The Dwell on Design show taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center this weekend is like a porn extravaganza for design fetishists. Cypress burned and finished until it looks like alligator skin. Washers you can operate with your smart phone. Giant glamping tipis stocked with velvety bean-bag chairs. Bluetooth stereo systems that look like children’s building blocks. Outdoor kitchen setups — i.e. pumped-up bbqs — that cost more than three-bedroom houses in my husband’s hometown. (Admittedly that’s not saying a whole lot.) Hundreds of vendors hawk cutting-edge household products, and the occasional jewelry and back rub — everything you want for your urban wet dream.
In the middle of the San Fernando Valley, there’s a place where you can glide in your kayak past blue and green herons between banks of lush vegetation — a mix of palms, deciduous trees, and bamboo. Water from the Sepulveda Basin gets recycled in this rare stretch of the Los Angeles River that has not been turned into a concrete trough. It’s a reminder of the natural beauty that was here before over-consuming dwellers put up a parking lot, in the words of Joni Mitchell. Sadly, you have to paddle past the occasional partially submerged shopping cart — how symbolic is that.
Yesterday I experienced two sides of LA, a city that prides itself on both its cosmopolitan pleasures and its natural beauty. As someone who has always prided herself on being both a town and a country mouse, I appreciated both experiences. But I have to say that despite the trend of makers going green, the forces of urbanization still have the upper hand in our city.
This was my first visit to Dwell on Design. I primarily registered to go see Helen Arahuete speak about her work with John Lautner today at 3:30, but I also wanted to look for new ideas in architecture and design. We’re going back to Michigan to work on our cabin this summer. Much of the merch at Dwell is state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line luxury goods. There’s a lot of money at this show; no wonder yesterday’s big news was the sale of Dwell on Design from the magazine Dwell to the UK exhibition presenters Informa. The goal of the multimillion deal is to take the U.S.’s number-one design event to other countries.
Little old me walked right by all the fancy kitchens. But I was pleased to see the emphasis on salvaged timber and LEED building materials. And there were several items I would love to incorporate into our shack, even if we just steal the concepts and make them ourselves. Open Close Doors makes sliding glass dividers embedded with dune grass or sticks. Resource Furniture makes super trick Murphy-style beds that are perfect for tiny homes like ours.
Admittedly, despite my love of Lautner, I don’t fit the typical modernist aesthetic. I prefer natural surfaces to glossy white, steel, or plastic. I did find several vendors of gorgeous wood products. Delta Millworks, from Austin, Texas, takes Southern Cypress and other conifers and transforms them via the Japanese fire process called Shou-Sugi-Ban. The burning and staining brings out the grains of the wood: the eyes, waves, and patterns. There’s no greater designer than Mother Nature. Centennial Woods recycles pine from 10-year-old snow fences in Wyoming, using the dry, rough wood as siding, roofing, flooring, etc.
You love wood too but aren’t ready to rip out the dry wall and re-panel your whole house? Stikwood has an ingenious solution: thin (3/16″) slices of reclaimed wood with sticky strips on the back; adhere to your wall and voila, wood paneling. They also have painted patterns. I brought home a sample that we’re going to stick on the wall like a piece of art; it looks like a beach surrounded by rippling water.
I paddled the LA River with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. They take outings all summer long. It’s an easy three-quarter mile trip up and back. The water is mostly inches shallow, with one stretch that’s 10 feet deep. Their goal is to both show the beauty of nature, and the tragedy of our culture of waste. Shredded plastic bags hang from tree limbs like some designer’s sick take on Spanish moss. We shouldn’t just have to pay for these horrible things; they should be banned all together. Fortunately, let water flow and the birds will come. We saw lots of them: herons, ducks, cormorants, egrets, hawks, red-winged blackbirds, etc.
Fortunately, there are several efforts underway to bring back to life this waterway that snakes through our city. A party tonight brings together the two worlds I explored yesterday: The River Makers Bash is part of the LA Design Festival. After all, one of the defining factors of the great California architects of the last century — the aesthetic upon which Dwell was founded — was that they built homes where the walls between inside and outside were permeable, even nonexistent. To go back to Joni, let’s raise paradise, not raze it.