los Angeles as “a generous city, open-minded,” and as the entertainment industry capital, naturally arts-friendly.

Another RISD alum, the British-born jeweler Christina Odegard, likewise relishes L.A.’s creative vibe: “There are a lot of shapes of success that people can have here. There’s not as much tradition steeped in the walls, so you can look at things in a fresh way.” Odegard relocated from the Boston area with her husband, Robert (now owner of the gallery Matin in Beverly Hills), six years ago. They were about to have a baby, and like many seeking a new start, they’d decided “this is where you come. It felt right—the weather, the warm spirit, the idea of reinventing oneself.”

If anyone personifies the soul of craft here, it’s the woodworker Sam Maloof. At 92, he’s as sunny and welcoming as his home state, still in his workshop every day, “doing what I do”–which is produce timeless furniture prized by collectors. If ever a place captured the natural beauty and distinctive architecture of Southern California, it’s the Maloof home, studio, gallery and gardens in Alta Loma, less than an hour’s drive from L.A. and open to the public. Setting foot in this spectacular landscape, it’s easy to see where California’s creative forces get their inspiration.