Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Interview with Andrew Meieran of the Edison Bar
I promised you a while ago an interview with the Edison Bar designer. It's taken a while to pull together, but here it is! Andrew Meieran is a principal of the Edison Bar, and its designer. According to his bio:
Andrew Meieran cultivated his love of historic properties while studying architecture, film and history at UC Berkeley. During his freshman year, unable to win a spot in the dormitory lottery, he purchased a dilapidated craftsman bungalow. Andrew spent the duration of his college career pursuing a parallel curriculum: a self-designed, self-taught, experiential program in home restoration. After graduation, he used that experience to launch a career in real estate, believing that adaptive reuse of historic properties held the key to both creative and financial independence.
It goes on to list the many, many projects he's been involved with.
Andrew was gracious enough to answer some questions for us, so without any further ado:
SH: Tell us about the space? What's the history? Where is it? What was it?
AM: The space was originally a state of the art power plant. It was built by Thomas Higgins, a copper baron from Arizona who wanted to build the most advanced building in Los Angeles at the time. He wanted high speed electrical elevators, filtered water, electric lights, and every modern convenience. Unfortunately, this was 7 years before LA’s power system was set up. Thus, he built the entire plant in the subbasement of the building. He chose a site in Downtown Los Angeles in an area that later became known as Wall Street West, and envisioned it as the center of a new modern downtown. City Hall was built just one block away in the 1920’s. The building eventually housed offices of such people as Clarence Darrow and even the Temperance Society who led the fight for Prohibition
SH: What came first, the space or the idea? Were you planning on putting a bar here, and came up with this or was this the bar you'd always wanted to create?
AM: I have always been looking for spaces to place a unique lounge. I’ve wanted to build the place I always imagined existed and something that would blend all my favorite styles and design elements. All the real lounges have always been less than what I’d hoped for. I wanted someplace that could have been in the world of Blade Runner or some mysterious past or future world. I wanted a romantic and nostalgic space that looked back at the exuberance of the past (the industrial opulence of the industrial revolution and 1920’s in particular) as well as the future of technology and invention. I saw this space (under several feet of water!) and noticed pieces of the industrial past peeking out, I knew immediately that this was the place I wanted a lounge. It was a perfect mixture of Jules Verne, industrial decay; a peek into the past with a hint of their vision of the future.
SH: What artifacts were already on the site to work with? Did they have to haul in the furnace, the dynamo, etc or were they already present? (Stefan Freestate via Brass Goggles Forum)
How much of your electrical equipment is original? Did you move it around or is it in the same place as it was originally? What are those round things? How about the "end tables" on the dance floor -- those look much more 1950s than the rest of it.
AM: All of the steam boiler itself is original and intact. We mainly cleaned it up. The rows of generators are still where we found them. They are not the ones put in in 1910 when the place was built, but were actually replacements from the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. We also cleaned them up and made them accessible. Some of the old steam tank equipment and piping is also original, but moved in order to allow access and layout. The big round things are pieces of the old generator turbines that we cut in half and made into sculptural pieces so you can see both inside their working and interact with them. We made additions to the space (like the main stairway that descends from the entry and the forty foot mural) that complemented the feel and felt like they could possible be parts of the original space. The DJ booth is the base of the original smoke stack and gangway that accessed the boiler. The bathrooms and bar areas are all new, but capture the flavor of the eras and past uses of the space. When it came to furniture, we looked to find (or produce) reproductions of furniture from 1910 through 1940. Some are reproductions of railway station chairs. Others are from lounges in Wiemar Berlin. Some are from Paris. The stuff that look like the 1950’s are actually reproductions from the 1930’s, from an exhibition of furniture from what I understand. It shows how much ahead of their time they were.
SH: You manage to blend a number of styles -- Victorian, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Gothic -- successfully! How did you pull that off? What advice do you have for others who'd like to do the same?
AM: I have always loved Gothic and Art Nouveau and have been drawn to these eras. They seem the most romantic—where people were celebrating life and the mysteries of the unknown. The Gothic revival movements of the 1920’s started to blend the two and it almost feels like the result was Art Deco. They all overlapped from about 1890 on, but as each defined itself, I think it became clear that they were all descendants of the same way of viewing the world. There’s an exuberance in the designs that explore how man and nature interact—which seems indicative of the conflicts and legacy of the Industrial Revolution. The main point is that all of these elements grew out of the same exploration of the environment and they seem to me to blend naturally in one space for that reason. I utilized the Art Nouveau in the ground floor and restrooms because both seemed closer to nature (natural light, water) while the Art Deco and Gothic lent themselves to the descent into the industrial underworld. I particularly love the integration of the different styles because they actually also tell a story as you explore the space. They are like ghosts from different eras—each engendering a different feeling and mood, but all taking you on a journey through the past. You can see the layers of life that have inhabited the place and imagine the generations of laborers, industrialists, and craftsmen who were once there. You walk through the front doors and through the looking glass.
SH: Where'd you find your materials -- furniture, fixtures, draperies, etc? Can you give us any pointers for sourcing similar things? ( i.e. if it was salvaged or scavenged, from where? if new, what sources did you use or how did you find things that fit in a world that is full of midcentury modern?)
AM: Most of the pieces are from salvage yards and even (dare I say it) Ebay. I’d find industrial components and use them in ways that they hadn’t been used (the hundreds of glass electrical insulators that make the chandeliers for example). There is so much great design in things that have no current use, like old industrial machinery, that you can get them cheap (if you can move them!) I ended up having to custom design most things from pieces or from photographs for reproductions. It’s amazing what happens when you walk through a flea market or antique shop and start looking at things purely for their design and forget everything about their functionality. You suddenly notice that a metal bracket (for $4) would make a great lamp if you added electricity, or a chunk of metal would make a great table if you could find someone to grind of one or two brackets. One of our greatest finds were the old pressure gauges and fuel indicators that I fell in love with when I saw them but didn’t have a need for. They were metal brackets with glass tubes. With a light in each, they became the sconces through out much of the space. They were cheap, but they weighed hundreds of pounds. But I think they are beautiful and feel like they could have been part of the original power plant.
SH: Did you know you were building a -- excuse the phrase -- steampunk temple? Did you even know what steampunk was when you were creating the Edison Bar? How were you introduced to the concept of steampunk?
AM: I had never heard of Steampunk before. Someone said something about it about a week after we opened. But I have always loved the aesthetic. I love Jules Verne’s images of industrial Gothic. I actually lived for a year in the bell tower of a catholic church (no joke) that I was rehabilitating which suited my gothic tendencies. With The Edison I always felt I was building an industrial cathedral. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that I wasn’t alone and that once I built it, others would appreciate it. People have said to me that they had also wished such a place existed outside of the movies and literature. The response has been so astounding that I’m hoping other people will start integrating all these design elements into their work and bring a sense of the romance of design back. All the ubiquitous design over the last few decades is so depressing. You could go to a bar in New York of all places and it looks like it could be just like a place in Iowa. People need to utilize their imagination to take spaces and integrate the history of the location and the architectural artifacts into their own vision of the future. They can be light and dark, opulent and sparse; I’ve never met anyone who could be embodied in a single aesthetic. Thus spaces should reflect the idiosyncratic nature of those who inhabit them. They should be combinations of their dreams, fantasies, and identities. Steampunk seems to do this by incorporating the spectrum of human experience—from cold industrial reality and Gothic mysticism or spiritualism, to an idealized or dystopic vision of the future. I was very happy to learn there are people out there who embrace this and want their environment to reflect how they feel.
SH: Your use of projection to add light and motion to the decor is intriguing. Where did that idea come from? What types of film do you project? Where'd you find those?
AM: The films and lighting are integral to the space. Part of it was the result of my love of silent and experimental films. They’re getting lost and no one is seeing them. I was hoping to generate interest so people would go out and look for more. It’s also the outgrowth of the era of invention. Edison pioneered the moving picture and as it evolved from the equivalent of his own 10-30 second snapshots of the world (which we show) to alternative narratives and experimental effects, the imagery became more and more beautiful. As part of LA it’s a tribute to the motion picture and Hollywood. But it’s more a tribute to the inventors who created a new art form. The earliest film is from the 1890’s and the most recent is actually Jasper Morello from two years ago. There are clips from every era in between. All reflect the evolution of film and the edge of imagination.
SH: What possibilities were there to put the machines in motion? All this industrial equipment has some neat possibilities as kinetic sculpture. (from the steampunk home reader Ben)
AM: We were going to make same of the equipment more “mobile” and even seem to work. The three problems that ended up stopping us were 1) insurance, 2) they were difficult to maintain even on the most minimal level, and 3) when we did get some working it felt a little too much like Disneyland instead of the Edison. They became less kinetic sculptural pieces than set pieces. It’s unfortunate since several of the larger pieces could be very beautiful. Some of the smaller piece still do work. Their mechanisms are still intact nearly a hundred years later. There was one piece that I was desperate to purchase that was a kinetic sculpture that looked like part of an old electrical plant. Unfortunately they wouldn’t part with it (which was probably okay since it was also extremely loud).
SH: Anything else I should have asked or that you'd like to share with us?
AM: As a note, we are hoping to become a host of the Jules Verne Film Festival that is now held annually in LA at the Shrine Auditorium. They share our exuberance—our love of history and drive for creative and physical exploration. We’re looking forward to being a part of this community as it grows. I’m hoping people take some inspiration in the works of literature, film, and even the Edison and create more interesting spaces. It’s astounding how much people can do with so little effort if they really think about it. They can create something both new and historic at the same time.
Thanks for Andrew for sharing his time and thoughts. The picture above is from eecue's wonderful set of photos of the Edison Bar.