May 2012

Modernist Missionary

Chameleonic collector MICHAEL BOYD turns to furniture design and plumbs the past to inform the present  by GREG CERIO

  • Tables and chairs from PLANEfurniture’s WEDGEseries, RODseries, PLANKseries and BLOCKseries, all on view at the Edward Cella gallery.
  • Boyd carpet in the Strick House. Photo: Hans Eckardt
  • A view of Boyd’s indoor renovation of Craig Ellwood’s Steinman house. Photo: Richard Powers

The two-story painted cinder-block building stands in a non-descript area of Santa Monica, not far off an avenue named for a state popular with survivalists. Suffice it to say, very little about the exterior excites the imagination. Nor is there much to say about the gray interiors, whose architectural highlights are steel trusses and fluorescent lights. But the contents of this unassuming studio cum warehouse offer up a fully rounded portrait and virtual curriculum vitae of the building’s owner, Michael Boyd.

In a metropolis filled with hyphenates—all those actor-screenwriter-director-producers—Boyd may be the über-hyphenate. Among aficionados of modernist design, he is renowned as a first-rate collector, interior designer, architectural consultant, landscape designer, product designer, musician and author of the restoration of two 20th-century gems, the Manhattan townhouse reworked to stunning effect by Paul Rudolph in 1975 and Oscar Niemeyer’s 1964 Strick House in Santa Monica, the Brazilian architect’s only North American residential commission.

The objects on view—and remember, this is the Salon des Refusés for pieces that didn’t make the cut for Boyd’s home—span the work of modernist masters from Alvar Aalto to Eva Zeisel. Boyd’s own paintings and wall-mounted sculptures, which echo the work of Mondrian, the minimalists and the constructivists, testify to their creator’s artistic ambitions. A wide-ranging collection of music—everything from late Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac to Radiohead—hints at his career as a composer.

The books in his huge library point to Boyd’s other pursuits: A section on gardening relates to his work in landscape design, and there are volumes attesting to his forays into architecture and interiors, as a designer and adviser to prominent collectors and as a collaborator with artistic institutions including LACMA, MoMA and SFMoMA.

There is the distinct feeling that if you looked hard enough, you would find tomes running the gamut from scrimshaw to quantum physics. Yet Boyd sees continuity in such far-flung endeavors. “It’s all about composition,” he says. “You bring together musical notes in a pattern just as you choose the type and placement of plants or the way furniture is made and fits into a room.”

Boyd’s success as a composer of chairs and tables can now be judged at Edward Cella Art + Architecture, where an exhibition, on view through June 16, showcases the first fruits of his recently launched company, PLANEfurniture.

The show, which nods to celebrated exemplars of modernist furniture, may come as a surprise to insiders who still identify Boyd only as a collector. But he insists the work isn’t mere caprice: “I don’t jump out of bed with an idea and grab a sketch pad. It’s a slow process. You really have to study your antecedents.”

“It’s all about composition,” Boyd says. “You bring together musical notes in a pattern just as you choose the type and placement of plants or the way furniture is made and fits into a room.”

Boyd was raised in Berkeley, where his father was a professor of English literature at the University of California. He showed artistic promise early, studying painting and learning to play music. (The guitar—an item he also collects—is his instrument of choice, though he is also adept at the piano.) After college, he launched a career as a commercial composer. His stock in trade was creating advertising melodies for the likes of Nike and Coca-Cola, though he has also produced scores for film and television shows.

In 1989, Boyd met his future wife, then Gabrielle Marie Doré, a producer for a San Francisco ad agency. Both are engaging and gregarious, but while Boyd’s mind is constantly ticking, Gabrielle’s warmth belies a certain canniness. It’s pretty much understood that she has the business sense in the partnership, and as such, she insists they keep a hand in the lucrative music world, despite Michael’s more recent design forays.

The couple’s road-to-Damascus moment came in 2000. “Exploring architecture and design firsthand was an adventure we could not back away from. When the Paul Rudolph townhouse became available, it seemed like the opportune time to make a change,” Boyd says.

“I had always painted and tinkered with furniture design but never with the idea that I would be an originator instead of a collector or critic. Gabrielle convinced me to look at Jean-Luc Godard and Donald Judd as examples of critics turned creators. Of course, I am not in the same qualitative family as them, but the idea is the same.”

The Boyds’ restoration of Rudolph’s signature townhouse was widely admired. That project made their bones in the world of design, and they promptly moved on to another when they left New York, purchasing the Strick House in 2003. Soon after the Niemeyer renovation was completed, Michael began to receive offers to work on the architecture, interiors and landscapes of other significant modernist houses in the Los Angeles area—and that ruffled some feathers.

A few landscape designers were reportedly put out when, in 2009, Boyd landed the coveted job of designing the gardens on the steep slope beneath the Chemosphere, the famed flying saucer on a pole designed by John Lautner in 1960. (The owners—publisher Benedikt Taschen and his wife, Lauren—admired the way Boyd planned the sharply inclined land that runs from the Strick House to the golf course below.)

“It was like, ‘Top people have been vying for that for years, and you just walk in,’ ” says Boyd. “I’d get quizzed about the Latin taxonomy of plants, and I’d say, ‘You know, when I have to learn that, I will.’ Plus, I’ve always worked with the help of experts.”

Another perception that chafes Boyd is “the idea that I am a snob because our collection has been documented in a book. Really, it’s all about appealing relationships between objects. I’ll put something that cost a hundred dollars next to a one-of-a-kind piece. Value has nothing to do with how we collect.”

But value is a thing Boyd hopes to offer through PLANEfurniture. His first collection encompasses four lines, each with distinct forebears. Boyd is quick to acknowledge those sources of inspiration: the PLANKseries owes a clear debt to the furniture of Gerrit Rietveld and Donald Judd; the WEDGE group tips a hat to Rudolph Schindler; the BLOCK line of tables is reminiscent of Rietveld’s case pieces; and the RODseries of outdoor chairs—powder-coated metal armatures, with seats and backs made of vinyl yacht cord—conjures the work of Walter Lamb.

“I didn’t want to do anything foolish and theoretical. I think there’s something cynical in selling a burned Rietveld chair or a chair made of teddy bears sewn to a frame,” Boyd says, referring to the work of contemporary design stars Maarten Baas and the Campana brothers. “I want to prompt a smile in an era of smirks.”

GREG CERIO is a New York writer on 20th century and contemporary design and architecture. He often mooches accommodations off family living in L.A.

All furniture shots: Sam Frost