Los Angeles is no stranger to art and the surreal, but from October to mid-November, the city was treated to one of the most eye-catching installations in recent memory. Husband and wife artist duo Dabs Myla, famous for their Golden Age illustration aesthetics and whimsical design projects, collaborated with the Modernica Factory, a manufacturer / design collective dedicated to North American Modernist design. The installation was Before and Further, a 2-story household festooned with custom-made furniture, illustrated wallpaper, and recreational doodads, all aiming to establish a cartoon wonderland in the midst of Los Angeles.
Navigating LA’s Arts District
I came to Before and Further the night before its closing day. The drive there was misleading to say the least; if you’re new to LA, the Arts District might come as something of a shock. Ostensibly, it’s a labyrinth of corrugated warehouses and alleyways, more akin to an industrial town than the artistic hub of a major city, but make a wrong turn and there’s no telling what you’ll find: a prop warehouse, an architecture museum, a fleet of pierogi trucks, a craft market inside a brewert decorated outside with Dia de Los Muertos designs–the disparity’s all part of the charm.
The drive towards Before and Further was certainly part of the explorative experience: in the midst of this extended funhouse of warehouses and murals, sitting right beside stark-white corporate buildings, beyond the smokestacks silhouetted against the setting sun, the house stood like an oasis of light and dream.
Step Inside Dabs Myla’s Before and Further
This is the illustrator’s dreamhouse, kissed all over with warm, retro wood-and-amber tones, and Dabs Myla’s characteristic vintage cartoon motifs suffusing everything from the false brick walls mined from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, to the staircase stenciled with brown/orange heart patterns. Step into the bar lounge, where fiberglass high-chairs accommodate a counter modestly festooned with miniature cacti, with more prints abound featuring playful skulls and brownbirds on a background of bright yellow.
True California Dreaming
It’s interesting that Before and Further presents a dreamscape commonly associated with California and the mythic West, but it’s a dream that’s also so completely antithetical to the sprawl-choked city of Los Angeles. On the second floor, in the middle of a wall, sits a miniature succulent garden roosted in plain porcelain cups, that juxtapose nicely with the angular greenery growing within. In some hidden sideroom, two steel-frame lawn chairs painted orange sit in a room sprayed to resemble maybe dusk at Echo Park, where palm trees stand, leaves outspread against the dying orange light. Twin swans offer a soft white respite to the warm tones. Everywhere is the amber glow of wooden homeliness, equal parts 70s craftsman bungalow and Western frontier cabin. Altogether, Before and Further impresses as the impossible dream-soul of the city it’s sitting in.
If the initial lounge seems too conventional to you, check out the one-person pyramidal hut flanked by ferns. Take another door, enter into a black-lit tripping booth, speckled with glow-in-the-dark decals, blasting Pink Floyd (“Interstellar Overdrive” to be exact).
The second floor comprises the playroom, complete with record player on a low wooden stool, surrounded by another patterned mat upon a soft burnt-orange rug; a set of headphones rests on its own designated pillow, invitingly, with a massive cartoon cat eyeing from behind. The entire house is similarly alive, as though there were faint big band music leaking from between the floorboards. Across the room there is a boardgame set up, and at every window are mounted binoculars and spyglasses trained on the street. And again, literally every square inch is tastefully plastered with the art of Dabs Myla.
A Marriage of Dream and Reality
Before and Further is not simply a product showcase or an art exhibition; it is a union of vision and utilitarian design, a realization of a livable dream. In that respect, it is remarkable how well Modernica’s product line matches with Dabs Myla’s artistic sensibilities, both visually and ideologically. The simultaneously modern and retro designs inhabit the whimsical landscape seamlessly, probably because both aesthetics revolve around reappropriation, reinvigoration of old forms in new settings to give a hauntingly familiar aura, like seeing a childhood breakfast cereal sitting inexplicably on the market shelf after being discontinued for decades
A vintage utopian consumerist dream brought into the present; the ramblings of a whimsical mind brought to life in sculpture and color; a two-story funhouse sitting in a remote corner of an iron-and-asphalt maze. Before and Further exhibited layers of expression that I didn’t expect, and it’s fitting in hindsight that my visit took place on the penultimate day of its passing. Dreams don’t last. They pop like soap bubbles, or, they coalesce, into a factory of dreams like Modernica, or a fruitful union like Dabs Myla.