Glaring lights, wobbly chairs and teeny cups that teeter toward the edge of the table, threatening to shatter into a million pieces. Sometimes decor can ruin a fine dining experience because we only notice when it’s all wrong.

So, where’s the praise for handsomely designed pieces that qualify as works of art?

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Look for an entire collection at the Craft in America center in Los Angeles. Emily Zaiden, director of the center, has gathered a laser-focused exhibit titled “Consume: Handcrafting L.A. Restaurant Design.” On display through Jan. 4., the show highlights collaborations between LA chefs and designers with 90 objects by 30 artists from more than 30 restaurants including Auburn, n/naka, Otium and Providence.

It’s not what you might expect. Stiffly starched linen, fine China and velvet banquettes are out. Today’s fine dining rooms surround guests with casual, yet luxurious seating, tableware, linens and lighting. Los Angeles has developed a look all its own, Zaiden says. To demonstrate, she’s brought together bowls, charcuterie boards, chairs, cups, plates, chef’s knives and other fascinating pieces.

“Within this last 10 years, restaurants have started reaching out and trying to purchase locally made objects of all kinds,” Zaiden said. “California Cuisine is made throughout the world now and it’s come into its own. … A lot of what defines haute cuisine was happening in craft making for hundreds of years.”

It’s a feedback loop, she said pointing to the sushi craze that started in the ’80s as just one example. Chefs’ counters and display kitchens were a big part of the scene at sushi bars and that design made its way into mainstream dining rooms where it’s still popular today. Even dinnerware changed radically with the popularity of sushi.

Local chef Morihiro Onodera, former owner of Mori Sushi, turned ceramicist and helped kick start a new look in dishes that went beyond his own restaurant into dining rooms such as Providence, Mélisse, Orsa & Winston and others. “He came to appreciate how important the dishware was for the presentation of sushi and started making ceramics in the ’90s,” Zaiden said.

Onodera took a ceramics class and was inspired by Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959),  a Japanese calligrapher and ceramicist who had his own restaurant in Tokyo. “High quality ceramics? It was just presumed you would buy everything from Japan and now there’s a market here,” she said.

In top LA dining rooms, designs are artistic, materials sustainable, objects built to last. Artists and chefs are concerned with works that endure, not trendy pieces that are “in” one year and tossed out the next.

Zaiden gathered Eric Bost, chef/owner of Auburn restaurant, his wife and partner Elodie Bost, and designers of his furniture and tableware for an interview that turned into a conversation about the challenges of elevating restaurant decor and how important it has become in setting the stage for cuisine.

Bost could buy mass-produced china and furniture, but he prefers to support artisans with whom he can collaborate. “You’re creating an atmosphere for the guests to come and enjoy an experience,” Bost said. “So you need to surround them with objects of quality that match the style of the food.”

Ceramics on display in the exhibit include dinnerware from Auburn restaurant designed by Delphine Lippens of Humble Ceramics. Her sturdy cups, bowls and plates in neutral colors are simultaneously substantial and ethereal — these beauties are also dishwasher safe. She has set her artistic standard and every time she gets a commission, it’s a challenge to deliver unerring quality en masse.

“There’s a big difference between making one piece and making 200 pieces or a hundred pieces, even 50 pieces,” Lippens said. Sometimes she has to wait on raw materials; bacteria can ruin clay, and if she gets a bad batch it could be a month before a new one arrives. She’s also dependent on workers who press, sand and glaze to complete their jobs.

“If I say yes to something, I need to make sure I can deliver,” Lippens said. “And I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes it’s just better to say no.”

Beyond delivering an artistic product, collaboration means making sure what you offer suits the restaurant’s style. That’s a big part of the preliminary conversations between chefs and designers, said Jon and Maša Kleinhample of Klein Agency. “I think initially it’s about style for the style of service, the feel, touch, materiality,” Jon Kleinhample said. “How do you want the space  to read? How do you want your guests to inhabit it? How do you want them to feel when they’re in the space? Is it a space that feels like home or is it a space that feels like you’re in a restaurant? And I think Auburn was very much about being in a home and having the chef invite you into his personal space.”

Once the furniture arrives, chef and staff have to work the objects in, said Maša Kleinhample.  “A lot of things are so optimized; the way they fold, where they can go away and where they can beat against each other,” she said. “What’s tricky is that (our chairs) normally weigh more, so the servers and everybody who’s preparing the space get a little bit of a burden moving them around, having to handle them with a bit more attention.”

The chair on display is arresting, made in a silvery metal by Klein Agency, with a sleek, gravity-defying shape. It contrasts with another made for n/naka which is built with the simplicity of a Shaker stool, fitted with dove-tailed joints. It has a definite gravitas, fashioned into a broad throne-like structure from rich, chocolate-colored wood.

Furniture, linens, dishes and lights must all come together because, ultimately, it’s about the entire ensemble. Creating just the right restaurant decor is like composing a carefully detailed symphony that creates an inviting ambience, even if the diner is completely unaware of it, said Lippens.

“The alchemy just works together. When I walk into that space (Auburn), the smells work well, the concrete, the leather, the wood,” she said. “Most of the things that we take in internally we don’t realize we’re taking in, like the VOC’s, the volatile organic compounds. You know, he (Chef Eric Bost) is working with incredible ingredients that are non-GMO, organic, biodynamic and great quality. You can’t see that, but your body knows it.”

Consume: Handcrafting L.A. Restaurant Design

Find it: Craft in America, 8415 W. Third St., Los Angeles, 323-951-0610, craftinamerica.org/center.

Open: 12-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is free. The exhibit will be closed on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.

LA Daily News