An indoor forest at Machine Project created by Sara Newey and Christy McCaffrey; Not For You, 2006, galvanized steel, dimmer, bulbs, West of Rome, 2006.
If there's one thing wide, sprawly Los Angeles can pride itself on having, it's an abundance of space. But now, as I walk though neighborhoods filled with empty box stores and strip malls, I realize we may have far too much of it.
Luckily, we're also blessed with an abundance of creatives who have the desire to occupy it. Emi Fontana has filled vacant retail stores with art installations, and even used an empty modern house high in the hills above Pasadena to install a site-specific installation by Olafur Eliasson. In L.A.'s Chinatown, Wendy Yao sells a collection of zines, handmade jewelry and records out of a miniscule strip mall, which has led to a variety of unusual temporary venues. Nearby, Mark Allen uses his small storefront as a place for identifying (and eating) edible insects, holding welding classes and orchestrating temporary takeovers of entire museums.
There's a reason this is the age of the pop-up shop: space is available, and it's yours for the taking.
Last month I saw these three visionaries speak as part of a L.A.-focused program at ARCOmadrid, Spain's contemporary art fair. The panel featuring Fontana, Yao and Allen, and moderated by UCLA's Russell Ferguson, was entitled "Alternative Spaces for Art," but for me, it had a far more entrepreneurial tone than that. Each of them have filled a very real need in the community and turned wasted, overlooked spaces into destinations in themselves. The fact that these three creatives have founded true cultural centers and succeeded in doing it in a place as notoriously scattered as Los Angeles makes me believe their concepts are true models for success.
Conversation, design and food is scientifically proven to cement new relationships.
Here in Los Angeles, groups like Phantom Galleries (modeled after another group in San Jose) work with artists and temporarily empty businesses to create installations. The entire city of Glendale, an L.A.-adjacent enclave, is launching its own program to fill its (many) empty superstores. Recently the art show Manifest Equality placed the work of 200 artists in a former Big Lots supermarket in the heart of Hollywood. Groups like these are working in every city, looking for designers, architects and artists to activate their vacant spaces.
Designers can use their spaces as an intermediary between clients and
vendors, allowing people and projects to mix, and promoting them at the same time. The store/gallery Touch here in L.A. uses its showroom to hold salon-style dinners where they can invite collaborators and artists as well as hype the skills of a local, independent chef to the design community. Conversation, design and food is scientifically proven to cement new relationships.
Instead of thinking about filling a whole gallery, brainstorm mini-opportunities where you can showcase your work. Why not set up a tiny pop-up shop or gallery inside your own firm? The Venice Beach designer Ilan Dei dropped two shipping containers next to his shop and merged them into a place where people can experience the furniture he designed. It gives potential clients a great excuse to pop in to see what you're up to.
Ooga Booga's reading room filled with zines and books at the Swiss
Institute; Commune Design showcases their wares at the Community Shop at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.
The same relationship can be applied to designers working with organizations or corporations. Ask your client if you can carve out some space for yourself inside one of their projects. L.A.-based Commune Design worked on the new Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, and banded together with several collaborators to open the Community Shop, a sliver of a space at the hotel where they can sell their goods.
Jenny Holzer's text was found around construction sites; a video showing the installation of FreshPressed's mural.
Spaces need to go beyond simply serving as eye candy—they need to provide a service for their audience.
Stake your claim in your neighborhood by orchestrating a public installation on the street or an anonymous beautification project (guerrilla gardening?). FreshPressed, a DIY silkscreening shop in East Hollywood, used an exterior wall of their building to showcase artists they work with, starting with Shepard Fairey. All they had to do was ask their landlord.
This could also be a great way to teach design skills to the public: Michael Lehrer, an L.A.-based architect, holds life drawing classes at his studio every other week. If your office can't support it, look to free spaces around you. Maybe there's an opportunity to hold design-focused seminars at a local library or community center.
These are just a few of the exciting interventions in space that I've noticed while strolling the streets of L.A. Surely there's some exciting work being done in the area all over the world. Do you have a space you've activated? Share your experiences—and your stories—below.