To live and design in L.A.

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.Frank Zappa once wrote a hilarious broadside lamenting the demise of the American West by the ravages of the American...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

Frank Zappa once wrote a hilarious broadside lamenting the demise of the American West by the ravages of the American Dream in which the principal refrain was, Movin’ to Montana soon/Gonna be a dental floss tycoon.

This column is being written from a cafe that sits astride another Montana, one in which The Dream has most definitely come true, where the dental work is divine, and everyone’s smile is flossed with gold.

Curbside culture

This is Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, Calif., where between sips of agua minerale (con gaz) one’s thoughts run to the languid ease of curbside culture, the play of light reflected off passing Mercs and the meaning of design in a world where, like coyotes, the people only come down out of the canyons when they’re hungry.

Wait a minute: did we say design? You bet! We may be on vacation, but a deadline is a deadline, and design is the topic of the day.

And from what better vantage point to cast a critical eye than West L.A., where design is not only accepted but encouraged.

Earthquake chic

We are, after all, just around the corner from architect Frank Gehry’s house – a home that looks like it was built during an earthquake of far greater magnitude than the one which has so rudely defaced the residential facades of many of his more conservative neighbors.

And a few blocks to the south lies another wondrous Gehry building – the West Coast offices of Chiat/Day, the upper floor of which looks like it is about to topple onto the giant Claes Oldenburg binoculars that straddle the main entrance.

Yes, this is a place that a designer could comfortably call home. This is a community where design resonates with the comedic force of a deconstructed Looney Tune, and innovation is allowed to mingle freely with the ebb and flow of daily business.

Sprawling matrix

Not so in other quarters of greater L.A., a sprawling matrix of ‘burbs and freeways whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.

A week ago, we made the obligatory pilgrimage that every boomer parent must – into the magic maws of Disney.

Landlocked by the strip malls and motels of Anaheim, Disneyland does not reflect the same light that washes the walls of Gehryville. No, there are different forces at work here.

Rather than spilling its creative guts out into the street, Disneyland is a closed world, carefully quarantined from the relentless banality that surrounds it.

Forget reality

You are given the distinct impression that one comes to ‘The happiest place on Earth’ to get away from the messy complexity of the real world, to forget about the way things really are.

You come here to celebrate the myth that made America. It is a squeaky-clean marketing machine that churns out that myth in any flavor you want – Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland – you name it.

Whatever your favorite feature of The Dream may be, it is faithfully reconstructed here.

It is marketing in its purest form – that of a self-perpetuating source of commercial energy with nothing to sell but itself.

And, as with all Disneyanna, it is as perfectly constructed as anything you’ve ever seen. It is so perfect and so self-contained that it is difficult not to surrender to its power.

We spotted many grown men who could not resist wearing Mickey Mouse ears as they blissfully toured the park.

But once outside the pearly gates, you get an unforgiving dose of that same commercial energy in one of its shabbiest and more ubiquitous forms – that of trackless suburban wasteland. This is what really happened to Frontierland – and it ain’t pretty.

The Disney aesthetic is rarely manifested outside those gates, except on the jerseys of the local National Hockey League team – The Mighty Ducks – whose logo (a goalie mask shaped like an angry duck) is, ironically, the most accurate expression of the sport’s true nature.

And a few mega-blocks to the west, one can spot the gleaming spires of the Crystal Cathedral, where Christ meets the curtain wall in Philip Johnson’s very corporate Garden Grove Community Church. (One almost expects God to have a corner office on the top floor.)

Its combination of evangelism, show business and formal perfection is very much a reflection of the Disney philosophy.

But what is the point of design if you have to drive through drek to get to it?

The goal of design – whether it is architecture, packaging, or retail – is to create a reality that we would like to inhabit, not a world that is separate from it.

After experiencing both, we’ll take Montana.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.