READY TO CHAIR
Byline: Natalie Rooney
LOS ANGELES — There’s a legend about L.A. club czar Bret Witke: that on any given night he could stand in the middle of a deserted parking lot, with nothing but a boom box, and 200 people would come. But what if he were holding an Eames designer chair?
Chalk it up to personal magnetism and a surge in the popularity of modernist furniture among the “in” crowd. Bret Witke has done it again. His newest venture is the Russell Simpson Co., an 800-square-foot Thirties and Forties designer furniture showroom in an unmarked storefront off Pico and Fairfax Boulevards.
And short of having a guest list at the door, it’s as hip and exclusive as any of the clubs he started: Au Petit Cafe, B.C., Club Louis and The T Room. None of these places, however, are still in business. The L.A. club scene has never been known for its stability. And neither, until now, has Witke. But he and his backer, photo dealer Diane Rosenstein, intend to change that.
The clientele in the new venue is pretty much the same as those who came to his clubs. But now the people who once danced on his tables can buy them.
“I suppose we’ve all grown up a bit,” says Witke, “but not much has changed. People hear I’m up to something, hop in their cars and get lost on the way.”
The interiors of his clubs — which he designed himself — were always as slick as the people who filled them. With Allan Jones tables, Mies van der Rohe chairs and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired block walls at B.C., and red patent leather walls at The T Room, Witke introduced a taste of sophistication to the L.A. club scene.
“B.C. was like ‘Blade Runner’ — a big club with a civilized and chic atmosphere,” he says. “Nothing has ever been that nice in L.A. except the T Room. It was a James Bond style that I loved, lots of chrome and glass. However, I don’t think a lot of people cared about the decor, they just wanted the scene. But I cared.” During his last restaurant project, Union, Witke started buying and stocking up on modernist furniture. “It started with a group of Hans Wegner chairs I bought for $12 apiece at a garage sale. They were a mess, so I stripped and refinished them. A couple of days later someone bought them for $1,200,” he says.
Witke realizes that many Angelenos are quite happy with their Shabby Chic.
“This is not a gamble,” he notes. “This is one of the more solid things I’ve done. I don’t know if I will stick with this for my entire life, but it’s something I like now.” Regardless, Witke says he’s not done with the restaurant business.
“I still want to do another bar or a restaurant, but there’s plenty of time for that,” he says. “I’m always looking. I look at something and I think, how can I make it better? What can I do with this chair, with this room, or with this building? It’s too bad I don’t have a lot of money or it would be Witkeworld.”