Downtown L.A. Design

In this town the best finds—stores, architecture, even a visionary—stay quietly out of the spotlight.

Robert Willson and David Serrano took a leap when they opened their furniture and decorative arts showroom, Downtown, in 1996 in West Hollywood. Back then, La Cienega Boulevard was not recognized as the design destination it is today, and the neighborhood had only a few shops: Blackman Cruz, JF Chen, Paul Ferrante. The pair had recently bought a 1938 house in Hancock Park, and Willson admits that opening the 3,500-square-foot store was an opportunity: “Dealers collect too much stuff.” The “stuff” was midcentury modern mixed with Hollywood Regency but has evolved over 17 years to include veritable antiques and totally contemporary finds.

In no time Downtown became the go-to place for distinctly original ideas. It was as much about the mix as it was about the presentation. Serrano, who is a Surrealist painter, creates decorative vignettes that combine periods and styles, taking, for instance, a 19th-century Chinese cabinet and placing it on a modern stand along with two Serge Roche plaster torchères and a handblown Murano-glass chandelier. The late Hollywood design legend Tony Duquette would have relished Downtown’s pairing of Jean Royère’s Tour Eiffel table with a pair of Renzo Zavanella chairs upholstered in Mongolian lamb from the San Remo Hotel in San Francisco.

“Willson and Serrano edit and display their inventory in a way that allows the eye to travel freely across the decorative periods that their collections embody. It’s inspiring,” says British-born decorator Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who recently redesigned Sir Elton John and David Furnish’s L.A. home and used vintage Mazzega sconces and a vintage chrome chandelier from Downtown. He’s one of many high-profile interior designers—Kelly Wearstler and Michael Smith are two others—who frequent the gallery, along with a cadre of Hollywood A-listers with an affinity for design, like Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz.

Today Downtown’s business has expanded with the additions of Outside Downtown (725 N. La Cienega Blvd.) just a few doors down, which offers relaxed, elegant pieces that can go indoors or out, as well as the Downtown Classics Collection, a line of its own furniture creations and reproductions.

The Classics Collection recently reintroduced Mexican designer Diego Matthai’s 1971 Silla Mexico chair ($3,075). “I originally acquired six vintage ones two years ago,” says Willson. “I love the juxtaposition of the chromed steel and rush seat that made a chair seen in almost every home in Mexico new and modern. The piece exemplifies late ’60s, early ’70s evolutionary design.” Then Willson’s friend Javier Carral, an antiquarian in Mexico City, told him there was an opportunity to reissue the Silla with the original workshop and Matthai himself overseeing the project. “I jumped at the chance,” Willson says. “Forty years later the design remains fresh as ever.”

The wave of the future at Downtown is how history repeats itself, how styles re-loop and play themselves out in new decorating ways. Willson and Serrano’s visionary eye put them on the map, and it is still at the heart of their business today.

Downtown is at 719 N. La Cienega Blvd.; downtown20.net. The store is also represented by Profiles at New York Design Center, 200 Lexington Ave., Ste. 1211; profilesny.com.

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