Byline: Deirdre Mendoza

More than 30 years ago, a pivotal scene in the counterculture classic “The Graduate” featured a jobless, young Dustin Hoffman, back home in Southern California, getting unsolicited career counseling in the form of a single word: plastics. In 1996, Otis College of Art and Design school graduate Carla Denker faced a similar post-collegiate malaise and opened Plastica.
The store’s space-age concept immediately sets it apart from scented candles and hand-made soap stores. Its shelves are lined with lifestyle accessories bought internationally and based solely on synthetic materials.
Located first on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake and now in its current spot on a quietly burgeoning section of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz, Plastica is a destination shop for a style-conscious clientele in search of, well, plastic stuff.
Plastica’s 25-to-60-year-old customers snatch up brightly colored gardening clogs, plastic log pillows, air-powered fruit bowls and woven floormats from Korea.
Brothers Mark and Robert Mothersbaugh of the Eighties avant-garde band Devo — and more recently, composers for the “Rugrats” children’s TV series — actors Kelly Lynch and Kristy Swanson, and artist John Baldessari are among the eclectic group of shoppers picking up on Plastica’s allure.
“I buy a lot of good stuff, my favorite stuff, endless stuff,” says Denker, who started the store with a sparse inventory. She and an ex-boyfriend stocked up on armfuls of Mexican “bolsa” bags during a trip across the border and came back to Los Angeles to open shop.
In March, Denker landed prime real estate only minutes from The Beverly Center and opened a second Plastica store. Located on Third Street in bustling West Hollywood, the store is anchored in an area where home design aficionados are as common as tinted Nokia cell phones.
The Third Street store continues the Plastica theme, but also branches beyond plastic to include a pricier range of synthetics, wood, glassware and leather. Prices range from $2.50 for plastic chopsticks to $800 for a phylon room divider designed by Plastica. The new store will also expand its furniture offerings to include resources such as custom-designed seating and shelving from locally based 100X Better.
Shopping for a pair of rubber-tire-soled sandals from Morocco? Designer hair barrettes that come in a sleek, indestructible tin? Or an over-the-shoulder Pod bag from Inflate in London? They can be found sandwiched between brightly patterned Mexican messenger bags from New York-based Loveshine and marbleized notebooks made from recycled plastic by Germany’s Authentics.
Denker says she entertains other ideas for the Third Street store, such as producing housewares and other items and accessories under the Plastica brand name. A designer resource for apparel is also being considered.
Prior to her incarnation as a retailer, Denker did stints as an elementary school teacher and as a scenic designer on indie films in Los Angeles.
Her buying habit now takes her from Los Angeles’s thrift stores to Mexico City and Tokyo, where she works with specialty stores and wholesalers.
Denker’s eye is trained on progressive brands, odd contraptions and hand-picked vintage pieces.
“I’d like to get to a point where I can go on these amazing buying trips and find unusual things around the world,” she says. But, she notes, specialty retailing is tough. At the moment, Denker feels more like the owner of “an expensive hobby.”
Starting with $5 dollar days at the register back in 1996, she hopes to hit the $250,000 mark in retail sales for both stores by 2003.
Denker pours her earnings back into the business, drives a worn Volkswagen Fox and resides with a roommate in a modest two-bedroom apartment in Silver Lake.
Along with eventual retirement to Italy, Denker says her goal is to give plastic the homage it deserves.
“For so long, plastic has been used in such a cheap way,” she says. “I hope to further the respect of plastic and maybe one day make it as good as+gold.”
The original Plastica is at 4685 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles; 323-655-1051.