Thursday, June 24, 2004

Idyllic ... and endangered


Thursday June 24, 2004

Idyllic ... and endangered
* Should it stay or should it go? It's West Hollywood's call. Tenants want to save the complex, with its adobe walls and classic L.A. courtyard. The owners have other ideas.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

On this sunny Thursday afternoon, Ramona residents do what they do best -- they chat, they chill, they gather around the fountain and commune. Janelle Paradee helps her 3-year-old son, Tristan, blow bubbles, and Rich Johnson watches his dog Mr. French chase them.

Courtyard life ebbs and flows. In the evenings, tenants and neighbors sip martinis (or, in Tristan's case, juice) and debrief about their days spent beyond this garden oasis. Life out there can be tough, say these mostly single men and women. Life can get lonely. In the mornings, tenants inevitably gather again on their way to work. They can't escape camaraderie. When they talk about the Ramona, the word they keep returning to is "family."

"There is love in this building," says Johnson. The surrounding chorus nods in agreement.

Time may be running out for this Ramona family. Up and down Harper Avenue, neon signs blatantly announce themselves from windows and lawns, all demanding one thing: "Save the Ramona from Demolition." Residents of the West Hollywood neighborhood don't have much time. The courtyard building they're rallying to protect is in danger of being taken down, like so many before it and like others once on the block; the Ramona is the last standing.

It's not just the tenants who are campaigning, but a growing number of petitioners pleading for the survival of the 81-year-old structure, whose fate will ultimately be decided by the West Hollywood City Council. If these activists and sympathizers lose, a Santa Monica-based developer will raze the property -- its fountain, its palms, its 12 units -- and build 17 loft-style condominiums.

What's at stake, the preservation-minded will tell you, is not just the home of a dozen people, but a classic architectural style, instantly recognizable as belonging only to L.A. It is probably the one most associated with the city in our collective memories because of the courtyard apartments' starring roles in movies such as the 1950 Humphrey Bogart mystery "In a Lonely Place" and the more recent (and more mysterious) "Mulholland Drive."

Imagine Los Angeles, and you imagine courtyard buildings and Hollywood in its heyday. Colonies of "courts," as they're often called for short, were built blocks away from the big studios for technicians, extras and aspiring actors. More elaborate versions became the homes of movie moguls.

The low-rise, high-density courtyard apartment buildings provided agreeable, inexpensive housing for everyday working people, and they became as emblematic of early 20th century Los Angeles as bungalows or Spanish Colonial Revival houses.

James Tice, coauthor of "Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles," says he's not surprised by the allegiance of tenants and neighbors to the Ramona: Courtyard apartments are uniquely suited to L.A. living. Spanish mission-style courtyards like the Ramona usually feature thick adobe walls, ornamental tile, wrought iron balconies and mosaic fountains bounded by greenery.

Architectural and landscaping elements combine to create a communal atmosphere that is both practical -- you can interact with tenants, and easily keep watch over who comes and goes -- and "spiritual, ethereal," says Tice.

Johnson, an architect turned furniture designer who has lived in the Ramona for seven years, says the layout of the building doesn't just allow community, it necessitates it. All doorways and windows open onto courtyards. He leaves his windows open, summer, autumn, winter, spring. "I like the contact," he explains. "Even though we're not talking to each other, I can hear people, see them walking by."

Courtyard apartments, Tice insists, should be preserved as remnants from the past and also as paradigms for the future. It is hard to calculate how many have been lost: not even the Los Angeles Conservancy knows the number. Their relative humility as landmarks, Tice explains, may have made them vulnerable.

"In a way, they are more fragile because they can begin to disappear piecemeal, and then Hollywood is just like Burbank, and Burbank is just like La Canada, and La Canada is just like everywhere else," Tice says.

Consider what happened along North San Vincente Boulevard. Until five years ago, many of the tiny stand-alone bungalows built for Pacific Electric Railway workers remained, "a window into the modest beginnings of a community," says Ken Bernstein, the conservancy's director of preservation issues. When developers spotted the potential for the land, preservationists applied to have the bungalows designated "cultural resources." The City Council thought otherwise. Condominiums now loom where the bungalows once stood; only five original houses were spared.

But the lack of care and protection of historic buildings is not just an issue in West Hollywood, according to Charles Lockwood, author of seven architectural books. "Southern California really lags behind most of the country," he says. "You have many communities that haven't even bothered to designate all their potential landmarks. The respect and reuse of historic structures is not just some warm and fuzzy thing that we should do. These buildings create distinctive neighborhoods, and they're instrumental in attracting tourists. You get enough historical buildings together and you have an economic engine that's never going to wear out. Look at Santa Barbara."

Although West Hollywood is known for the strides it has made in preserving worthy structures, tenants and preservationists say they've been frustrated numerous times by the City Council's decision to ignore recommendations of the Historic Preservation Commission and side with property owners.

Councilman Jeffrey Prang agrees that the council is "too quick to scrap properties just because they're old. We need to be much more cautious."

But John Duran, mayor of West Hollywood, says the council has a duty to balance conservation issues with private property rights. And he is quick to point out that his community has preserved plenty of courtyards in two major districts, the Courtyard Thematic District and the Harper Historic District.

The Harper district, just a block north of the Ramona, is redolent with true Hollywood pedigree. Katharine Hepburn and James Dean lived in Villa Primavera, and Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland in Harper House.

The simple, unassuming Ramona has yet to house any of the Hollywood elite in its three buildings, but it is no less worthy of consideration than its grander, more glamorous neighbors, says Johnson, who is spearheading the movement to keep it alive. The Ramona, built in 1923, is one of the oldest courtyards in the city, and, except for the Primavera, built the same year, is the grande dame of the neighborhood.

But Fred Schaeffer, a principal at GTO Development, the company that bought the Ramona in March, doesn't believe it merits cultural resource designation.

"It has no significant detailing and is not particularly well constructed," he says. Schaeffer urges journalists and West Hollywood residents to resist the cliche of the evil developer versus the righteous tenant. Instead of protecting this "tired old building," he suggests that the city embrace his vision of environmentally conscious condos.

"It would be wonderful," says Richard Abramson, architect on the GTO project, "if West Hollywood becomes known as a place where living in the 21st century starts to take shape."

Eight days after Johnson submitted an application in March for cultural resource designation, GTO sent a letter to Ramona tenants informing them that they would eventually have to vacate.

The koi were the first to go.

City law forbids developers from moving forward with development while cultural resource applications pend, but in late April, GTO's insurance company said safety-related changes had to be made to the property. Most were mundane -- updating smoke detectors and so forth. But the final item was a massive blow to tenants: "The decorative fountain presents the same hazard as a swimming pool and must be enclosed or the water removed."

Instead of safety-proofing the fountain, GTO removed the koi -- which had been swimming in the fountain for as long as anyone can remember -- and drained the water. That act outraged tenants and neighbors. "As weird as it sounds," say Ben Easter, an actor who lives across the street from the Ramona, "turning off the fountain is a monumental thing. The fountain brings peace. In my crazy life, it brings me peace."

Tenants met, petitions circulated, neighbors spread the word, and Brian Boyd heard about it "from a friend of a friend of a friend." Co-owner of the Pacific Trust Group, Boyd visited the property and was hooked. "This is an architectural piece that you don't find," he says. Since each unit only has one shared wall, it "gives you the feeling that you're in a house."

Boyd has offered to buy the building from GTO so that he can restore and preserve it. If the sale goes through, Boyd and his partner intend to abandon their four-bedroom Spanish house in the Hollywood Hills and live in a single unit at the Ramona.

But GTO is not interested in selling. The developers want to build their project, Schaeffer says, and if things go their way, they will. "If we're stymied ....then I guess we'd reconsider," he says.

For now, Boyd will leave his offer on the table; the residents will continue to campaign. The Historic Preservation Commission will take up the issue July 26 and eventually pass judgment. And the Ramona's fate, like so many other dwellings before it, will be decided by the City Council.

"It's a beautiful building," says Mayor Duran, "reminiscent of a style of living in Southern California that one doesn't see any longer. If it meets the criteria, I hope we preserve it."



Enduring visions

Preservation ordinances ensure that these West Hollywood area apartments remain standing:

Villa Primavera (1300-1308 N. Harper Ave.): Husband-and-wife architect duo Arthur and Nina Zwebell's first foray into Spanish Revival courtyards features an outdoor fireplace and mature foliage.

Patio del Moro (8225-8229 Fountain Ave.): Since 1926, these Zwebell apartments have stood apart because of prominent Arab influences -- pointed and horseshoe arches, latticed openings and surface arabesque patterns.

Andalusia (1471-1475 Havenhurst Drive): The most celebrated Zwebell court, built in 1926, has three courtyards: a paved one for cars, a picturesque Andalusian patio and another inside the complex that has provided privacy for the many actors, including Cesar Romero and Clara Bow, who have called the Andalusia home.

Villa d'Este (1355 Laurel Ave.): Italian villas in rural Tuscany inspired architect brothers F. Pierpont Davis and Walter S. Davis when they designed the complex in 1928. Here, water cascades from the mouths of lions into multiple pools and waterways.

Roman Gardens (2000 N. Highland Ave.): Designed by the Davis brothers in 1926, the complex has one of the most romantic courtyards -- a Spanish-Moorish tower pokes above eucalyptus, palm and citrus trees.

Harper House (1334-1336 N. Harper Ave.): Drawn in 1929 by architect Leland Bryant a luxury courtyard with Churrigueresque stylings.

El Pasadero (1330 N. Harper Ave.): Jason and Irene Reese designed a 1931 structure in the Spanish-Revival tradition with a central court that resembles a Spanish street.

-- Steven Barrie-Anthony

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Skid row, the musical


Thursday June 17, 2004

Skid row, the musical
* An original production about homeless life debuts at a downtown benefit tonight.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

"Fits & Misfits" needed another stagehand. And so Mollie Lowery, founding executive director of Lamp Community -- a nonprofit that provides housing, healthcare and job training for Los Angeles' homeless mentally ill -- hit skid row.

The new stagehand, his hand bandaged from a recent stabbing, was literally sleeping in the streets until yesterday when, wooed by Lowery, he agreed to work on Lamp's 19th anniversary awards show and musical, "Fits & Misfits, 2004." Most of the performers in tonight's "evening of celebration, song and hope," held at 7:30 p.m. at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre (244 S. San Pedro St., L.A.), are current or prior Lamp members. They will be joined in the second hour by a cast of professional actors, and together will perform "Blessings," an original musical by playwright Michael Kearns and composer Darien Martus.

Lamp Community includes a shelter, a residential program and more than 100 units of permanent low-cost housing. More than 75% of the people living in permanent housing have been there a number of years, says Lowery, and "most people who live here consider this their home and their family."

In its early years Lamp began celebrating its June birthday by publicly honoring members' victories -- staying off the street, halting drug use, gaining employment.

Somewhere along the line they started including theatrics in the celebration, said Lowery, such as a spoof on "The Wizard of Oz." The theatrical element grew exponentially, and "we began to outgrow ourselves," Lowery said. "People from the community started coming to see our show. We were becoming quite professional."

And so in 2003 Lowery commissioned Kearns to write a play based on the lives of several Lamp members. The result, "Barriers," centered on a resident's tragic suicide. Commissioned again this year, Kearns said that he "wanted to find a bit more light amidst the bleakness." Hence, he and Martus came up with "Blessings," a musical that follows nine people whose lives have been transformed by their association with Lamp.

Most of the principal characters -- "four men, three women, and two transgendered people" -- have moved off the streets, and are now employed at Lamp, Kearns said.

Nine professional actors tell the stories, but the "real people" who inspired the stories are onstage as well, Kearns said.

"What I'm attempting to do," he said, "is to challenge the audience to play along -- in other words, you can put yourself into their shoes if you really want a deeper understanding of their condition."

The first segment of "Fits & Misfits" is the traditional awards ceremony with theatrics throughout. Lamp member Robert Byrd sings a rendition of "Mr. Cellophane" from the musical "Chicago" because, Lowery said, it's a brilliant piece about being invisible, and "that's what it feels like to be homeless."

Lamp members are touched that actors are volunteering their time to come to skid row to rehearse and perform, said Lowery, who has seen Lamp residents and actors "dancing together during breaks." Even if the performance never went on, transformations are already occurring, she said.

Nonetheless, the performance will go on. Only one cast member has dropped out, to serve jail time. Tax-deductible tickets go for $50. RSVP online at or by phone, (213) 488-9559.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Whittier's tiki king


Thursday June 10, 2004

Whittier's tiki king

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Blissfully splayed out on a Hawaiian beach, sipping rum from a pineapple and listening to ukulele music waft from -- somewhere -- it's hard to imagine that the rough-hewn, authentic-looking thatch umbrella shielding you from the sun was likely made back home on the mainland. Ditto for many of the tiki decorations at resorts, bars and even tiki museums in Polynesia and the rest of the world.

If something looks Polynesian, chances are that LeRoy Schmaltz, the 69-year-old co-owner of Oceanic Arts in Whittier, had a hand in making it.

"It's super ironic," says Greg Escalante, a Polynesian art expert and curator of the Copro/Nason Gallery in Culver City. "The biggest existing tiki statue in Tahiti was made by Schmaltz, in Whittier. Even in Tahiti, they somehow rely on Schmaltz."

Once people figure out that he has a place in history, his art will become "super collectible," says Escalante, who considers the carver "a national treasure."

Trader Joe's, Islands restaurants, Disneyland and many Nevada casinos buy tiki decorations from Oceanic Arts. He has helped design dozens of TV and movie sets, including "Gilligan's Island" and "Forrest Gump." He lays claim to overseeing the production of thousands of tikis, and a similar number of totems, luau signs and pretty much any other decoration loosely associated with the South Pacific.

He is considered royalty within the tiki art movement's three schools. The first covers authentic archeological artifacts from the Pacific; the second Americana, post-World War II interpretations in restaurants and bars; and the third new work by artists such as Shag, who combines island motifs into retro-style paintings.

Schmaltz "is the king of the second school," says Doug Nason, co-author of "Night of the Tiki: The Art of Shag, Schmaltz and Selected Primitive Oceanic Carvings" (Last Gasp, 2001) and co-owner of Copro/Nason Gallery. "Many people can't afford to go to the islands ... and this Americana movement is a substantial movement in itself. In that way, it's just as important as ancient archeology."

Schmaltz, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, of course, strolls proudly through his 10,000-square-foot workshop and warehouse, filled with Polynesia-inspired objects that he built or refurbished. Everything is for sale or rent. Shelves brim with tropical mats, thatched umbrellas, grass skirts and carved wooden signs announcing "Aloha!" and "Welcome to the Luau!" Leis spew from barrels everywhere.

He gestures toward hundreds of palm and redwood tiki statues and totems, ranging from pocket size to more than 10 feet tall. "They have a Polynesian flair," he says, "but they are imagination, fantasy."

Ersatz, indeed, but art nonetheless, according to Schmaltz -- a distinction he has been trying to make since he was a senior in art at Cal State Los Angeles in 1956. After Schmaltz began restoring Samoan tiki statues for a local importer, his professors were unhappy when he asked to receive class credit for his tiki time.

"They told me that this is way below my station in life -- told me that I wasn't worthy of being an art major. They didn't want me at school," Schmaltz recalls, still rankled.

A few classes short of his degree, Schmaltz left academia behind. He and a college buddy, business major Robert Van Oosting, pooled what money they had and set off for the South Seas in search of their own Polynesian muses. In Tahiti, they met villagers "who hadn't seen white guys," Schmaltz remembers. "Kids cried."

The pair traveled to Fiji, to New Guinea. They were besieged by stormy weather and almost shipwrecked, he says, but visited sites, museums and shops with everything from drums to letter openers. When Schmaltz returned home, his head was swimming with Polynesian imagery.

Schmaltz put chain saw to lumber and began constructing island objects while Van Oosting handled the business side. At first, they filled small orders, doing Hawaiian-themed signs for local bars, restaurants and retailers, but in the 1960s Sea World, Epcot Center and companies around the world put in big orders. The Rolling Stones hired Schmaltz to decorate for parties, and Bob Dole hired him to carve signs for his presidential campaign.

The secret of the trade is to "try to make yourself into a native. Or, if you're carving a pirate thing, pretend you're a pirate," says Schmaltz, who still spends most days in the workshop with two carvers he employs full time.

Converting a log into tiki can take a day, or a week if it's 7 feet high. After the design is chalked onto a log, the chain saw is powered up. Power tools and grinders are used to make finer points -- say, the eye markings on a Hawaiian war god -- before the indentations are chiseled out.

He plans to chisel out a few more good years. "Tiki is a form of escapism," he says. "As long as the world is in turmoil, people always turn to peaceful, pleasurable worlds -- and this is one of them."

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Home is where his heart was


Tuesday June 08, 2004

Home is where his heart was
* For Ronald Reagan, there was no place to compare with Rancho del Cielo, which he came across in 1974.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

"George Washington had Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson had Monticello. JFK had Hyannis Port. And Ronald Reagan," says Reagan biographer Paul Kengor, "had Rancho del Cielo."

Reagan called the sprawling, 688-acre ranch just outside of Santa Barbara his "open cathedral." "The ranch is more part of him than any other California home," says Kengor, author of "God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life" (Regan Books; 2004). "It was the most meaningful place in his life."

In November 1974, just weeks before Reagan finished his second term as governor of California, he and his wife, Nancy, visited the property. He fell in love with it. She didn't.

"When you go the ranch, you start at the bottom of a hill, really a mountain," Kengor says. "You need four-wheel drive. It's very rugged and very bumpy. There are potholes. As they rode up the hill, she was saying, 'No, no, please don't buy this.' He had to work on her."

Reagan christened the ranch Rancho del Cielo, or Ranch in the Sky. "The highest point is 2,600 feet," Kengor says. "It towers above the Pacific."

Reagan remodeled the simple adobe house himself -- turned the screened porch into a family room, tore off the corrugated roof and replaced it with tiles. He built a fence around the house, constructed a rock patio and a pond, and chopped brush. He chopped so much brush over the years that one biographer speculates that the Secret Service dragged extra brush onto the property before his arrivals.

Despite initial reservations, Nancy Reagan helped out.

"Mrs. Reagan varnished floors and did a lot of painting," says former senior Reagan aide Peter Hannaford. "By the time they were done, they had a modest house: 1,500 square feet, one master bedroom and bath ... and a den with a fireplace." Animal hides lay on the floor, mounted steer heads and paintings of horses hung on the walls, and the inevitable jellybean jar sat on a counter.

During his presidency, Reagan spent a total of 364 days at the ranch, then dubbed the "Western White House." He received Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip there on a particularly rainy day, and "they all got drenched," Hannaford recalls. Reagan took Mikhail Gorbachev for a spin in his Jeep.

"He gave Gorbachev a Stetson cowboy hat, but Gorby put it on backward," Hannaford says. "Reagan leaned over to tell him that he had it on backward, but Gorby misunderstood because he wore it backward for the rest of the day."

On a typical day, Hannaford says, Reagan rose early to do presidential "homework" before and after breakfast. "Then he'd go out and work -- prune trees, clear brush.... Then he would saddle horses for himself and Mrs. Reagan. Secret Service guys would do the same. As soon as the horses were settled, he would ring an old railroad bell. Agents would ride behind him and Mrs. Reagan. Out of sight, a Humvee that contained the rest of the detail followed."

Lunch, then more work outdoors. Dinner -- often macaroni and cheese -- then reading time, and television ("Bonanza" or "Mission: Impossible"). "It was a quiet life, pretty much the same from one day to the next," Hannaford says. Excepting the bulletproof windowpanes and visiting dignitaries, it was ranch living at its simplest.

Rancho del Cielo, lacking amenities such as heating, was a far cry from the "House of the Future" on San Onofre Drive in the Pacific Palisades. Built by General Electric Co. in 1957 for then-spokesman Ronald Reagan, it was fully electric and included every newfangled gadget on the market: electric gates and garage doors, retracting canopies over outdoor dining areas, light dimmers, heating on the terrace, air conditioning, a rotating barbecue spit, a heated pool, a movie screening room....

Constructed on the southern slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, the stone and glass house featured an unobstructed view of Los Angeles and the ocean. Nancy Reagan decorated it, mainly in her trademark red. "We had a number of meetings in the Pacific Palisades home with his small advisory group," Hannaford says of Reagan's fledging days as a politician. "We would usually meet in the living room.... A few times, when he had been swimming, we went outside and sat around the patio while we talked."

When Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966, the family moved into the Victorian governor's mansion in the historic section of Sacramento. Nancy was dismayed by the four-story 1877 estate: wallpaper was peeling, heaters barely worked and the house smelled of mold. She regularly cried in bed after her husband fell asleep.

Four months after taking office, the Reagans ordered a new governor's mansion constructed, and then moved into a rented two-story white brick Tudor-style house in an upscale East Sacramento neighborhood. Nancy furnished the house mostly with donations from friends, including a mahogany dining table from Betsy and Alfred Bloomingdale. She decorated with donated paintings, antique china and ever-present bouquets of flowers from the garden.

Reagan "didn't care much about his surroundings; he could have been happy in a trailer or bunkhouse," biographer Laurence Leamer writes. So while his wife redid the interior, he retreated outdoors and built a treehouse with their son Ronald Prescott "Skipper" Reagan.

Twenty-two years later, after two terms as president, Reagan left the White House. At 78, he still rode horses and worked the land at his beloved Rancho del Cielo. And when they weren't at the ranch, the couple lived in an elegant red-brick ranch-style home with a swimming pool in Bel-Air. (The address was originally 666 St. Cloud, but the Reagans changed it to 668 in order to avoid satanic implications.) Walled and gated, the property offered the couple a new measure of privacy. It would be his final home.

"When they first moved in, we thought, 'There goes the neighborhood,' " says former neighbor Jeff Hyland. But the couple were low-key, Hyland says, and didn't host many parties. Tourists were more interested in the nearby "Beverly Hillbillies" house.

"Reagan said, 'The longer I go to the ranch, the longer I'll live,' " Kengor says. "When he stopped going to the ranch, he pretty much stopped living."

Reagan publicly disclosed his Alzheimer's disease in 1994. His last visit to Rancho del Cielo was in 1995, and Nancy Reagan sold the property in 1998.

Thursday, June 3, 2004

More like vroom design


Thursday June 03, 2004

More like vroom design
* Looking for inspiration along Route 66, car designers take a turn toward home.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

The vision arrived, as visions usually do, late at night.

Anke Mazzei unrolled her frog-green sleeping bag. Lying on the floor of the gutted silver Airstream parked in St. Louis, she saw its reflection on the roof. A mundane observation to most, perhaps, but not to the seven young car designers seeking a muse along Route 66. Inspired, they spent the next two weeks contemplating sunsets reflected against the trailers' aluminum siding.

Returning to work at Nissan Design America in La Jolla, team members were determined to replicate their cross-country experience, to puncture the boundaries between inside and outside, between driver and car. They started work on what became the Actic, a concept car with a reflective metallic interior and electronic ceiling panels that display programmable video images.

But car designing "can be so restrictive," says Jill Canales, a Nissan color designer. So, in the name of creativity and adventure, they decided to move beyond the Actic.

The mavericks struck out on another lark: designing for the home. In their first foray into the field, they came up with three prototypes -- the living cube, teabag lights and chess space -- that turned heads last month at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York and again last week when they debuted in La Jolla.

Despite a flurry of interest -- one woman offered $50,000 for the cube, others $1,000 per teabag light -- Nissan does not intend to open a new retail arm. "We just wanted to have fun and get inspired," says team leader Bryan Thompson.

This latest foray is one in a long line of innovative cross-pollination, of creative types trespassing into neighboring fields and creating things we love. Architect Michael Graves is known for his postmodernist buildings -- and for his teapots and toasters at Target. Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall and then a bottle and limited-edition case for new Wyborowa Single Estate Vodka. Architect Richard Meier developed a perfume container for Eurocos Cosmetics which, says the company, bears a resemblance to Meier's Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona.

"Most car design studios keep everybody so busy that the designers don't have time to do anything else," says Geoff Wardle, the acting chairman of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. But allowing designers the freedom to experiment in other arenas "increases the designers' vocabulary of design and interest," which inevitably leads to more innovation in car design, he says. At Nissan, designers are encouraged to have outside projects that are done on company time. "It gets them fundamentally energized, waking up with ideas in the middle of the night," explains Alfonso Albaisa, the company's design director.

Nissan designers have long frequented furniture stores and shows in search of innovative designs with crossover potential, Thompson says.

There is a natural confluence between car and furniture design. "Furniture is one area of design that, like automobiles, is not just about functionality and comfort," Wardle says. Both specialties hinge on conveying emotion, on "appealing to people's sense of making a statement about themselves."

Car designers who also design for the home are a rarity, say industry experts. Like Nissan Design America, Ford Motor Co.'s London-based Ingeni Studio encouraged its designers to work on prototypes from cellphones to football shoes to, yes, furniture. But Ford closed Ingeni in 2003, a little more than a year after it opened, to save money.

Thompson, Mazzei and designer Dominique Marzolf created a "relaxation cube" that makes the environment part of the design. The living cube is an 8-foot-by-8-foot indoor-outdoor resting place "or music room or thinking room," Marzolf says. Elements from its surroundings are embedded into laminate walls. For the prototype -- which will be housed in the lush, grassy Nissan Design America compound -- the designers embedded grass into the walls. The floor is sod. The ceiling dome light is a goldfish bowl, with goldfish in it. (The original fish are still alive and kicking.)

Walls are covered in felt. Inhabitants lounge on the ergonomic horizontal seat built into a wall, listen to music from the iPod connected to speakers or watch movies projected on the wall. At night, the pod glows pleasantly. Lying inside, if you gaze past the fish, you can begin to see the sky. Their other designs have equally serendipitous beginnings. Mazzei was sitting on a plane fiddling with her teabag when the concept for teabag lights hit her: a 2-foot-by-1-foot uncolored silicon "teabag" with a low-energy lightbulb inside. The lights attach to a step-switch that looks like an oversized teabag label.

Finally, the chess space: "Designers are always playing chess," Mazzei explains. So they layered felt to form seats, placed felt over a red plexiglass table and cut squares to form a chessboard.

The designs are "all about environment," she says, and indeed each looks at home in the Nissan compound.