September 1, 2009
Mixing It Up
Working with a rotating group of artists and designers, the L.A.-based firm Commune relies on a gritty authenticity to create beautiful artifice.
They’ve reinvented the motel with a 180-room overhaul of a former Howard Johnson in Palm Springs. They’ve created witty, layered shops full of unexpected surprises, and designed highly personal interiors for a varied slate of clients. But what are the partners of Commune really excited about now? A tent.
Looking like it was set up by a particularly stylish Boy Scout, the 9 by-12-foot tent is painted with a black geometric pattern and dominates the largest open space in the firm’s new West Hollywood office. “This is our experiment to see what a Commune retail environment would look like,” says Roman Alonso, founding partner and former fashion-PR impresario. To reach the tent, visitors must wander into a courtyard and then walk through an open passageway lined with pinup boards and workstations—and a piece by a local artist, Justin Beal, that reads, “We want to do everything for you that your mother would do if she understood projects and construction like we do.” It’s a journey into the literal heart of Commune and may be the truest expression of the firm’s authenticity-obsessed aesthetic and freewheeling, highly collaborative style of working.
The first time all four partners sat down together, in 2003, they got drunk. Really drunk. “I set up a dinner just to introduce Pam and Steven, because they both wanted to do interiors, but after lots of sake we decided to start this company,” says Alonso, now 43. At the time, he was co-running a successful art publishing house, Greybull Press, after a career that began in PR at Barneys New York, where he met Steven Johanknecht, who was working in store display. “That was our school in the late eighties and early nineties,” Alonso says. “Back then [Barneys] was a cultish experience.” After post-Barneys stints at Isaac Mizrahi (Alonso), and Gap (Johanknecht), the former colleagues found themselves in Los Angeles, where Alonso, who is a master connector, met Pamela Shamshiri and her brother, Ramin, at a party given by the fashion photographer Dewey Nicks. The Shamshiris were running a design firm, traveling the world to host high-profile, celeb-studded affairs that put her background in production design to good use.
The intoxicating sense of possibility that launched the multidisciplinary design house is readily apparent with the retail tent. A store, Alonso explains, usually presents a finite experience, whereas with hotels “you’re buying into a lifestyle. It’s about becoming part of a tribe.” This is an attempt to unite the two—and that willingness to mix up the ways a space can function is central to Commune’s identity. “The company was always meant to be very fluid,” says Ramin—the four principals are the only core staff, and a fluctuating group of collaborators (à la its moniker) grows or shrinks as projects demand. At its height, in the summer of 2008, there were 34 people in the office. That number is now down to 12. The office itself gives the impression of a firm that is comfortable with uncertain borders. Besides the experimental tent, it’s currently working on an eight-story mini department store in Tokyo for Opening Ceremony, a restoration of a midcentury Buff & Hensman house in L.A., and the launch of its own photo agency, which represents three photographers.
The partners’ offices, all perched on the second floor, have drywall partitions with reclaimed factory-style windows set inside, and a modern-day Anasazi-cliff-dwelling feel. Despite the name, the firm leans more toward the communal than the Communist, but the upstairs hall is hung with Cuban revolutionary posters, and a cloth stitching of Chairman Mao presides over the stairwell. “I could never bring my mother here,” says Alonso, whose family immigrated from Cuba.
The tent was originally a temporary home for Pamela, 38, and her family as she and her husband renovated their newly purchased Schindler house. The tent will now house a carefully curated selection of Commune-branded products. “In this environment, it’s hard to put the money out there for R & D and prototyping,” says Ramin, 36, who focuses on the business side of things. Instead of designing products on their own, the partners are working with artisans they’ve collaborated with in the past, including some of their Palm Springs Ace Hotel compatriots like the sculptor Alma Allen and the lighting designer Robert Lewis. “They’re part of our group of ‘Commune-ists,’ ” Alonso says.
“They always seek out and find these artists and collaborators that have been doing work for a long time or have an interesting story,” says Ace Hotel’s Alex Calderwood. For example, the California sculptor Stan Bitters has “long been a sort of legend, and they were able to seek him out. I appreciate that kind of attention to narrative.”
Working with artisans was a natural part of designing an L.A. store for Heath Ceramics, which is based in Sausalito, 400 miles to the north. The shop opened last December and also houses Adam Silverman’s studio. “They captured what was interesting and worked in our factory and location, and did not try to invent a new aesthetic or design for design’s sake,” says Heath’s co-owner Catherine Bailey. Drawing inspiration from Marfa and Donald Judd, Alonso, who led the project, made shelf brackets out of used kiln furniture, and repurposed kiln shelves as tabletops in the open storefront.
Issues of inspiration and authenticity are vitally important to Commune and give them their of-the-moment cultural fluency. If, as all of the Commune members have noted, being a designer is like being a therapist—they like to call it “image therapy”—the firm’s own psyche offers interesting depths to plumb. For the Ace Hotel, Pamela says, they looked to a mix of “Bedouin architecture, tents, camping, national parks, Easy Rider, nomadic tribes, Navajo—all Native American, really—Texas, definitely Marfa, a lot of South American concrete structures, concrete-block walls, and just indoor/outdoor California living. Plus, we looked at Joshua Tree more than Palm Springs.” There’s a delicate line between appreciation and appropriation, but like Picasso and his African masks, the partners filter these elements through their own experience, producing an exuberant mix of client, Commune, and history.
“When we start working with a client, we get into who they are and who they want to be,” Alonso says. When two high-powered businesswomen, Elizabeth Wiatt and Jamie Tisch, approached Commune with their retail concept, a customize-your-own-clothing store aimed at tweens, the pair realized quickly that they needed a space that was about empowerment and individuality rather than overt girliness. “Roman immediately understood this and came up with Sister Corita Kent”—an activist artist from the 1970s—“which was a perfect match on two levels: the story and the physical space,” Wiatt says. Kent’s bold, colorful graphics give the resulting Beverly Hills boutique its vitality. “When we’re inspired, it’s up front; it’s an ode,” Alonso says. “We never mean to borrow without giving credit.”
Working with clients like the notoriously detail-obsessed hotelier André Balazs, for whom Commune is updating the Chateau Marmont’s decidedly shabby bathrooms, the search for a project’s truest self takes on a different meaning. “He knew we’d respect his building,” Alonso says. “Those bathrooms will feel like they’ve always been there.” But that doesn’t mean a slavish devotion to authentic period pieces in pristine condition. Though the hotel opened in 1927, Alonso is taking his inspiration from turn-of-the-century interiors by Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffmann.
Despite this willingness to mix eras, the firm does have a fidelity to what the partners call “pure form.” That doesn’t have to be anything as highbrow as classical columns or Case Study houses. For the restaurant of the Ace Palm Springs, Commune insisted on pulling up layers of carpeting and linoleum to reveal “this amazing, totally fucked-up terrazzo floor,” Alonso says. They kept it, filling in the holes with concrete.
“People are looking for authenticity,” Pamela says. “Is it a reaction to minimalism or just a sign of our times? Maybe people are craving honest things, things that haven’t been so processed, that are pure and fresh and haven’t been altered.” To retain that sense without falling into straight reproduction, the firm relies on the careful combination—a judicious mingling of eras and proportions that’s apparent in all of its work. Like a beautiful, Janus-faced culture monster, Commune consumes its many influences with relish, constantly looking at the past to see the future.