Downtown L.A. | February 05, 2023
Kelly Wearstler and Her Artists Take Us Inside Downtown L.A. Proper
“Artists’ works truly make my projects shine,” designer Kelly Wearstler tells us, looking back at the newly opened Downtown L.A. Proper.
Here, the award-winning designer—instantly recognizable for her eclectic sensibility, fearless use of color, and penchant for custom pieces—brings her hyper-local approach to her hometown. “As an L.A.-based designer, it is amazing to be able to discover and collaborate with such incredible emerging talent. I love to use my platform to spotlight others.”
With her latest project for Proper, Wearstler shines that spotlight on a group of local artists whose work spans stained glass to ceramics. Their stage is extraordinary, too: a Californian Renaissance Revival-style building that has lived many lives, from a swanky private club to a YWCA. Vestiges of its former selves, such as rich moldings, geometric shapes, and a 1960s swimming pool, have given Wearstler and her team a rich canvas to highlight the diverse character of the neighborhood. Wearstler tells us, “I worked with local creatives to bring unique designs that give the hotel a sense of place that feels like no other.”
We spoke to some of Wearstler’s artists about the works they created, their creative processes, and the spirit they sought to bring to Downtown L.A.
The first piece at Downtown L.A. Proper that catches the eye is a lush, fantastical ceiling mural at the entrance by Abel Macias, a Los Angeles-based painter, illustrator, and designer. Depicting a jubilant scene of animals in vibrant colors—offset by a pink checkerboard floor and towering cacti—the mural creates a whimsical entry point into Wearstler’s world.
Here, Macias takes inspiration from the folk art and textiles he remembers from his childhood in Mexico. “Using warm, rich colors, I wanted to tell a story of a menagerie of birds and jungle creatures living above you in a floral canopy.” As he explains, it was Wearstler’s idea to cover all surfaces of the vaulted ceiling with the mural, completely camouflaging the details of the historical building, to create a “fully enveloped world that really makes your eye wander.”
“Some of the animals in the painting appear in different scenarios and vignettes, telling a unique story to every guest who looks up.”
“I wanted hotel guests to engage with this mural from every perspective, whether entering or exiting the building, waiting for the elevator to go up, or stepping out onto the ground level,” Macias tells us. “Some of the animals in the painting appear in different scenarios and vignettes, telling a unique story to every guest who looks up.”
Beneath the menagerie sits a striking reception desk, covered with a black, richly textured clay façade that recalls volcanic rock. This is the work of L.A. ceramicist Morgan Peck and a fine example of her signature freehand style. As Peck tells us, “Every inch is hand-shaped by me. It was a fun and freeing experience to make.” She was inspired by the intimate feeling of the building, particularly the lobby.
“I instinctually wanted to allow my personality to show through the way I used the clay on the reception desk façade.”
Peck’s modern pieces are inspired by a blend of influences, including the Memphis Group, the Bauhaus, and Art Deco. In addition to the desk façade, the artist created custom tables for the rooftop, tiles for the credenzas in the guestrooms, and various sconces and mirrors throughout the hotel. “Utilizing my love of architecture and my experience creating small abstract sculptures, I designed a group of functional works that have a distinctly handmade yet architectural feel.”
The entrance to Caldo Verde, the hotel’s ground-floor restaurant, is crowned by a colossal stained-glass doorway that nods to Los Angeles and its European culinary influences. The installation is the work of L.A.’s Judson Studios, a family-run stained glass studio now in its fifth generation. The piece is made from mouth-blown and custom machine-rolled glass and assembled by hand at the studio’s headquarters in Highland Park, in the north of the city. As president David Judson tells us, “The designs are simple geometric elements that accentuate both the natural and interior lighting of the space.”
With a diverse list of previous clients that includes local artists, historic cathedrals, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Judson Studios aims to bring their artisanal work to the L.A. community and beyond. “We always look to introduce craftsmanship and handmade elements to our work. The simplicity of materials and workmanship creates more relatable and comfortable spaces, particularly in landmark settings like this, shifting the feeling from the urban exterior to a relaxed interior.”
Among the most buzzed-about elements of Downtown L.A. Proper is its singular specialty suites, housed in truly one-of-a-kind spaces. One of these is the Pool Suite, which features a 35-by-12-foot indoor swimming pool leftover from the building’s days as a YWCA. To transform the space, Wearstler called upon L.A. ceramicist Ben Medansky to craft a mural.
Comprised of bold, handmade, ivory-colored tiles, the mural features geometric shapes that recall a vintage pool scene, but with a distinctly modern, artisanal feel. “It was important to me to avoid a repeating pattern and instead treat each tile as its own canvas,” Medansky tells us. “No two are exactly alike.”
The tiles were inspired by the artist’s Los Angeles–to–Arizona road trips over the years, incorporating “motifs of tire treads, traffic signs, and cacti, which were then minimized, abstracted, and put back together in a puzzle formation,” Medansky explains. “My unique approach resulted in a monochrome moment in which shapes tell the story.”