If it has a shape, she can work with it

If it has a shape, she can work with it

If it has a shape, she can work with it

Someone once asked Gere Kavanaugh what she liked to design best, and with a typical mix of humour and bluntness, she answered, “Anything I can get my hands on.” It’s been that way since she took her first art class, 76 years ago, when she was growing up in Memphis, Tenn.

Later, Kavanaugh became the third woman to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, after which she briefly worked at General Motors as a designer. She left GM to take a job in the Detroit offices of the shopping-mall pioneer Victor Gruen and was sent by the architect’s firm to work in Los Angeles, where she has spent more than 50 years.

In the 1960s, as a freelance designer, Kavanaugh shared studio space with Frank Gehry, Deborah Sussman, Don Chadwick and other luminaries of the West Coast design scene, who congregated in a building here on San Vicente Boulevard. Over her long and varied career, she has designed store interiors, homes, town clocks, a research room for the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, light fixtures, textiles, furniture — you name it.

Still energetic, inquisitive and accepting commissions at 84, Kavanaugh greeted a reporter on a recent morning at her house in Angelino Heights, near downtown, which she shares with her dog, Tippy. She bought the two-storey pattern-book house, built in 1906 and painted the colour of sand, 25 years ago, after living for decades in a town house on the west side. What about the house appealed to her? “The house was the right price, and it was a wreck,” Kavanaugh said, her voice approaching Julia Child territory as it rose in emphasis. “I slowly put it into this kind of order as I had the funds and the ideas.”

Soft spot for folk themes

And because she never married or had children, she was able to decorate according to her own beliefs about good design. Though she came up in the age of Eames, Kavanaugh admits to having a soft spot for folk artists, whom she calls the “bistro cooks” of design. (“They know how to make something out of nothing.”) And her home is a showcase of simplicity and ingenuity. In the kitchen, she hung fishing creels on a wall to serve as baskets, and she flattened olive oil cans to make shelves.

In the main stairwell, a billowy light fixture was meant to be covered in a Nuno fabric, Kavanaugh said, but when the pattern was sold out, “I said to hell with it. I had these old sheets, so I made it out of old sheets.” Kavanaugh pointed to furniture she had designed, telling the story behind each piece. Of two high-backed wooden chairs in the living room, she said, “These were influenced by the furniture Schindler designed – but my take.” Asked about another lounge chair, this one a handsome slatted-wood, she said, “It was going to be fabricated by Stendig, but then I got caught in a buyout.” 

The company was restructured, she said, and consequently her design was never produced. She added ruefully, “My life history is being caught in buyouts. It’s not like you design a glorious thing and somebody says, ‘I’ll take it.’ There are so many factors that go into it that it’s mind-boggling.”

Downstairs, the shelves are neatly lined with various collections (teapots, teacups, tin oil funnels from Mexico). The upstairs has a farmhouse sparseness. In Kavanaugh’s bedroom are a bed, a dresser, a few photos of her parents and an elegantly simple bookshelf she made from cold-rolled steel and corrugated cardboard supports.

In a small room across the hall is her “hero” wall, which includes a New York Times clipping featuring a public bench she designed and a black-and-white photo of her with Gehry and the San Vicente gang, taken in the early ‘70s for a Christmas card.

Back downstairs, Kavanaugh recalled how her parents had picked up on her creative leanings and set her on course. After her father registered her in art school, she said, “He turned to me – and I will never forget it to this day – he said, ‘I don’t expect you to do anything with this, but I do expect your life to be enriched.’ And it has.”

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