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Retail Santa Monica: Furniture, Chocolate, and Politics

By Frank Gruber

Last Thursday I participated in the first of what is intended to become a semi-annual event, a walking tour of the "Santa Monica Design District."

Maybe you didn't know Santa Monica had a design district, but then maybe you haven't been in the market lately for a sofa and you are unaware that Santa Monica has become the locus of stores and showrooms featuring high-quality design, of the modernist persuasion. ("Designs for Success," May 5, 2003)

There are about a dozen stores. Downtown there are Design Within Reach, Knoll, Dolce Dormire, Boffi, Shelter, Functions and Vitra, as well as two bookstores that specialize in architecture and design, Hennessey & Ingalls and Arcana.

East of downtown is another furniture store, In-Ex, and another store, Neoporte, will open soon on 18th Street. On Main Street are Eames Office Gallery and Highlights Lighting.

In addition, in November the Los Angeles A + D Museum (A = Architecture, D = Design) is moving to a site at 10th and Colorado.

It's hard to find modern furniture at regular furniture stores. For a long time manufacturers sold mainly through the "trade," as epitomized by the Pacific Design Center, which is open only to decorators.

If you wanted just to buy a coffee table and not redesign your life, you were out of luck, so it's great to have the showrooms open to the public. While I've never understood the rap against modern furniture that it's congenitally uncomfortable, it is a good idea to sit in a chair long enough to be sure the proportions are right.

The design stores have now organized themselves for joint promotion as the "Santa Monica Design District," and the walking tour was their first event.

* * *

Originally, I hadn't planned to visit each showroom, but just go out at lunch and see the downtown stores near my office. But I got into the spirit and wanted to have my "passport" stamped in all the stores.

So on my way home from work I swung by Functions and In-Ex, and my last two destinations were the two stores on Main Street. Coincidentally, my son needed some software at Mac 911, the computer store across Main from the Highlights Lighting store at Edgemar.

Hearing where we were going, my wife suggested that we drop in at Chocolat, a shop that recently opened next to Mac 911. She said that they had a freezer full of Italian gelato.

If this were the kind of column that promoted places to spend money, Chocolat would be the kind of place I would promote. It's a hole in the wall full of chocolate, ice cream, and pastries. The store's owner, Alex Kia, and his mother, Hilda, who runs the store, are immigrants from Iran who have blessed their adopted country with some sophisticated sweet teeth.

It takes a little courage to open an ice cream store directly across the street from Ben & Jerry's, but maybe this stretch of Main Street will become a locus of high quality ice cream stores, attracting more customers for all.

If a few more ice cream parlors open, they could organize walking tours.

Getting back to the story, just as my son was beginning to eat his chocolate cone, and just as I was choosing the three flavors I wanted to carry home in a styrofoam box, who should walk into the store but Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles.

Mayor Riordan entered needing change for a dollar, but after only a few moments of conversation with Mrs. Kia, he told her that Persian women were the most beautiful in the world, and before leaving the store he bought twelve dollars' worth of chocolate bars.

This was Poli Sci 101 for my son.

* * *

I introduced myself to Riordan, this being Santa Monica where we tend to be quite familiar with mayors.

After a few moments of conversation, we were talking about the recall. Suffice it to say, we disagreed whether California could survive another three years of Governor Davis.

What is incomprehensible to me about the support Arnold Schwarzenegger gets is this idea that California is in decline because the state is driving away business, and that we need to get rid of Davis to "bring California back."

California did well during the recent boom and hasn't done any worse than the rest of the country in the post-boom. That doesn't mean the state doesn't need to do anything about workers compensation, or construction-defect litigation, but it's unlikely that Davis did anything to cause a crisis of "total recall" proportions.

If there are long-term structural reasons that the bloom is fading from California's rose, and you're going to blame governors, it's more likely the problems originated in the sixteen years prior to Davis when Republicans were governors.

But I'd like to bring California back, too. I'm not sure if "decline" is the right term, but certainly these past couple decades are the first time in California's 153 years of uninterrupted growth that the state is not making the investments in the future it needs to make.

The culprit is the change in California's political culture that started with Prop. 13.

Give me Jesse Unruh any day over ballot box government and term limits.

Who out there cares about the long-term? The disgruntled masses have forgotten that back in the glory days, the days they want to bring back, California was a high-tax state. People paid their taxes, and in return they got good schools, good roads, and a serious social welfare system.

Conservatives hated this, of course. No one except farmers should get government "handouts."

Isn't it odd that now it's the conservatives who think they can get something for nothing?
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