Craft in Conversation: LA-Made Furniture

Shining a light on our home city.

The surprising knowledge that Los Angeles, not Detroit, is the industrial capital of America was the result of a study commissioned by former L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. While it is known primarily as the entertainment capital of the world, L.A. actually has the nation’s largest materials manufacturing base thanks to its population, existing infrastructure, port accessibility, and reliably good weather. Hidden in every nook and cranny of the city, ranging from the most advanced to the most old-school shops, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to sand casting, the wealth of industry is staggering.

Los Angeles is an enormous and ambiguous place. Spread over 4,751 square miles and with 88 incorporated cities, the county is home to well over 10 million people. (Greater Los Angeles spans over 33,954 square miles and has a population over 18.5 million.) Bigger than forty American states in population, it’s the largest governmental body in the country and if it were a nation, L.A. County would be the 19th largest economy in the world — larger than Saudi Arabia, Norway and Taiwan. That we’ve been in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years and the city still reveals itself to us, corner by surprising corner, is the essential experience of living and working here.

We started Kalon in 2007. At the time, there was no design scene in L.A. If you wanted to work in design, you went to New York. If you insisted on California, you went to San Francisco. For creatives, the Los Angeles scene was film – here referred to as The Industry – and if you were outside of it, Los Angeles was a life-style choice. Without mentors or peers to guide us, our shop-by-shop, street-by-street discovery of L.A.’s vast manufacturing resources felt nearly archeological. From upholsterers, to metal workers, machinists and welders, the resources we discovered were astonishingly varied and rich. There was a sense that if we could design it, there was a shop somewhere in the vast sprawl that could make it.

To understand manufacturing in L.A., you have to understand the manufacturing industry in the country. Largely depleted of resources and geared towards industrial titans, U.S. manufacturing has suffered a series of blows over the past century as industry was retooled for a parts based industrial model. Retooling meant cheaper prices but a loss of skilled labor as the country traded in craft for speed and repetition. As the economy globalized, cheaper prices were readily available overseas and industry broadly left US shores. Industrial communities emptied out and those that remained, particularly those in the North East, have been hit hard by the opioid crisis. Today, the biggest challenge the industry faces is lack of skilled labor. The second biggest is lack of capability. Unlike Europe, where in the post war period the economy was structured to support and encourage industrial diversity — both in scale and technique — as an insurance policy against the closed borders that a war (or a pandemic) can bring, the United States manufacturing industry is incredibly limited.

Delivering some of the most varied manufacturing capabilities in the country, Los Angeles offers a surprising counter-point to this narrative.

The physical reality of what L.A.’s manufacturing industry looks like is as surprising as its existence. Often tucked away in plain sight, manufacturing shops are part of an urban sprawl that rolls industry, residence and commerce into decentralized neighborhoods filled with the city’s stereotypical strip malls. There’s a sense that people are setting up shop wherever they find space. One upholsterer we work with sits on a rapidly gentrifying street in Highland Park between vintage stores and a boutique donut shop. Another sits in a chain of unmarked buildings on the L.A. river surrounded by some of the east side’s chicer venues. In Lincoln Heights, a wood shop we work with is located off a small alley that runs between houses and small apartment buildings. These shops have no billboards or signage. Their windows are barred and frosted and, as with most of the shops in the city, from the street there’s no evidence that anyone is inside. Finding who and what is out there quite literally means driving across the city and knocking on gates where you catch sight of scrap metal, wood pallets or machinery.

As designers, L.A. is a strange and interesting place to work. There’s an eccentricity to the industry’s lack of formal structure that stands in sharp contrast to experiences elsewhere. A few years ago we met with a sewer to discuss a project. He gave us a location on the outskirts of downtown where we found him parked under a freeway overpass surrounded by unhoused encampments. For close to an hour, we spoke about leather working through his van window over the drone of traffic and the shuffle of the people living there. This odd-ball industrial landscape is uniquely Angeleno and remains unchanged, despite massive industry shifts of the past few decades.

In 1999, the U.S. signed a trade agreement with China that opened the door to a tsunami of imports. Within 10 years the U.S. furniture manufacturing industry was gutted. In former furniture manufacturing strongholds like North Carolina and Gardner Massachusetts between 50%-80% of shops closed their doors. The industrial collapse of the Midwest and North East didn’t hit L.A. in the same way — L.A. didn’t experience the post-war boom either. Historically, L.A.’s industry was shaped by the entertainment industry, the military-industrial complex, and aerospace technology. As a result, Los Angeles’ factories are smaller, scrappier and have retained an independence that isn’t swayed by national manufacturing trends.

Powered by a largely Latino workforce, these shops — many of which are family-owned and operated — offer an ability to experiment at a smaller scale that makes them an incredible resource for designers. At a glance, it may be hard to see how this matters but the fact that manufacturing in the states has very little flexibility or bandwidth for different methods of making things has had a massive and devastating impact on design and innovation. Los Angeles’ vast offering of hidden small scale industries — with its more ready embrace and openness — offers an invaluable and fertile ground for design.

“You can get anything you want made in L.A.,” says Jason Pilarski a professor at Art Center and the co-founder of Machine Histories, a design and build shop founded in 2006 that works with architecture firms, artists and designers on projects that are at the forefront of technology driven production. When we were building our pieces in our driveway alongside a rag tag group of fellow art school students, it was Jason who machined our first prototypes and suggested that we consider selling them. “It isn’t unusual for us to work for New York firms who call us to make something. That reflects positively on what L.A. represents. The wide range of manufacturing outlets represent endless possibilities to those interested in having an idea brought to life.”

To this day, we choose to work with L.A. woodworking and upholstery shops that are less than 5 miles from where Kalon’s furniture is sold. These factories work the way traditional craftspeople did. They’ve maintained a mastery of skill that is based on a complex understanding of how individual components come together in a finished piece. They have the skill and willingness to work with the more precise and complex requirements that pieces like ours require. It’s impossible to stress just how rare pockets of skill like this are in the country.

“Skilled labor will be our last greatest resource,” says Jason. “It’s so unusual that most of the jobs we imagined that would never be replaced by technology — such as graphic design or composing music — are in fact the first to go, whereas a skilled woodworker isn’t easily replaced. The number of parameters that are negotiated when deciding how to work a piece of material, particularly one that is alive such as wood, is so complex and continuously changing. It isn’t easily programmable.”

In the past 10 years, the Los Angeles creative scene has exploded. Part of that has been the emergence of a vibrant design community. Today, Kalon’s neighborhood is home to a rare concentration of design studios where on one street enthusiasts and professionals can do studio tours of a rich diversity of designers. Expand out a few blocks and you triple the amount of design studios. Even rarer, it offers the local design community a chance to see what it looks like.

Alongside this growth, L.A.’s economy has also shifted. Since 2010, the cost of living has doubled. “Many companies and small businesses that have been around for years have suddenly closed, due to shortage of skilled workers, shortage of material, or the high cost of materials and the increase of wages. Or all of the above. One thing for sure is that the pandemic amplified and accelerated all of these factors, leaving all the business to the industry’s giants and mainstream companies.” Tony Muro has been running a family owned and operated upholstery business for 30 years. He learned the trade of fine furniture making after immigrating from Jalisco, MX and his shop services the trade, catering to designers across the city and country.

Design has never been a huge part of American culture. It hasn’t flourished the way it has in other parts of the world. The current moment in L.A. feels different. There’s the sense of a threshold. Los Angeles designers are emerging and exploring alongside a vast and readily available industrial community willing to experiment with them. Talk to any designer in L.A. about their most recent manufacturing discovery and the excitement is palpable. The seemingly limitless potential is lost on no-one. Few cities on earth offer the diversity of Los Angeles. The city’s wide open sprawl has made room for vast and varied ways of living where the high, low and everything in between are in a continual mix. Its tensions and the spaces between are what make L.A. L.A. They’ve provided a flint to a creative fire that, for the moment, is in balance and currently on display in local design and manufacturing. The question is where it’s going and will Los Angeles be able to maintain it.