‘Leap’ of Faith

Lauren Yee’s play “The Great Leap” takes its name from the People’s Republic of China’s economic campaign, “The Great Leap Forward,” from the Mao Zedong era from 1949 to 1976.   

The play, which runs at the Pasadena Playhouse from Wednesday, November 6, to Sunday, December 1, is actually about a young Chinese-American man who travels to China with his team for a friendship basketball game. Soon, tension mounts when a young player’s actions become the focus of attention. 

Tony Award-winner BD Wong, of “Jurassic Park” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” has been in two productions—one on Broadway and another in San Francisco—playing the Chinese basketball coach. For the Pasadena Playhouse production, he’s taking on a new role: director.

The four-person cast won’t play a real basketball game, but that doesn’t mean the actors and Wong don’t take the sport seriously. In mid-October, when Wong and the cast had just started rehearsals, he said the production’s basketball expert was taking them through drills.

“I did play basketball,” Wong admitted. “I was vaguely familiar with basketball but that’s not my entry into the play. My entrance in the play is not from my love of basketball. It’s more from an appreciation for Lauren’s point of view and also for the world itself. The part actually doesn’t require the actor to play a lot of basketball.”

What he loves is the emotional arc and the Chinese coach’s humor. Wong did feel the need to learn about basketball when he was in his first production of the play.

“You always, always, always must feel that you want to learn about the world of the play you are in as much as possible,” he said.

He is certain that, “basketball fans will understand that she’s (Yee) researched the play very well,” but the play also “delves into the history of China during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and that’s a big part of the backdrop of the play.”

Wong’s second production was in San Francisco, where he and Yee were raised.

“In San Francisco, we had the luxury of being in the town where the play takes place and meeting the basketball coach of the school that is actually depicted in the play,” he said.

Wong recalled they “had great sessions with Coach Frank (Allocco) at USF who gave us not only insight into the game and the physicality of the basketball players and basketball moves, but insight into USF history.”

A crucial part of the production is the basketball experts’ advice and movement training, Wong said. This point, it’s important to “find out what an actor’s strengths and w eaknesses are related to the topic and maximize your potential.” From this, they’ll know who has “ball-handling skills and who needs to learn a little bit learn.”

Basketball lingo fills the script, so the actors needed to watch videos to understand the basketball moves that are described in the play. Although, Wong said, “we live in an age now when you can learn anything at all” by searching on a cellphone, but he wanted to do better than that.

“San Francisco is a great basketball town,” he said, and so while the game isn’t played on stage, basketball has to be portrayed “theatrically and with style and with a certain kind of economy.” Staging basketball is one of the play’s exciting challenges and it’s a challenge being taken up by many theater companies. Wong rated it as one of the top 10 new plays hitting the stage this year.

As director, Wong enjoys watching every moment of the play. When he was in the play, he missed certain bits because he was concentrating on his role.

This time, it comes down to his vision. Because Wong had just begun rehearsals, he was observing the chemistry between the actors and developing his own vision.

“This is the first production I’ve done that’s had an Asian American director,” he said. “My point of view of Lauren’s writing and of Lauren is informed by me being Asian American and her being Asian American.”

Other directors might not feel right away or be able to access that right away, he said. For example, he said, “if a character in the play is Asian American and someone says something vaguely racist to that person, anybody can understand what the response can be, but I know what it feels like.” While a non-Asian American director might not necessarily have that immediacy and have to reach for it.

Wong said the actors’ interaction changes the feel of the play.

“I remember when I did the play, we did this whole section of the dialogue where I said a line rather introspectively and today the actor said it more aggressively,” he said.

He said the actor in question “quite successfully landed the line.”

Minor things like that add up, but Wong wanted to clarify, “I don’t think any of the directors made any big mistakes or did anything wrong.”

“He brings more of an Asian-American perspective” and better understands “the complexity of being Asian American, specifically being Chinese American” and what that means about going to China.

In China, Wong said, “I don’t feel like I’m home when I’m there; I don’t feel like I’m greeted with open arms as an ABC—American-born Chinese.” The culture of China is different from the United States and Wong said he felt alienated.

Being at the Pasadena Playhouse, however, is a sort of homecoming for Wong. Many years ago, in about 1986, he was in a musical at the Playhouse. The same year, he was in a play produced by the oldest Asian-American theater company in the country: East-West Players.

“A Great Leap” is a co-production between East-West and the Playhouse.

“I have a real soft spot for these two theaters because of that” and at this point in his life, directing at the Playhouse is “really meaningful and nostalgic.”

Wong also has fond memories of the area for other reasons. Filming the 1991 Steve Martin movie, “Father of the Bride,” was in San Marino. By then, Wong had already won a Tony Award (1988) for “M. Butterfly,” a play that dealt with China in a sociopolitical way.

Knowing the demographics of East Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley, there’s obviously an AsianAmerican audience to be served who may be “starved for content.” Wong said he believes Yee’s play is a rare find that serves the Asian and American communities without selling out the Asian part.

“A Great Leap” is a crowd-pleaser and moving.

“Those things don’t always go together,” Wong noted. But that’s what makes this “a perfect play for the community.”

“The Great Leap”
Various times Wednesday, November 6, to Sunday, December 1
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena
Tickets are $25 to $92
626-356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org

Making Noise

On a sunny Pasadena day, the interior of the historic Stuart Pharmaceutical building was refreshingly cool even as the sun filtered in from the building’s distinctive milky white Persian inspired lace-like facade.

Backlit by this glow, Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx enthusiastically explained A Noise Within’s diversity directive: Noise Now. In-person, Muñoz-Proulx is warm and welcoming with a quick smile and a disarming eagerness to listen and share possibilities.

Since he was hired last fall to be the director of cultural programming for Noise Now, the Southern California native has been reaching out to local community organizations. ANW’s managing director, Michael Bateman, said Muñoz-Proulx has been in touch with more than 300 organizations. The program launched in February and has brought in over 800 audience members. Some of these programs have been as intimate as 15 people while others have attracted 250.

ANW has been recognized for its high-quality classical theater productions since the 1990s. Under two of its three original founders, the husband-and-wife team of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, ANW moved from the Masonic Temple in Glendale to a state-of-the-art, 324-seat performing space in Pasadena in 2011. Now well-established in the Pasadena community, ANW continues to expand.

“We see Noise Now as our commitment to being of service to all audiences,” Rodriguez-Elliott explained. “It also presents a wonderful opportunity to animate our campus by presenting art in nontraditional spaces throughout A Noise Within.”

According to Bateman, Noise Now came about when the house of the mouse squeaked some advice. Bateman said it was discussions with Disney Imagineers that set these plans into motion. ANW was challenged to consider that for the community, “theater didn’t have to be their primary access point” and that ANW could become “a hub where art happens.”

So enter center stage the Muñoz-Proulx. Graduating from USC, School of Dramatic Arts, he also served as an adjunct faculty to the USC MFA in acting program. Muñoz-Proulx previously served as an associate producer at the Skylight Theatre and as an artistic assistant at East West Players. He has also worked for Center Theatre Group and Pasadena’s Boston Court Theatre and is on the Latinx Theatre Commons National Advisory Committee. Like many transplants to Los Angeles County, Muñoz-Proulx wanted to be an actor, but realized he was more interested in “choosing the stories I was telling.”

Being of Mexican and French heritage, in college, he had another realization.

“I began to understand my role and responsibility to illuminate underrepresented communities,” he said.

Yet at times, he’s found himself “tokenized” as a “cultural ambassador” when he was contracted to direct the one Latino-themed play within a season. “I accepted that because it got me in the door.”

With Noise Now, he’s opening the door to the Pasadena community by offering dance, music, art exhibits and bits of nontraditional theater. Structured in “semesters” because many organizations aren’t ready or equipped to commit to a year-long initiative, in its first semester, Noise Now took on the topics of mental illness, black identity, transgender identity and water in Latin America.

Muñoz-Proulx explained that instead of offering what one thinks the community needs and be trapped in a “savoir complex,” Noise Now works on the concept of “consensus organizing.”

While Bateman spoke of “cross-pollination” between ANW and its Noise Now partners, Pasadena’s theater community has already been inspiring each other. Muñoz-Proulx credited Seema Sueko, who came to the 647-seat Pasadena Playhouse in 2013, for bringing the concept of consensus organizing to his attention. Consensus building is “asking the community what type of plays” and other presentations they want to see and “accepting accountability as an institution” for asking and producing results. In his outreach to local organizations, he asks, “Where’s the overlap in our missions?”

For the fall, the answer lies in Ibarionex Perello’s “The Three-Fifths Project” photo exhibition (now through November 16), Josh Gershick’s staged reading of “Dear One: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America” (October 13), the Diwali Festival of Lights block party with the Bollystars Dance Company (October 26), a staged reading of a feminist adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” (November 17), a staged reading of a play based on the myth of Daedalus and Icarus (December 7), a Latina Christmas Special presented with the Latino Theater Company. (December 9), staged readings from Wicked Lit’s repertoire (December 15) and a staged reading generational trauma—“Ballad of Haint Blue” presented with the Pasadena Mental Health Advisory Committee & Project Sister Family Services.

All events are pay what you choose. For more information, call 626-356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org/noisenow.


Descanso Gardens’ flora and fauna inspired this year’s Showcase House of Design

When you’re redecorating a historic house in one of the finest public gardens in Los Angeles County, you’re surrounded by pure inspiration. And the 15 participants in the 2019 Pasadena Showcase House of Design, who overhauled the interior of Descanso Gardens’ Boddy House, found just that, harnessing splendid floral and fauna elements in their designs.
Designed by James E. Dolena in the Hollywood Regency style, the 12,000-square-foot Boddy House was built for the late publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News, E. Manchester Boddy, as a home for himself, his wife, Berenice, and their two sons. Boddy purchased the land that is now Descanso Gardens in 1937 and called it Rancho del Descanso — Ranch of Rest. This is the second time Showcase House of the Arts, which organizes the annual arts fundraiser, has made over the Boddy House; it debuted in 2007 as the 43rd Pasadena Showcase House of Design.
The sprawling botanical gardens in La Caňada Flintridge are particularly known for the Camellia Forest, so Boddy House is peppered with decorative objects evoking camellias. Descanso has the largest camellia collection in North America, designated an International Camellia Garden of Excellence by the International Camellia Society. Boddy had planted thousands of the Asian flowering plants in the 1930s, to supply the cut-flower industry. Camellias also bloom in the Japanese Garden, which opened in 1966, long after Boddy sold the estate to L.A. County in 1953.

The Living Room
Louise O’Malley’s design for the living room uses dark greens and reds to bring out the colors of the delicate Japanese maple leaves visible from the window beside the piano. For the walls, the Burbank-based designer used a slightly lighter version of Dunn-Edwards Paints’ 2019 Color of the Year: “Spice of Life,” a dark brownish, fire-brick red with orange undertones.
Chinese designs on the curtains give a nod to the gardens’ East Asian influences, as does O’Malley’s custom pagoda pet house, a charming tented pouf beneath a tiny chandelier — for your spoiled cat, small dog or rabbit. There’s also a large chandelier for humans with a clear sphere that magically captures an upside-down image of the room.
O’Malley juxtaposes a pair of brilliant white porcelain phoenixes against a wooden screen to brighten a dark corner and draw attention to a nearby set of six antique wooden chairs reupholstered in leopard-patterned fabric, with hand-carved leopard “feet.”
The bird motif repeats on the back stairway designed by Studio Akiko of Arcadia, where hand-painted cranes fly up the walls. Framed Chinoiserie wallpaper on the upstairs landing, designed by Studio City–based Leila Bick, features well-known feral fowls of Pasadena. And on the outdoor “poet’s porch,” decorative artist Shari Tipich of San Pedro will present real caged birds as nature’s muses.

SoCal gardens bloom year-round because of the abundant sunshine, and designer Tracy Murdock of Beverly Hills celebrates all those sunny days by dressing the solarium in Asian motifs expressed in a palette of whites and Delft blues. Entering from the family salon, you pass through a hallway boasting a glimpse of classic Hollywood style — a lovely photograph of the Roman Holiday princess, Audrey Hepburn, amid clouds of pink flowers. In an installation by Murdock designer Dannielle Gross, antique and contemporary blue-on-white Chinese ceramics adorn the wall, both inside and spilling out of an ornate gold frame, as if making their escape. The work took four weeks to install.
Inside the solarium, small ceramic pagodas house bursts of blooms. The geometric blue-and-white wallpaper by Scalamandre offers a modern take on the Chinese ceramic patterns, and the cut-velvet upholstery used for the circular conversation seat celebrates SoCal’s blue skies while echoing the Chinese ceramic blues.

Morning Room
Carbonshack specializes in sustainable design that reduces clients’ carbon footprints, and the Cypress Park firm’s inspiration for the morning room is both intellectual and instinctive. Carbonshack found fresh designs in magnified images of spores, mycelia (root systems that form a network) and other occupants of the gardens’ hidden world, reflected in hemp fabrics and the overhead light fixture modeled on a diatom, a single-celled alga that produces 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. The sustainably produced cork-tile floor mimics leaf cell structures, evoking a forest floor; according to designer Gregory Roth, the material has more give than typical hard materials, making it kinder on the joints. Cork flooring also recalls a past era when this sustainable resource was more popular (1930s and again in the 1950s). The table is recycled wood from a church pew, perhaps from a tree that was felled over 100 years ago. Amanda Triplett’s wall art uses reclaimed textiles to portray an organic cellular structure.
Yet life and living are about motion. Instead of still photography that captures a moment, eight art videos by Rachel Mayeri, a professor of media studies at Harvey Mudd College, use time-lapse photography and digital design for colorful depictions of plants blooming. The effect is mesmerizing and emphasizes rejuvenation or rebirth on an organic level. What better way to start a morning?

The 55th Pasadena Showcase House of Design, benefiting music education, performances and therapy, runs through May 19. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday and Sunday; Friday hours are 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Parking and shuttle-bus service is at 1919 Verdugo Blvd., La Cañada Flintridge. Tickets cost $35 to $45 online or by phone, $40 to $50 at the ticket office. Call (714) 442-3872 or visit pasadenashowcase.org.

This year’s Showcase House of Design updates a turn-of-the-century estate with gold accents and other trendy touches.

The 2018 Pasadena Showcase House of Design was once known as “Overlook,” because when this elegant estate was built high on a hill in Altadena, it had a view that reached as far as Catalina. A lot has changed since 1915 when the 11,000-square-foot villa was built for $14,000. At the time, Altadena was an unincorporated retreat for an eclectic mix of retired Easterners, businessmen working in Pasadena and Los Angeles, artists and Western novelist Zane Grey. Imagine small orchards, poultry farms and vineyards on the west side and open tracts of ranch lands on the east. The rural community attracted two widowed sisters, Ruth E. Hargrove and Mary Emma Baker, who bought 5½ acres of land in the sparsely populated northeast section.
Although the American Craftsman era was in full flower in the region (Greene and Greene had established their firm in Pasadena in 1894 and built the Gamble House in 1908), the sisters wanted a Mediterranean-style home. They hired the up-and-coming Reginald Davis Johnson, who’d studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and moved to Pasadena when his father, Episcopal Bishop Joseph Horsfall Johnson, was assigned to the Los Angeles Diocese in 1894.
Considering the similar climates, the white walls and sunny spaces of the Mediterranean style seemed a perfect match for Southern California and Johnson was an early advocate of the style. He left his mark on such other SoCal buildings as All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, the Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel, La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla and the Santa Barbara Post Office.
For Outlook, Johnson designed a large foyer, living room, screened porch, dining room, kitchen, pantry and maid’s room with 1½ baths downstairs. Upstairs are four bedrooms and three baths. Later owners added a 780-square-foot duplex residence — most likely for servants — and a garage with a chauffeur’s quarters.
Twenty-three Showcase House designers were charged with updating the design — both interior and exterior — while remaining sensitive to the home’s historical features. Three contemporary trends tying the refreshed spaces together include the return of gold accents in a more muted form, textured wall treatments and decorated ceilings. Creating rooms that span centuries is a welcome challenge for Showcase designers. As Genaro Lagdameo of Designs of the Interior (DI) in Westlake Village explained, “The best part of Showcase is being able to work on a home of historical value” with “an architectural grandeur you don’t see anymore” and adapting it for current lifestyles. The fundraiser, which runs through May 20, benefits local music education and performances.

Classy Brass
Think of the petite lounge (at right) as an oasis during or after a game in the adjacent billiard room, both remodeled by Designs of the Interior. Both rooms glimmer with gold, including the light fixtures by Kelly Wearstler and custom-designed by DI; also custom are the lounge’s gold stools topped with faux fur and the shiny brass sink; the brass bar shelving supports were manufactured by Urban Archaeology of New York. Flanking the shelving is black tile with inlaid brass-wire arabesques from Walker Zanger’s Ellington collection. “Right now, gold rather than chrome is the trend,” Lagdameo says. “It was very popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
What changed? Technology, of course. “The trouble with brass is that it turns color and you have to keep it polished,” says Palm Springs designer Michael Wrusch, who used subtle gold touches in the family room. But, he notes, advances in physical vapor deposition (PVD), a light film on the metal, maintains the high polish longer.
A golden gleam left also warms up the modern man’s retreat (see cover and photos above and below), designed by Irvine-based Xander Noori, blending Eastern and Western influences. Noori created a custom desk using the biomorphic “Texas” hand-forged base from Organic Modernism in Brooklyn, New York, which he topped with white marble. He coupled that with the sleek modern lines of Fuse Lighting’s brassy “Tokyo” table lamp, and contrasted contemporary style with a turn-of-the-century typewriter and other vintage accessories he picked up at the Paris flea market and 1stdibs.com. A large floor-length mirror framed in gold amplifies the space.
No Wallflowers
How about wall zebras instead? Pasadena’s Parker West Interiors designed the master bedroom entry around the owner’s existing wallpaper, bedecked with zebras bounding away from arrows (Scalamandré’s “Zebras,” above).
The wallpapered accent wall of the Cozy Stylish Chic Suite looked to the skies for inspiration — the stars of Orion, that is. Using NASA imagery, Calico Wallpaper of Brooklyn custom-printed the constellation on mylar and sized it for Jeanne K. Chung of Pasadena (at right). Another intriguing wall treatment adorns the Powder Room designed by Burbank’s Louise O’Malley, who covered a wall with Jim Thompson Fabrics’ brown-and-white material in a striking geometric pattern (far right).

Above and Beyond
For one of the latest design trends, look up. Designers are embellishing ceilings with eye-catching finishes. DI’s Lagdameo accented the ceiling with Anthology’s “Oxidise” wallpaper (above), which resembles metallic tiles. Lagdameo says his goal was “a tiled ceiling effect with a metallic touch to add the right amount of bling.”
Another interesting ceiling is in the media room designed by Pasadena’s JS Design + Create of Pasadena. The firm’s Janet Sanchez covered a rectangular ceiling panel in Farrow & Ball’s “Tourbillon” wallpaper with light pink swirls on navy blue, which matches the wall treatment. Sanchez says she wanted to create a “halo” effect to prevent the usually darkened room from looking too gloomy.

Michael Olshefski designs sensuous tables and artwork using reclaimed wood pieces that “speak” to him.

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but Michael Olshefski sees the forest in his exquisite reclaimed-wood furniture. The architect and designer behind Primal Modern in Glassell Park creates museum-quality tables and artworks that reflect his Zen appreciation of nature. Using wood pieces that “speak” to him, Olshefski works with clients to customize furniture that fits their lifestyle.
An award-winning graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), Olshefski has worked in architectural design and construction for 25 years. High-profile projects he contributed to include the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Otis College of Art and Design, the Griffith Observatory and USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center. These days, he’s starting on a project at Santa Monica College as senior project manager for the new math and science building, among other design roles.
Until recently, woodworking was just a hobby for Olshefski. “Four years ago, I decided to really go into it and open up my own studio,” he said. “The work I did in the past looked like woodworkers’ furniture. Now I define myself as a designer who happens to work with wood as a medium.” Yet Olshefski’s practice is strongly rooted in woodworking. “When I was born, my father was a carpenter, a woodworker,” he recalled. His parents took snapshots of him with a hammer when he was a toddler. He went on to become a certified carpenter. “My hands-on experience was a huge plus when I went to architecture school,” he said. “On the flip side, I had to learn to pull away from those preconceived things, general practices I had as a carpenter.” When one thinks about a door, Olshefski continued, “Why does it have to be rectangular?”
Most of his Primal Modern works are rectangular and influenced by his realization that “people have a very strong opinion about the wood. They are afraid of damaging it.” A visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles with his wife of 17 years, Linda Stiehl, inspired a solution to that problem. “My mind is always thinking about design and I’m looking at the museum case,” noting the separation between the glass and the wood, he said. The wood of his tables is the art on exhibit, but some clients lay out collections of their own atop the wood and under the glass. “One client displayed his antique daggers on them.”
Going through his portfolio at primalmodern.com, you can see obvious signs of Buddhist inspiration, something clearly expressed throughout the Primal Modern website. Burnt Forest I and Burnt Forest II, glass-topped cocktail tables of sinuous slabs of wood atop a bed of pebbles, will remind gardening buffs of the dry landscape of the Ryōan-ji Zen temple in Kyoto. Olshefski said the rock area represents an estuary of water. “It’s a miniature bonsai concept.”
Buddhism might not seem an obvious path for a guy who was born and raised in upstate New York on an Adirondack Mountains game preserve. “We raised horses, dogs and quails,” he said. “There weren’t really a lot of people around me.” Later, at SCI-Arc, Olshefski was exposed to a wide variety of influences and encouraged by the school to form his own artistic philosophy. He took classes in chaos theory and fractal geometry. “Everything in nature is mathematics,” he says. “You just need to look at everything and see how it grows, how everything is a component of the next and the scale just changes.”
Olshefski also took a class in sumi-e painting and washi paper-making from a Japanese professor. “I didn’t know what to expect when I took the course. It was life-changing.” One of the things the teacher emphasized was “understanding the state of your mind when you are about to do the process.” Sometimes what you do is what you feel. “If you’re feeling aggressive, highly energized, then you should paint bamboo,” because that involves a firm planting of the brush and confident thrusts. On the other hand, “if you’re feeling more relaxed or melancholic,” orchids are a better subject choice because they “have a whole different flow.” With sumi-e, one is only painting in black, but one also learns there are “thousands of shades of black.” Olshefski found painting was “a process of meditation,” allowing him to focus on emotions.
Since 2001, Olshefski and Stiehl, who handles Primal Modern’s marketing, have made several pilgrimages to Asia. Indeed, travel has been a boon to the couple. It was a canceled flight en route to L.A. that led them to first meet at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. They became certified scuba divers on their honeymoon.
Olshefski’s journeys underwater inspired such design pieces as his Manta table, with biomorphic lines invoking those of the graceful ray. Olshefski had always loved the minimalism of Japanese architecture, which is often expressed in his Primal Modern works. “The frames are not actually composed of pieces welded together. They are sheets folded,” like origami.
A small 5-by-5-foot dining table starts at $5,000 and goes up to $100,000, depending on materials and design. Cocktail tables start at $2,500, and accent tables are about $1,500. An ornamental piece like Sunrise or Sunset costs about $900. As Stiehl noted, “When we present at art expos, just about everyone who visits our location stops mid-step and just gazes at his work or says, ‘Wow.’ The visceral reaction is so wonderful to watch. His clientele tends to be those who truly appreciate fine art, love to surround themselves with beauty and want to have a unique experience with the artist and designer. “
About 80 percent of his work is commissioned. “Usually, they think they’ve got more room than they do,” he said of his clients. Olshefski uses AutoCAD design software for presentations and makes several mock-ups to ensure the piece is a perfect fit for each client.
Aspiring do-it-yourselfers should know that working with reclaimed wood isn’t easy. And if you have a stump or old tree you’d like to work with, don’t bother calling Primal Modern. “A lot of people offer me trees to salvage,” Olshefski said. While all the reclaimed wood at Primal Modern is domestic, the designer only works with three mills. Mills can be reluctant to take old trees because they may be embedded with stones, rocks, nails or even barbed wire.
Finding a suitable piece of wood is only the beginning. “Each piece requires three to four years of air-drying in a shed before you can put it in a kiln to dry it… Drying in a kiln kills all the bacteria and all the insects.” After that, there’s no worry about bugs coming out of the wood while he’s working on it or when it’s in a client’s space. The piece he used for Manta, for example, was cut and air-dried for three years and came out weighing 900 pounds. After four months in a kiln, that weight shrank to 300.
It takes time to make a forest and it takes time to bring pieces of a forest into a home. If you want to see the forest differently and more intimately, take a look at Primal Modern.

Primal Modern is located at 2530 N. San Fernando Rd., Studio G, Los Angeles. Call (323) 810-0105 or visit primalmodern.com.

Arcadia Performing Arts Center’s Maki Hsieh wants to bring arts education to all area kids, regardless of income.

When Maki Hsieh introduced New Moon at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center (APAC) last month, the audience was able to thrill to her clear, classically trained soprano tones and her virtuoso violin playing. Hsieh’s new album includes a piece inspired by life in the Pasadena area, and she also hopes to inspire Arcadians toward greater immersion in the arts.
Hsieh says she gave her new album a lunar title because “a new moon is rare and the album presents a new artist, new ideas, new awakenings.” You might already be familiar with Hsieh’s work — her dubstep violin and vocal remix of the Skrillex song “Kyoto” was No. 1 on Los Angeles, U.S. and global electronic music charts for five weeks; she followed that up with her remix of Seven Lions’ “Isis.”
While Hsieh performed her entire album, she also noted in an interview that some of her older fans come to hear her rendition of “Ave Maria” as well as crowd favorites such as “Phantom of the Opera” and The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” Hsieh also planned something for young people: a segment with a rock band and dance crew. There will even be a bit of San Gabriel Valley color in her original composition, “Shabu Shabu Love Song,” inspired by so-called “parachute kids” — Asian minors, predominantly Taiwanese, whose parents park them in the U.S. to be educated.
Hsieh has come to know many of them in her first year as executive director of the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, the five-year-old addition to Arcadia High School that presents drama, dance and music performances. As executive director of the center, she knows Arcadia’s got talent, but talent still needs to be nurtured. Each year, about 1,350 students train there in various aspects of entertainment, from performance to administration. Most other similar organizations, like the Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, are in collegiate settings. But Arcadia High School’s arts programs stand out — it has a nationally recognized marching band, three concert bands, three symphony orchestras, three percussion ensembles, six performing and competition choral groups plus dance and theater productions.
The Arcadia center provides what amounts to “a daily classroom,” in addition to their regular schooling, for performing arts students, Hsieh says. She’s familiar with the program from a parental perspective as well. Her older daughter, Camilla, made full use of her arts education at Arcadia High, although she was “never really serious with entertainment” as a career. Camilla spent 40 hours a week at the center in rehearsals and with various musical groups on top of a full load of AP classes, Hsieh says. Where did Camilla’s strong arts foundation lead? To a full academic scholarship at UC Berkeley — in environmental sciences.
“Our problems are so complex that there is no simple solution anymore. Multifaceted issues can only be solved by multifaceted and creative thinkers,” she says, adding that Camilla is “my poster child” for making a great arts education more attractive, even for students planning careers outside the arts. Her younger daughter, Aubrey, is only in the third grade, but she loves to sing and plays a pink violin. She was cast as one of four Chips in Arcadia High School’s March production of Beauty and the Beast. Their father, Michael E. Leonard (Hsieh divorced in 2010), is also artistic — he’s a prominent medical illustrator.
As both a parent and an educator, Hsieh is concerned about “a huge disparity in arts education” according to neighborhood income levels. From interviews with teachers, she found “so many potholes in the system” because “we can tell which child came from which middle school just on their arts education.” Athletics are often in the same situation. In less affluent areas, many parents aren’t available to teach after-school classes or can’t afford music or dance lessons for their children. In high schools, arts programs mostly benefit from tenured teachers. “There’s investment at the high school level, but a huge problem at K through 8” where “arts education is not integrated into the curriculum.” Often Title 1 schools have nothing. “Three Title 1 schools didn’t even have a choir,” Hsieh says.
The Arcadia Performing Arts Foundation, which operates APAC, “is in the business of developing talent at a young age,” because without that background, “children will lose their competitive advantage,” Hsieh says. “We’re a cultural destination, a youth incubator. We make great art accessible. We believe all children ought to receive the same quality of arts education regardless of your family zip code.”
But she acknowledges that challenges persist. For one thing, she’s working against certain cultural traditions in Arcadia, which is 59 percent Asian. “Asians do not want their children to go into the arts as a career unless that is the only thing you can do,” Hsieh says. In the past, “if your family was very, very poor, you would sell your child to a theater troupe. A lot of Americans are surprised at the Chinese Olympic teams where a child has been training since 12 years old.” But, Hsieh says, sports are enshrined in Chinese culture, while the Chinese language has a telling derogatory term for arts students — “theater child.”
Still, Hsieh is optimistic about changing minds here. “Arcadia is very passionate about arts education, but we don’t have the funding right now,” she says. “The foundation’s vision is No. 1: engagement with our community, building loyalty and excitement. That means the second goal is fundraising for equipment.” Third is creating a regional Arcadia choir where, for $25 per month, children can have their “first entry into music” and “an opportunity to perform with a professional orchestra each year.” That means launching an arts education campaign and even an endowment. The plans are ambitious but, Hsieh says, “We hope that the community will come along with us.”
Hsieh understands cross-cultural communication because she’s a product of it — her name reveals that her mother was Japanese and her father was Taiwanese Chinese, and she was raised as a U.S. citizen in both countries. Her mother taught Japanese language and culture, and her father was a businessman, but they also appreciated the arts. Her father was “an amazing tenor” and her mother was a master teacher of ikebana. “The feeling of art in my family is that it’s a part of the everyday. There is not this huge dichotomy” separating art from daily life. “I was encouraged at a very young age to explore the arts.”
Her mother once scolded her for mechanically playing her musical scales because “it needs to have emotion” — her mother told her to “play the scale like a human being.”
Born in Taiwan and educated at the Taipei American School, she later attended Phillips Academy Andover, a top boarding school in Massachusetts. There she was “really able to explore what Taiwan wasn’t able to offer,” including such American art forms as musical theater and jazz. But she also came to understand that she was partially deaf — something that in Taiwan her mother had confronted with angry denials. When a school nurse noted Hsieh’s deafness, her mother insisted “she’s normal” because she was “afraid of losing face.” Hsieh’s mother “never talked to me about it,” she says, but she learned the truth at age of 15, at boarding school. By then, she was already compensating.
“You sense things in a different way when you’re semi-deaf,” she says. For her, “everything has a vibration; everything has a frequency.” And these are two different things. “Vibration is movement of energy; frequency is how high or low. I hear the vibration of the lightbulb. That’s why I practice in the dark. I turn off the refrigerator. Otherwise, I can’t focus on my voice and my violin.”
At boarding school, she says, she learned that “the American spirit is robust and very brave. It attacks classical conventions with new ideas.” In Chinese culture the “fear of failure drives everything.” But in America, “if you fail, you get up and try again.”
Hsieh tried everything from sports to music. At boarding school, she was concertmaster of two orchestras and received the Andover Music Prize. Although she trained with violinist Berl Senofsky at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory, she graduated from Johns Hopkins as a sociology major in pre-med, winning the Hopkins Prize for inner-city research. She explained, “The more things you did, the more friends you make.” Hsieh went on to compete at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Belgium; sing the national anthem for Major League Baseball; appear in A Song for Manzanar (2015), a short film about a Japanese internment camp in California that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival; and perform in more than 300 festivals, venues and arenas, including Special Olympics World Games, StubHub Center and Las Vegas Motor Speedway for 100,000 Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) fans. Not to mention a contestant stint on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.
Being artistic is “a way of life,” Hsieh says. “It’s in the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you engage your friends. Everything you do should be infused with an artistic elegance.”