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Design, Bitches Shakes Up L.A. Architecture 

Thursday, Feb 20 2014
Catherine Johnson, left, and Rebecca Rudolph

PHOTO BY DANNY LIAO PHOTOGRAPHY

Catherine Johnson, left, and Rebecca Rudolph

Architects Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph stand amidst the scaffolding and concrete dust as they discuss electrical wiring locations with their contractor and client, Andre Guerrero. By springtime, this dumpy former sushi joint will morph into the Hollywood location of Guerrero's Oinkster, the next restaurant in his growing empire of slow-food eateries (he owns and operates Little Bear gastropub downtown and Maximiliano in Highland Park). The first Oinkster, in Eagle Rock, is where Guerrero's hand-cut, house-cured pastrami became famous.

“I would never in a million years pick this color, but that's why I love them." —The Oinkster's Andre Guerrero

Rudolph and Johnson's architecture office, Design, Bitches, is orchestrating the transformation. The design concept is as pragmatic as it is punk. Painted white steel beams will crisscross the ceiling above the main dining room, filled with no-frills communal tables. Mod blues and reds will fill out the clean color palette, with a bright, sunshiny deck for outdoor dining — something lacking in the neighborhood presently.

Rudolph assesses the pace of construction. "It was very dark in here before," she says.

Johnson speculates further. "We think it was originally a drive-thru and then it was maybe an Italian restaurant? ... If you go on Google StreetView, you can still see it." They are geeks for buildings.

Guerrero met Rudolph and Johnson through his sons, who run the Slow Culture art space in Highland Park. "We wanted something very contemporary," he explains, "and we wanted a look that expressed the lifestyle here in Los Angeles."

As the process unfolded, Guerrero was impressed by Rudolph and Johnson's mix of talents. "I don't like blue in restaurants. They've got this one section of the restaurant that's bright blue. I would never in a million years pick this color, but that's why I love them: They've got fresh eyes," he says.

"So many restaurants look like they're done by the same designer — with the same repurposed wood, same pendant lights. Rebecca and Cathy aren't repetitious. They have a great aesthetic and sense of functionality — it's rare to find someone who's really good at both," he adds. "I'm actually thinking of having them do my house."

In the last 18 months, Johnson and Rudolph have completed two buildings; won the American Institute of Architects' 2013 restaurant design award for Superba Snack Bar in Venice (tied with Belcampo Meat Co. by BCV Architects, and Nobu Malibu by Studio PCH and Montalba Architects); launched two restaurant construction projects; exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara, and at the Miracle Mile's A+D Museum; and began designing a vegan lifestyle center in the Arts District downtown, a bakery in Venice and an arcade bar in Echo Park.

At the Coolhaus ice cream shops in Culver City and Pasadena (completed in 2011 and 2013, respectively), Rudolph and Johnson's approach translated that business' small-scale lightness (Coolhaus was originally a food truck) into brick-and-mortar establishments that incorporate the brand's ad-hoc beginnings via swaying aluminum balloons for signage, hanging heavy-duty exterior lighting fixtures, and sitting-area walls coated in high-gloss green that looks like auto paint.

For the Hollywood Oinkster, Guerrero's casual-cool take on fast food is translated into the restaurant's clean, clutter-free look, open plan and big graphics inside and out — a nod to the large-scale signage that old highway eateries used to lure speeding drivers off the road for a burger. Rudolph and Johnson will add a marquee out front, too — a connection to the Hollywood neighborhood.

"Drive-thrus and burgers have played a pivotal role in Southern California's culture," Johnson explains. "We're thinking about all of that."

But unlike other diners or drive-ins in Hollywood and all over the Southland that come off as kitschy or generic, the design here uses mainstream culture to make unique, bold statements.

Both Rudolph and Johnson honed their capable chops in retail and commercial projects working in other offices, Johnson at Barbara Bestor Architecture for a good part of a decade and Rudolph in a design-build business she operated with her husband. The women first worked together at Bestor's office when Rudolph was working there temporarily. They considered an architecture partnership but were still at their previous jobs in 2010, when they started looking for some traction to make the leap.

They submitted an entry for the "Architecture is" competition, sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The winners would receive $500 and the opportunity to give a lecture on their portfolio of work. The call for entries asked young architects to fill in the following sentence, "Architecture is ___." For Rudolph and Johnson, the answer to the question was a no-brainer. "Architecture is design, bitches."

They earned an honorable mention, and although it was never intended as a name, Design, Bitches stuck. It has turned out to be a mission statement in two words. It encompasses Rudolph and Johnson's honest, no-fuss approach to work. It punctuates their brushing off of the architecture world's old-school patriarchy. And, most significantly, it hints at the pop sensibility and realness that inhabits their spaces.

Reactions to the name Design, Bitches range from enthusiastic (by architecture critic Mimi Zeiger, The New York Times and Paper magazine), to cynical (on the publication Architectural Record's website: "Remind me again, is architecture about creating meaningful places or about creating a brand with some goofy name?"), to commenters on blogs who just don't get it (they assume the name is demeaning to women).

"It drives me crazy, the tediousness of most conversations on architecture," Rudolph bristles. "Architecture should be fun, and can have some play in it. That tone hasn't shown up in architecture for a while — maybe not since the '80s."

Johnson adds, "When we take our drawings to get building permits, our name makes the ladies at the building department smile."

At Superba Snack Bar in Venice, the adorably chic vibe is simultaneously accessible, laid-back, comfortable and bold. Handpicked poncho blankets Rudolph found on the Venice boardwalk drape the booth backs, and over the front wall of the simple, swimming pool–colored patio (clad with actual pool tile), customers chat with folks walking along the sidewalk.

The restaurant is in keeping with the firm's mission to loosen up its buttoned-down profession while making room for investigation and conversation. Up above, a sign mounted to the roof almost overshadows the petit structure. On it is a quote from cartoonist and illustrator R. Crumb: "She is beautiful and terrifying at the same time, like nature itself."

Reach the writer at wendy.gilmartin@gmail.com

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