The heart of San Diego's Art & Design District is the monolithic Art Studio building at 2400 Kettner Blvd. But where the building meets the street, half of the storefront space sits empty. Aside from San Diego Harley Davidson, Antiques on Kettner and Patrick Moore Gallery, huge holes left by the closures of Adorn Furniture and David Zapf Gallery remain unfilled.
Inside, on most days, the yellow halls, lined with closed gray metal doors, are empty.
To be fair, you'll probably see Perry Meyer, with his long gray hair and glasses, sitting in front of his computer in his gallery surrounded by a collection of 17th-century and contemporary prints. And you might walk by an open interior-design studio, a photography studio or Colosseum Fine Arts, but the building undeniably lacks the massive amount of creative energy that could be pumping from its walls. Kathleen Carin, assistant director of Scott White Contemporary Art, which recently left 2400 Kettner for its new home at 939 West Kalmia St., said high rent and a lack of an effective marketing plan are factors.
In a back-alley building, though, just around the corner, metal robots, wooden dragons, urban trees and steel Zen sculptures are given life. Amid the sounds of jet engines passing overhead and the trains and trolleys running few feet away, there's a cacophony of air pumps, welding machines and buzz saws emanating from inside the studios at 2309 and 2310 Kettner-it's a veritable industrial madhouse.
Residents-a mix of obsessive creators-have split the building into workspaces where they can individually think, design and create. Their creations hang on walls or sit on dusty shelves and worktables in various states of completion.
"I did that," says Greg Brotherton, the newcomer to the space, pointing to a miniature robot man in what looks like a Medieval time machine. "And I've got these guys-these three prisoners that are sort of these Kafka-inspired, cockroach-looking people."
Greg Brotherton (Photo by Kinsee Morlan)
Brotherton erupts into the kind of nervous and friendly laughter you might expect from a mad scientist or an artistic genius; Brotherton is decidedly both.
"This one's a little grim," he continues, "but to me, it looks a lot like a building, and these cages are office cubicles. So, it's kind of a metaphor for corporate America, I guess."
A few months ago, Brotherton left behind his own version of corporate America-the trenches of Hollywood, where he was spending 32 hours straight designing graphics for movies and television-and returned to the relative calm of San Diego, where, 10 years ago, he worked as a designer at Image Comics in La Jolla. For the moment, he's leaving graphic design behind, focusing all his visibly intense energy on his sculptures. Upwards of 400 hours can go into just one of the giant robots, atomic weapons or so-called "Brotron death rays" he designs.
"What I do," he explains while flipping a coaster around and around, "I kind of conceive of the piece roughly, then build a skeleton if it's a figurative work, and then I'll wire-frame the musculature and form. Then I make patterns on top of the wire, and then I hammer-form and English-wheel all the pieces. So, all the pieces basically get formed with a hammer, and then I'll roll them back and forth [with the English-wheel] to get them smooth. So, yes, it's incredibly time consuming."
And after he's done all that, the pieces, including each robot's tiny fingers, are welded together, a skill Brotherton taught himself.
"I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "That's probably not the best way to learn, but I did learn. The Internet is an amazing learning tool, and you can pretty much reverse-engineer projects. Just find something similar-like, if you want to form steel, look to the automobile industry and read all their tech bulletins and find out how they do it. It's probably reinventing the wheel every time, but you learn a lot doing it. And it's fun."
Brotherton's wife makes fun of him for staying up late reading those engineering manuals, but he describes his need to learn about and make contraptions as both an obsession and a way to escape boredom. Though it's not that he doesn't have a lot to do-he and his wife are opening their Device Gallery on July 19 in La Jolla, and he's been busy curating the opening show, Fantastic Contraptions.
"I just kind of do what the boredom dictates right now," he says. "I do what's the most fascinating to drive me forward."
Joey Vaiasuso (photo by Kinsee Morlan)
Across the way from Brotherton, Joey Vaiasuso is working on his current obsession-his tall, sleek, corten-steel urban tree, commissioned by the Port of San Diego, set to become, in August, the fifth of the port's Urban Trees exhibit.
Vaiasuso only recently started working with steel, but it looks like his new love might stick around-he just scored a commission from a well-to-do client.
Metal might be Vaiasuso's future, but his past has been all about wood. Working under the name Wood FX, Vaiasuso's bread-and-butter is cabinetry for high-end homes, and his side business is wood furniture and sculpture. In a small showroom at 4219 Park Blvd., Vaiasuso still displays some of his best woodwork. (It recently suffered fire damage, evident from the still-visible smoke damage, but his work wasn't damaged.)
Whatever you do, though, don't call Vaiasuso a "woodworker." Sure, he works with wood, turning it into simple and clean, mid-century-inspired furniture and art pieces, but Vaiasuso despises the term.
"I'm turned off by the whole crafty feel of things," he says. "There's a fine line for me where it gets a little too crafty. I like the clean, modern, minimal lines. I'm more about the design of the pieces rather than so much the wood. You could go to so many woodworking galleries and it's just so-woodworky."
Vaiasuso has a few of his older, more abstract wood sculptures hanging on the walls around him. A beautiful rosewood bench and chair are pushed to the side and a drum set sits smack in the middle. Vaiasuso plays drums in his new band, Black Train Highway; Matt Devine, the steel sculptor in the workshop next door, plays guitar and sings. At night, they use the shop as a practice space.
Matt Devine (Photo by Lame)
When Devine isn't playing guitar or writing songs, he's hidden behind a welding mask, trying to find order in chaos. Those who follow design are familiar with Devine's welding skills. He left behind more practical metal-design gigs to focus on sculpture full-time three years ago. Since then, he's been featured in just about every local publication.
Perhaps what makes the man such a media magnet is his resemblance to Tom Cruise-if Tom had a beard. Or maybe it's his cute dog Buddy, who hangs out in the shop. More than likely, it's the quality of Devine's work that gets the attention.
Most often described as meditative or Zen-like, in one of his signature sculptural styles, hundreds of curved rods are interlaced in a seemingly random form to create an overall appearance of order. It's like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting in 3-D. And in his other seemingly opposite style, he manages to make huge chunks of steel look lightweight, organic and harmonious.
"I'm definitely looking for something in my work," Devine explains. "I'm looking for balance, some sort of balance, some sort of harmony or peacefulness in this complete just mess of chaos. I think that's what I'm looking for with all these pieces."
Most of the time, he finds it. Devine's work can be seen suspended from a few of local architect/developer Jonathan Segal's buildings, as well as in the homes and yards of La Jollans who've followed stride. He also currently has a solo show at Spacecraft Gallery in North Park.
Gary McNeil (left) and John Miles (photo by Kinsee Morlan)
At the head of it all, near the dusty white garage door entrance to the bustling industrial creative space, Gary McNeil and John Miles of Creative Inlay make high-end wood furniture for their interior-designer clientele who wander in every once in awhile with very specific needs, often involving ebony.
"We're making a piece of furniture right now that costs more than my truck," Miles laughs.
On the side, between clients walking in wanting things, McNeil and Miles get to practice their beloved ancient art of marquetry, which, simply put, involves cutting up wood and piecing it back together to make designs, patterns or, in the case of Miles and McNeil, intricate images of dragons, beachscapes or ancient symbols like the yin/yang or the Kabbalah Tree of Life.
Up to 10 or more different types of wood can be used in just one piece of marquetry, so a big part of the artistry comes down to using the varying wood grains as a form of expression and texture. Another part of the artistry is coming up with the original design, which McNeil and Miles do by hand and then scan into a digital file.
The computer, coupled with a laser cutter the two just bought, has really changed the way their marquetry is done.
McNeil, who's been working with wood for more than 20 years, used to do all his work by hand, cutting out each piece of wood with a surgeon's scalpel. The work was grueling, and it kept him from using hard woods like rosewood.
"It was time-consuming and very labor-intensive," he says. "It was so labor-intensive I could never really get [the money] it was worth."
"Some people will say, Well, hand-cutting is the craft,'" adds Miles-who met McNeil back when he ran a coffee cart called Hipster Coffee in the Gaslamp, and who still makes a mean latte with a smiley face out of foam in the makeshift coffee stand he's set up in the kitchen area of the woodshop-"but I think it's the piece itself, because no one's going to come down here and see us cutting. Only another woodworker would say, Oh wow, is that hand-cut?'"
"Most woodworkers don't even care whether you cut it with a laser or a hacksaw," McNeil chimes in.
When the two aren't making furniture or working on their marquetry, which, by the way, won a few awards at the Design in Wood competition and exhibition at this year's San Diego County Fair, McNeil's playing flute and Miles is playing guitar and singing in the tapestry-covered recording studio they set up in the back of the shop.
"If the woodworking doesn't pan out," McNeil laughs, "we could always stand on the corner playing music with a hat out."
On the web: Greg Brotherton: www.brotron.com. Joey Vaiasuso: www.woodfx.com. Matt Devine: www.mattdevine.net. Creative Inlay: www.creativeinlay.com.
Jules Wilson (photo by James Norton)
There's a funny episode of Will and Grace in which Grace, an interior designer, finds out the handsome stranger she's been flirting with in her office writes greeting cards for a living. "Isn't that kind of lame?" she asks. The guy, bemused, looks around her loft and quips-and this may be slightly paraphrased-"From the tassels, I presume you work for UNICEF?" Touché.
"Tassels?" exclaims Jules Wilson, founder of Jules Wilson ID, the design firm behind Downtown's FIT Athletic Club and Pacific Beach's recently reopened Limónz. "That's so funny."
At 34, Wilson runs a seriously booked small business that includes three other full-time interior designers and an architect. There are no tassels-or slipcovers and throws, for that matter-anywhere in their airy workspace.
"If you're an interior designer, being called a decorator is kind of an insult," Wilson explains. "A decorator is someone who selects furnishings and accessories and artwork-who basically decorates a room. An interior designer builds spaces."
So maybe it's not UNICEF, but it is a big job involving construction, lighting design, custom pieces, building permits and working with engineers. There's decoration involved, too, but that's merely the icing on the meticulously baked cake.
"People always say, Oh, your job is so fun!'" Wilson says. "They underestimate that you have to bring all these parts and pieces together in the time and on the budget that you've promised a client. It requires serious coordination. I look at people who are planning weddings and I think, Honey, I could plan that in half a day!"
Sitting in a booth at the back of Neighborhood, the hip burger joint next door to her Downtown open-plan office, Wilson sips a glass of white wine and smiles girlishly. A diamond sparkles on her left ring finger.
"Maybe I'm exaggerating a little," she concedes, possibly in deference to stressed-out bridezillas everywhere. But after spending a couple of hours with Wilson, you get the feeling that she really could plan any wedding-including her own-in a single afternoon. She's just got a finger-snapping, make-it-happen air about her.
She won't let her employees call her boss, though.
"No, they're not allowed to," she insists.
So, what do they call her? Jules, naturally.
"Also, we all have secret-agent names."
Though Wilson refuses to disclose hers on-the-record (too bad, cause it's good), the fact that she and her professional colleagues have secret-agent names points to what may be Wilson's greatest strength as an interior designer and a boss: playfulness. It's part of the reason she started her own business three years ago.
She'd been working in the field since she was 19 and found herself increasingly frustrated. She was bringing in clients only to have the work farmed out to other designers. She also wasn't getting the financial appreciation she wanted.
At one firm, Wilson contemplated becoming a partner with her boss. But, she says, "her ideas about running a business were old-school while mine are really new-school. I wanted to run things different than a typical design firm. We work in an open environment. We collaborate."
Playing well with others-both in the office and outside of it-is clearly a component of Wilson's success. She says she initially chose interior design over architecture because designers get more face-to-face time with clients, whether they're a 20-person committee handling a huge high-rise or a couple rethinking their multimillion-dollar pad. When they hand over a check with lots of zeroes, they want to trust the woman who's cashing it.
Playfulness is also an important facet of her design aesthetic, though in a less literal way than, say, whimsical Jonathan Adler. Wilson says her biggest inspiration is Kelly Wearstler, whose personal style and sensational baroque-pop designs (the Viceroy hotels, in particular) have made Wearstler a household name.
"I think we both like the modern, retro, glamour feel," says Wilson, who pores over fashion magazines and covets designs by Tory Burch and Michael Kors. "I love a glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle."
"Glamour" means different things to different people, as Wilson demonstrates with the design of FIT, the super-exclusive 40,000-square-foot athletic club-er, "urban fitness retreat"-in East Village. The locker rooms, stocked with Aveda products, are very Zen, and equipment rooms are sleek and minimalist. The workout area, though, gets gritty with chain-link fencing and a graffiti wall. (It's South Beach's Setei Hotel meets Fight Club, Wilson says.)
She has a membership to FIT, but wandering around in workout clothes in front of her clients isn't ideal. Salsa dancing, Wilson says, is what keeps her svelte and sane. "I have a private lesson every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., and when I get there I am Ready. To. Dance."
She likes to explain big things with simple analogies. Life, Wilson says, is "a gift." It should be fun to unwrap. And dancing-what's more playful than dancing?-"is the free parking space." In other words: the icing on the cake.
The man who'll salsa-dance her to the end of love (to misquote Leonard Cohen) is fiancé Juan Pasalagua. ("That's pass the water' in Spanish, Wilson giggles.) She joined forces with Pasalagua and his brother to open Limónz, a new gourmet-salad spot in Pacific Beach.
The décor plays up eye-popping greens and oranges that mimic the farm-fresh ingredients. The wall art is silly-a large-scale photo of a woman with widened eyes and crisp lettuce stuffed in her mouth, for example-but memorable. And it was all done on a tight budget befitting a small business.
As an interior designer, Wilson's already proved that in this town, even a small business can become a big fish in the sea. Originally from Chicago, Wilson says she's stuck around San Diego because unlike well-established design Meccas like London or Los Angeles or New York, this place is still going somewhere.
"It has the capacity to be a really good city," she says. "It's flourishing in so many ways, including design. I like the idea of being a part of that."
On the web: www.juleswilson-id.com
Don Hollis (left) and Dylan Jones (photo by Lou Mora)
San Diego isn't exactly the type of city people refer to as an "epicenter of design."
"It's tough because there are a lot of really great artists and designers in San Diego," says Don Hollis, co-founder of Subtext, a design-focused bookstore and gallery space in Little Italy. "Unfortunately, the market here doesn't support their work, and many of them end up leaving."
But Hollis and his Subtext partner, Dylan Jones, hope their bookstore will eventually slow this exodus of artists and, with the help of other design professionals in the community, reverse the flow so that San Diego can be recognized as a place where quality design is not only cultivated, but also able to flourish.
Hollis graduated from the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 1990 and worked briefly as an art director at a Philadelphia ad agency before coming to San Diego in 1992 to start his own design firm.
After about a year of "getting my feet on the ground," Hollis launched Hollis Brand Communications Inc. and has since built up a remarkable portfolio of work. Among his firm's more noteworthy clients are Chive restaurant in the Gaslamp, D'lush Beverage Joint, Tower23 Hotel in Pacific Beach, contemporary restaurant/bar George's at the Cove and the Hard Rock Hotel.
Jones has a number of reputable clients included in his résumé, as well. Having studied architecture at UNLV and eventually transferred to the Advertising Arts College (now the Art Institute of California-San Diego), Jones worked for eight years as art director at Solana Beach firm Parker White before landing at MiresBall, where he does branding and design for companies like Qualcomm, Gateway, Shure microphones and Taylor Guitars.
"Design is about problem solving," Jones says. "It's beyond pretty pictures and shapes. It's problem solving from a visual sense."
"It's storytelling," Hollis adds. "Visual storytelling and communication. It informs, it engages, it makes people react, it helps them find their way."
The search for superior design, Hollis says, involves looking for that which endures.
"When [design] is done right, it provides a message that lasts," he explains. "It's an image that is meaningful over time, something that doesn't age, something that isn't trend-dependent, something that solves a problem and does it well. It's something that will hopefully stand the test of time."
Hollis points to AIGA (formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts), a national design organization with more than 16,000 members, that has identified a process of design involving three basic steps, the first of which is "defining the problem."
Once the problem has been outlined, Hollis explains, the "innovating phase" begins; the goals and objectives are clarified and the desired outcome is envisioned.
The final step in the AIGA process, Hollis says, is "generating value-testing it, prototyping it, putting it out in the marketplace to see how people react to it."
"After all of those steps," he says, "you come back around to step one and reevaluate what you have done. Look at the problem again, define it and decide how well your outcome solves it."
Amid the complexities of designing for clients, the bookstore became a way for the pair to satiate their creative hunger.
"There's a great bookstore in Santa Monica called Hennessey & Ingalls," Hollis says. "You can pick a subject-art, architecture, design. They're an authority on the topic just in terms of the amount of information they carry. You're always thirsty for that."
"Subtext is an artistic endeavor for us," Jones explains. "It's our creative expression."
While Hollis says stores like Hennessey & Ingalls appear in Los Angeles and San Francisco by the dozens, in San Diego, one has to "scrape to find even one or two that are somewhat inspiring."
Creating Subtext "was kind of a selfish interest," Hollis admits. "The idea was first feeding that inspiration we were looking for and hoping that other designers in the community would gravitate towards the same idea."
"It just came naturally," Jones adds, smiling. "So far, it's been great. We have tons of design books that are a great resource, but above that, doing the events that we do every four to six weeks, I feel like we're filling this little cultural void."
Hollis says he knows of many artists who have moved away from San Diego in search of markets where they can earn a better living.
"We're trying to bring [those artists] back to San Diego and trying to keep them here," he says. "There haven't been enough galleries that focus on this type of work. Instead of knowing that there is more success up north or in New York or somewhere else, we're really committed to San Diego. This is what Subtext is about."
What do Hollis and Jones see for the future of design in this city?
"There's a much younger crowd coming down here now," Jones says. "A lot more urban development. It's helping places like ours do things that are more cultural. It's bringing more art and music events."
"Five years ago," Hollis interjects, "San Diego hit its design puberty.' It's now coming of age, but it's still maturing."
Revealing one of his theories as to why San Diego hasn't yet become a design metropolis, Hollis argues that the city doesn't have enough prominent art schools. With stronger art programs, he says, San Diego will see a larger influx of art students who want to remain here after graduating.
"A serious art program," he explains, "is a really great foundation for that kind of cultural movement within a city."
As for the direction in which San Diego design is headed, Jones says he's optimistic.
"[Design] has changed a lot here over the last few years," he says, "and with each year it definitely gets better and better."
On the web: www.subtextstore.com