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Oliver M. Furth: At the Nexus of Art and Integral Design

Seminal nonprofit gallery and project space LA><ART decamped from its original Culver City space and moved to a very civilized new home in Hollywood earlier this year and is currently gearing up to celebrate its tenth anniversary this Fall. At the same time, the organization has been rolling out newest initiative, LA><ART><DESIGN—a peripatetic membership group that took shape late last year—dedicated to illuminating the exuberant diversity of Los Angeles in the contemporary history of design and decorative arts. LA><ART><DESIGN is headed by Oliver M. Furth, a decorator by day and Chair Emeritus of the LACMA Design Council, whose life’s work is finding innovative ways of “pushing the design dialogue forward.”

OLIVER M. FURTH. PHOTO BY STEPHEN BUSKEN.

Furth was a founding member of LA><ART, whose mission to “offer the public access to a new generation of artists and curators supporting both risk and dialogue, producing new work for new audiences, and inciting the conversation on contemporary art in LA,” tracks perfectly with what Furth envisions for the design community. His background in architecture, art history, and interior design—the same that led him to work in Christie’s 20th-century decorative arts department, and later to LACMA—plus his own native-son’s appreciation of LA’s magnetic appeal to makers and builders, finally inspired him to make this vision real. About a year ago, he went to friend and LA><ART Director Lauri Firstenberg for advice on starting a design-centric nonprofit program based on their model. “I was thinking of it as adjunct to my work at LACMA,” says Furth, “and then after several conversations and a bit of wine, we decided to partner instead!”

“We are over the moon to have Oliver directing LA><ART><DESIGN,” concurs Firstenberg. “His vision to support the next generation of designers in our city gestures to our original mission to create an independent platform for the support of artists, architects and designers. Our new home is both a production and discursive space. Oliver’s series of talks has generated new areas of discussion and in so doing has expanded our audience and our base.” Furth thinks of the audience for this group as curious-minded but in need of a place to start. He had a dream for “a design-dedicated whitespace such as we don’t really have in LA, partly because we don’t really have an established community here. Like the city itself, the design community is fragmented, and needs to be united. LA’s contemporary decorative arts world is vibrant and diverse but it lacks focus. It’s independent but isolated.” By centralizing a program of access to scholars, writers, makers, and collectors, LA><ART><DESIGN is looking to harness the dispersed interest into a core community where, as he puts it, “We can all learn together.”

The experiences available to group members include visits to exhibitions, panel talks and studio tours, and original curatorial programs at LA><ART and elsewhere around the city. The first event was at Shulamit Nazarian’s house (an A. Quincy Jones masterpiece of palatial mid-century modernism) last fall; they’ve done half a dozen events since then including a tour of a private collection of Dutch and Italian modern and contemporary design. Architectural Digest’s West Coast editor Mayer Rus moderated a talk between architect Marwan Al-Sayed and designer/interior architect Billy Cotton about the current climate in LA and why they both came here from elsewhere to do what they do. Their studio visit with sculptor and designer David Wiseman, known for his work in a range of media from porcelain to lighting fixtures, crystal and found materials, included a bronze-pouring demonstration. Furth is drawn to figures like these, “People who are emblematic of LA both by being both insiders and outsiders.”

Makers in conceptual and collecting demand who are early citizens of the LA><ART><DESIGN nation include Tanya Aguiñiga, an LA-based furniture designer raised in Tijuana, whose work seeks to articulate what she calls “border experiences: the interconnectedness of societies, the beauty in struggle and the celebration of culture.” Working at institutional to intimate and even wearable scale, Aguiñiga is passionate about design’s potential for storytelling and even social and political activism. Charles Hollis Jones and Justin Beal held a conversation at the LA><ART gallery space, exploring the present moment in Jones’ career that sees a revival of interest in his iconic, game-changing work in Lucite and Plexiglas that helped define the look of Hollywood in the 1950s and ‘60s. Beal, a sculptor and progressive furniture designer himself, belongs to a younger generation who are increasingly enamored of these once-futuristic materials from a wholly new point of view. Both men, like Aguiñiga, think of objects as narrative sites—a charming concept whose unpacking felt comfortable inside an exhibition of abstract painting.

Coming up in the fall, the group will visit ceramicist Adam Silverman in his newly established solo studio. He’s gone out on his own after doing acclaimed work at Heath for the last five years. One of the finest potters working in the field anywhere in the world today, Silverman happily calls Los Angeles his home, and is as knowledgeable about its deep history with avant-garde ceramics as he is expressive, innovative, and awe-inspiring in his studio. In fact, this history is as much a part of what Furth hopes to illuminate, as is the landscape of contemporary practices. “Our history,” he wryly notes, “goes back farther than 1964! And people are hungry to know more about it. The city is maturing. I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve seen it change and evolve so much just so far in my lifetime. There is such diversity in practices, mediums, styles. Bronze, ceramics, computers, 3D printers, wood, glass, plastic; non-toxic, upcycled and recycled objects, sustainable materials … Being ‘green’ was a fad of the 2000s, but now it’s just accepted and incorporated, almost assumed, in our daily lives. At this point, for me, it’s about pushing the dialogue. I like to say that LA now is like Vienna 100 years ago; that’s how great it is! But it’s up to us to engage with what is already happening and build on it to keep that energy here in the city.”

More information can be found at: laxart.org/pages/laartdesign

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Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Arts Editor for Vs. Magazine, Contributing Editor to artltd., and a contributor to Flaunt, Huffington Post, Montage, Desert Magazine, Porter & Sail and KCET’s Artbound. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, and speaks in public every chance she gets.

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