LOS ANGELES — Boundary-pushing architects are used to transforming the most intangible of dreams into physical realities.
So when Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds hired architect Neil M. Denari to invent the environment for their first “house of L.A. Eyeworks,” and third namesake store, they simply charged him to create something “vaporous.”
“We wanted that great rare air of incredible architecture,” said Gherardi, who founded the business with her high school pal McReynolds in 1977 from a Melrose Avenue storefront that has since become a Mecca for eyewear enthusiasts. The store officially opened last Saturday.
“There’s a floating nature articulated throughout the space,” noted Denari, the mild-mannered former director of SCI-Arc, a progressive school of architecture here, and now a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “But it’s kind of solid. If there’s something I’ve worked on previously, it’s opaque surfaces. They maintain a floating effect.”
A powdery, China blue canopy undulates through the center expanse of the narrow, 1,250-square-foot space on Beverly Boulevard and Martel.
Formerly occupied by Todd Oldham, the corner shop is in the heart of a shopping corridor that has undergone a transformation in the last two years. Joining stalwart Richard Tyler, who opened his atelier a block up, L.A. Eyeworks neighbors include designers Eduardo Lucero, SussCQ and Elisabetta Rogiani and chic designer retailers such as Naked, NYSE and KBond and mid-century furniture emporium Modernica.
The concrete-like surface is perforated with oval cutouts and it hangs suspended by two steel beams, painted white like the walls and making them barely noticeable.
The blue, solid “vaporous surface” continues below, starting in a kind of s-shape a third of the way into the space and serves as a vertical display area. Where it dips, it flows into the corner of the front facade, doubling as a bench or window display stage, before rising up again against the height of the door.
The entire facade is glass, from street level to the 16.5-foot-high ceiling. It was also set back an additional 150 feet from its original border with the sidewalk. The effect gives visitors a sense of entering the space before actually walking through the door.
There’s “no New York minimalism” here, as Denari pointed out. The poured blue and white speckled floor resembles a robin’s egg. And the south wall brandishes a 16-foot-high, 30-foot-wide sculpture by Jim Isermann. The high-relief, vertical-patterned grid is made of vacuum-formed panels of high-gloss white polystyrene plastic.
Nor did Denari and his team, which included project architect Duks Koschitz, rely on conventional tricks such as back-lit translucent glass to achieve an ethereal essence to the space. Long Beach, Calif.,-based Lighting Design Alliance infused the environment with a crisp, white glow.
While it suggests something out of “Gattaca,” the 1997 sci-fi thriller starring Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, it’s hardly a jewel box of sterile futurism.
That’s something Denari and his employers kept in mind throughout the 18-month project, which was realized at a total cost of $325,000.
There are herbal supplements custom made for L.A. Eyeworks called Peeper Keeper, formulated to do as the name says, as well as other homeopathic eye health products. Peeper Keeper launches with the new store and retails from $15. There will also be “eye yoga” classes offered in the coming months.
Then there’s the featured product. Favored among creative types as diverse as rocker Elton John, modern artist Chuck Close and actress-director Jodie Foster, L.A. Eyeworks’ specs have long conveyed an identity apart from the trendier and more available designer brands, with which it shares selling space in just under 1,000 doors worldwide, as well as L.A. Eyeworks shops on nearby Melrose and an hour south at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
The new store marks the first time in the company’s 22-year-history that its signature eyewear is presented apart from any other brands. And the effect is stunning. More than 100 pieces are featured in the current collection, and despite the range in color, shape and style, the emphasis on good design links them, from the round temple pods that distinguish their frames to the laser-engraved textures.
(The company was honored for its design contributions last Friday at the VOX/Out Voices of Style+Design Awards.)
Long wall shadow boxes stretch the length of the space, providing easy access to the product for consumers — as well allowing the staff to keep an eye on security. “It’s so important to show your designs in an environment that’s all yours,” said Gherardi. “It’s not just a showroom. It’s not just a concept store. We wanted to contextualize our designs.”
Function, of course, was paramount. It is a retail outlet, after all, noted the partners. Denari designed furnishings from stainless steel and a soft poured plastic. The otherworldly stations and stools on wheels were fabricated by Chris Johannesen of KB Mftg., an MIT engineer who specializes in such high-concept production.
McReynolds and Gherardi have long championed the work of artists through their sponsorship of exhibitions and art installments for their stores. That made the project even more important to Denari. “I knew Barbara and Gai were going to essentially take care of it. They weren’t going to call me once a year and say `we want to renovate it.”‘”