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Oliver Furth's Design Dialogue

Oliver M Furth has rarely met a beautiful antique he did not covet, whether an elegant 18th-century Georgian chair or a handsome Arts and Crafts sideboard. A student of architecture and art history who worked as an auction house decorative arts specialist before opening his eponymous firm in Los Angeles, Furth has strong local ties: he grew up here, serves as chair emeritus of the Decorative Arts and Design Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and was a founding member of the nonprofit alternative art space LA><ART. He regularly incorporates the work of LA designers and artists into his interiors, recently collaborating with Tanya Aguiñiga on a small collection of furniture. He spoke with Meredith Mendelsohn about his approach to mixing traditionalism and modernism, which has earned him multiple accolades and a steadily growing roster of clients.

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OLIVER FURTH © STEPHEN BUSKEN

How would you describe your personal style? 
I was trained in traditional decorating. I know how to create a room with fancy curtains, how to use trim and upholstery in the proper way. But at heart I’m a modernist. I value materiality over finish. I’m looking at the lines of a piece of furniture, whether it’s antique or new. I have a client who is a scholarly collector of 18th-century English furniture, but she also buys avant-garde contemporary art. I did strong colours with the beautiful antiques – I call it Anglo-Angeleno. At the end of the day, I want to push the design dialogue.

Are there any decorating rules you live by?
I always say that a room needs to be appropriate. All those English country houses on Park Avenue feel very dated. Chintz came into fashion because people were in the country. There was mud and dogs, and chintz camouflaged that. In a doorman building in Manhattan, you can go a little slicker.

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IN THIS BEVERLY HILLS RESIDENCE FURTH USED PIECES EXCLUSIVELY BY LIVING DESIGNERS AND ARTISTS, INCLUDING ERIC SCHMITT, CLARE GRAHAM, WENDELL CASTLE AND STEFAN BISHOP.­­ © STEPHEN BUSKEN

Which aspect of your work excites you most?
The part that really interests me is the intersection of art and design. I work with a lot of artists, and LA has so much talent right now. I recently collaborated with Tanya Aguiñiga, who is a weaver and felter. I first commissioned her to do a chair for LACMA’s permanent collection through a contemporary initiative I helped develop there. She took a vintage Eames chair and used a 100-year-old felting technique to rematerialise it.

You are closely associated with Los Angeles. Does the city really have a design ethos that’s different from other places?
We’re more casual. People keep their doors open in a different kind of way. Our light is very warm, so cool tones work really beautifully. There has always been a horizontality to LA living: there is space and you want it to be accessible. 

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THE SITTING ROOM OF A MIDCENTURY HOUSE IN THE HOLLYWOOD HILLS WITH A MILO BAUGHMAN SOFA AND HANS WEGNER ARMCHAIRS. © JONN COOLIDGE

Los Angeles has many architect-designed midcentury homes. Have you worked on any of them?
I’m doing an amazing house in Pasadena, built in 1961. It’s ranch style, but it goes into a big, soaring, peaked roof in a corner – like the prow of a boat – with unbelievable views on two sides. 

How far do you go in terms of historic preservation in such cases?
There was a lot of dialogue about restoration here. Do we bring it all the way back or not? It’s important to know the rules to make informed decisions about when to break them. We are going to reorganise the floor plan in the bedrooms. Our notion of a master bath is not what it was in 1961.

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A DOWNTOWN LA DINING ROOM WITH A LIGHTING SCULPTURE BY KWANGHO LEE. © JONN COOLIDGE

What kind of antiques would you put in a midcentury house? 
A couple of pieces of Shaker furniture would feel very fresh, I think. They are spare and minimal, with a patina you just could not invent. I have a particular fondness for Arts and Crafts furniture, which is cringe-worthy for some people, but it’s very architectural. It is a celebration of craft and materiality.

Can you tell us about a recent project?
I recently finished a penthouse in a 1960s building in the middle of the city. My client has a spectacular collection of blue-chip 20th-century art. She’s a traditionalist, and she would have wanted Versailles, which would not have been appropriate. So I captured the essence of that. We ebonised the parquet floors, bought 18th-century furniture, and mixed it with 1970s lighting and French 1940s elements. The result is very glam: all the doors are clad in hand-painted leather, the bronze tables are by Stefan Bishop, the sofa from Dupré-Lafon, and there are verre églomisé mirrors. It’s fancy, with a lot of details, but much cleaner than when we started. 

 

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A 19TH-CENTURY JAPANESE SCREEN IS THE CENTREPIECE OF A BEDROOM. © JONN COOLIDGE

What is your decorating strategy?
At the beginning of a project, I try not to envision it too completely. You are decorating over the course of a year or two – you’re not making all the choices in one meeting.

I try to leave a few holes because there might be something new and exciting that gets invented or designed, or an auction purchase that has us say, “Wow! That is not what we would have put at first, but it’s going to be great.” It’s like cooking, when adding a spice changes the whole complexity of the dish – just that one ingredient.

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THE GLAMOROUS SITTING ROOM OF A WILSHIRE BOULEVARD PENTHOUSE WITH LOUIS XV AND LOUIS XVI FURNITURE. © ROGER DAVIES

Meredith Mendelsohn is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design.

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