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Cohen, who owns three other design centers, including the D&D Building in New York, acquired the PDC in 2000. By 2001, he had donated a small courtyard building to MOCA and had decided to help the museum fund at least four exhibitions in that space annually. MOCA's presence would, he said then, "beautifully complement the more commerce-oriented flavor of PDC."
He renewed his contract with MOCA in 2006, but in 2009, he tapped his own art consultant, Varola, to head up an initiative that would bring art into the PDC itself.
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"We are taking far greater risks at the PDC comparatively with MOCA because the program operates in a real-world commercial context," Varola says.
That first year of Design Loves Art, the PDC hosted the Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair and then began leasing second-floor Blue Building spaces to galleries.
This spring, it launched the invitational Material Matters, where designers, artists or architects install work in the PDC's thoroughfares and nooks. It requires confronting, not just coexisting with, the PDC's austerity.
"It's a tough space to compete with," says architect Gail Peter Borden, who curated this first installment of Material Matters, inviting five other architects to place work on the PDC's woklike planters. His delicate "Intensity Frames," installed in the fifth-floor thoroughfares, don't show up in cellphone pictures — you have to be present to experience them, and then you have to get close.
"It's like city streets, only without the people," architect Hadrian Predock says of the PDC. He and his partner, John Frane, made the cloudlike armatures that rest on planters underneath the first-floor escalators, spinning colored resin around bulbous balloons, then letting it dry into airy, round shapes.
Victor Jones, of the firm Fievre Jones, placed MDF discs (fiberboard engineered to be denser than plywood) on planters behind a stairway that leads to a balcony overlooking the fifth floor. He put pink felt shapes on one of the discs, a pile of pamphlets with coded shapes atop another, and cut a hole and placed an abstract sculpture on a third.
"We were bored with the idea that if it's not legible, it's not valuable," Jones says of his decision to do something abstract and independent of the environment (he also points out that he didn't know where his work would be until the last minute). "The PDC and the piece have no real rapport."
How do you establish a rapport with the PDC? Langer won't know exactly what his Wharton + Espinosa show will look like until he's spent time working in the newly renovated space, but he does know the show has to do with monsters.
"The Pacific Design Center might not be a monster but monstrous," he says via email. "If it were a person, it might be body-dysmorphic, uncomfortable in its shape and size. ... It feels self-consciously awkward.
"This is good," he adds.
A thing that's awkward and distorted needs sensitivity and sympathy, which is exactly what the PDC needs at this point.
Now that Wharton and Espinosa have invested in renovations and made their space more malleable, they're planning to stay put for the foreseeable future. "Galleries are usually created in ungentrified areas that ultimately become chic," Wharton says, "and it's interesting to me to be a part of something ... so outside of the norm."
Says Espinosa, "It's a frontier, just like any other frontier."
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