Why Are Angelenos So Good at Designing Human-Powered Transportation?

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Tue, Oct 16, 2012 at 12:47 PM

click to enlarge ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker

The streets of Venice Beach whir with the crunchy hum of skateboards, the utterly '80s rhythm of Rollerblades, the impossible physics of a surfer pedaling a beach cruiser barefoot, one arm slung around a board. A new design exhibition on Abbot Kinney that focuses on human-powered movement is almost ridiculously place-specific, since many of the products hanging on the wall are just as likely to go whizzing by outside.

"Moving LA: People-Powered Design" is a collaboration between two Venice designers: furniture designer Ilan Dei, whose studio is a few blocks away, and product designer Stuart Karten, whose firm designs medical technology like hearing aids. When Dei tossed out the idea for Karten to curate a show in his new pop-up store on Abbot Kinney, the overriding theme was already obvious: Dei and Karten met 15 years ago at Dei's first store, passed each other on the Venice bike path a few days later, and have been riding together ever since.

In choosing the products, Karten focused in on three areas -- wellness, recreation and transportation -- but he quickly realized the lines between them were blurred. In essence, the products on display show how Southern Californians have made the best of moving through our exquisite climate and unique geography, says Karten. "It's how people rationalize their existence in the outdoors. It's not enough just to be hanging out outside -- I gotta be doing something."

click to enlarge Scott Anderson's surfboards are shaped a few blocks away from the exhibition - ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker
  • Scott Anderson's surfboards are shaped a few blocks away from the exhibition

The show itself is a colorful and quite exuberant survey of a dozen or so products, all of which are designed in Southern California -- many within a five-mile radius of the pop-up. About 50 percent of the products featured are constructed locally as well. A map plots the location of each design studio: Predator's carbon-fiber bike frames hail from Santa Monica, Loaded longboards are made with bamboo in Culver City. Some designers Dei and Karten knew, like Scott Anderson, who has been shaping surfboards near Dei's studio for 20 years. Others they stumbled upon while scoping the neighborhood, like Hoopnotica, a hula hoop company they discovered two blocks away. "It was really cool to survey the local economy," says Karten.

click to enlarge Arbor Surfboards, the ElliptiGO, and Predator bikes in a converted shipping container - ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker
  • Arbor Surfboards, the ElliptiGO, and Predator bikes in a converted shipping container

In fact, it was on the Venice bike path that Karten spotted ElliptiGO, an outdoor, mobile version of an elliptical machine. A Solana Beach triathlete who was injured wanted to have the same low-impact workout outside that he got in the gym, so he invented it. In fact, that's a common narrative that Dei and Karten began to see throughout all the products: The athlete themselves became the designers. "These are all people who turned their hobbies into their occupations," says Karten.

Some of the products are a bit of a stretch: a collapsible water bottle, a shirt that protects muscles from injury (like that fluorescent tape worn by Olympians last summer). And there are obvious omissions: some large companies were overlooked completely, like Oakley, headquartered in Orange County, while others turned down the chance to participate, like Razor scooters, which are designed and manufactured in Cerritos.

click to enlarge Stuart Karten demonstrates the technology in the Concept 2 shoes that had them banned from the NBA - ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker
  • Stuart Karten demonstrates the technology in the Concept 2 shoes that had them banned from the NBA

But by focusing on potentially unknown companies, the products manage to show that small startups are responsible for an incredible range of highly innovative technology. (A pair of shoes by Beverly Hills' Athletic Propulsion Labs that were meant to improve the wearer's vertical leap were banned by the NBA.)

What I walked away with was more a sense of rich local history: We all know the skateboarding origin tales of Dogtown, but the truth is that Venice and Santa Monica have been global leaders in incubating fitness- and transportation-focused tech companies for decades. That was definitely the point, says Dei, to demonstrate that Los Angeles still is the origin for so many action sports. "I don't think L.A. gets enough credit for it."

click to enlarge Products like the Malibu Kayak pair well with displays of Dei's outdoor furniture - ALISSA WALKER
  • Alissa Walker
  • Products like the Malibu Kayak pair well with displays of Dei's outdoor furniture

The exhibit is a temporary part of Dei's pop-up furniture store, which has been open for eight weeks and is also worth the trip. Dei took three shipping containers and sliced them open, creating a completely off-the-grid store powered by photovoltaics (a way of harnessing solar energy) and iPhones (and a generator as needed for events). The exhibition infiltrates the retail space, and, in a few instances, the products are actually for sale (with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Venice Family Clinic). The kayaks and skateboards pair especially well with Dei's outdoor furniture line, with its strappy forms and neon colors, and Dei plans to keep the space activated with theme-appropriate events like yoga classes. It's all part of Dei's strategy to keep evolving the pop-up to serve the neighborhood. "We have these connections between lifestyle and good design and community," he says. "I was interested in developing an experience."

Moving LA: People-Powered Design is up through November 11, Wednesday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at Ilan Dei Venice Store & Project Lab, 1650 Abbot Kinney, Venice.

Alissa Walker blogs at Gelatobaby.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gelatobaby and for more arts news like us on Facebook or follow us at @LAWeeklyArts.

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