Mecca on Melrose
L.A. is flocking to the jewelry-and-leather house that architect Mark Steele and Chrome Hearts designer Richard Stark built
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 4/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Chrome Hearts has neither signage nor storefront vitrines. In fact, from a driver's-seat perspective, there's no clue that the pair of conjoined structures—one resembling little more than a humble shed, the other a grander, metal-clad version—is home to one of the hippest shops Los Angeles has seen in years. The buildings' anonymous exterior certainly hasn't hindered the fashion flock, however. Rock stars, industry celebs, and ordinary mortals who've been buying the Chrome Hearts line of outré leather goods and jewelry at Maxfield since 1991 were already on intimate terms with Maxfield's owner, Tommy Perse, and knew of this spin-off venture the moment it opened.
With Chrome Hearts, Perse has revolutionized L.A.'s fashion landscape yet again. Since opening Maxfield in 1969, he's introduced the city to names that, ubiquitous now, were not so long ago uttered only by cognoscenti. His prescience, for example, brought Prada from Milan when the label was but a luggage and leather-goods brand. Ditto for the Japanese designers, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto among them. In 1985, Maxfield moved to its current address on Melrose Avenue, and Perse again proved visionary. Anticipating the movement in minimalist retail decor, his shop's austerity seemed a bolt from the blue. "Maxfield was the place. If you sold there, you could sell anywhere else in the world," says Chrome Hearts designer Richard Stark.
And sell Chrome Hearts did—with price tags from $100 to six figures—to the extent that Perse deemed the expanding, increasingly refined collection worthy of an L.A. home to complement the independent Chrome Hearts boutiques in New York and Japan. Timing proved uncanny. A derelict ironworking shop on Melrose Avenue, just a block from Maxfield, became available, and architect Mark Steele of M.W. Steele Group in San Diego entered the picture.
Perse, Stark, and Steele envisioned Chrome Hearts, the shop, as a found object comprising separate components, all overflowing with ad-hoc qualities. To this end, the trio retained the original 2,000-square-foot building—with 8 1/2-foot ceiling, concrete floor, and lone window—plus much of the on-site wrought-iron work. A new wing was built perpendicular, with a complementary roofline, steel-framed fenestration, and bonderized metal cladding. Inside, the 1,000-square-foot addition is an about-face in atmosphere and scale. After the dark, low interior of the original building, a light-filled volume emerges with clerestory and full-height windows and a Douglas fir pyramidal ceiling soaring to 22 feet. To some extent, merchandise intermingles in the renovated and new sections, but leather clothing and bags are concentrated in the former, jewelry in the latter. (Quantity appears ideal: just enough to entice, not enough to overwhelm.) Together, the wings define two sides of a new concrete-paved patio, the project's third element. As retail real-estate devoid of merchandise but replete with plants, salvaged ironwork, and an outdoor fireplace, the space is a true luxury, one afforded by few.
Warm, dense, layered, and extraordinarily expensive are the installation's most apt descriptions. Stark, who apprenticed with a Malibu architect-builder before starting Chrome Hearts in 1989, crafted everything inside—for the designer, who lavished the same attention on the interior as on his gold, platinum, and silver jewelry, also makes furniture at his operation in Hollywood. Cabinetry is ebony. "I bought $100,000's worth before the project started," Perse recounts. Ditto the reception and cash-wrap desk in the original structure, where an ebony Chrome Hearts cross is embedded in the concrete flooring and massive flower carvings dominate the ceiling. Stark fabricated and painted the pieces in his woodworking shop and bolted them in place. Ladder-back chairs and tables are also ebony; the largest table is 12 feet long and weighs in at 1,500 pounds. Detailing extends to engraved silver thresholds.
Virtually all the furniture is for sale, and Stark plans to expand his repertoire with interiors projects, too—granted, he acknowledges, not many can afford the ebony, leather, and sterling silver, not to mention the level of detailing implemented here. "But I only know how to do things one way: to spare no expenses," he says. The chandelier hanging from the new building's pyramidal ceiling is the most conspicuous item off-limits to customers. Not a product of the Stark studio, this 19th-century Gothic wrought-iron fantasy was the fruit of a year's search, located by Perse at a flea market in France.