By Anna Hoeschen.
If you grew up driving down Sunset Boulevard, running your toes along the edge of the Pacific, or exploring L.A.’s neighborhood haunts, you’d learn an endurance—an appreciation impervious to Hollywood veneer. In a city known for its sparkle and smog, you’d see clear skies and soft subtleties. As a native Angeleno, Leslie Shapiro Joyal loves her city and its people. Her refined eye and shrewd taste—an unrivaled ability to see straight to the heart of things—is evidenced by the big, bold and architecturally inspired designs she creates at Shapiro Joyal Studio.
Leslie can trace the origins of her design eye back to childhood: “My mother was a collector of both European antiques and local art, much of it from the 60s, and I spent a great deal of time with her in her hunt for pieces. It gave me a broad knowledge of styles, techniques and quality, and most of all, a love for fine design.”
Leslie can also pinpoint the compilation of images that inspired her to consider furniture design: a Versace ad with “gorgeous models sitting on big, raw blocks of wood.”
Then, a vocal revelation about her future career came unexpectedly at the supermarket. When a clerk asked 18-year-old Leslie what she was going to do after graduating, she responded, “I’m going to design furniture!” Reflecting on the moment, she says, “I honestly don’t remember what motivated me to say it, as I had had no prior ambitions before that. I had been a painter and wanted to pursue art.
If she could do it again, Leslie would also have studied architecture, but—as big fans of her work—we’re thrilled she found her niche in furniture. Her designs are steady and harmonious, and they strike a nearly impossible balance between airy and clean, delicate and strong. Finding that balance is hard to do, but it’s something at which she’s practiced.
Since opening her studio in 1998, Leslie has been getting her hands dirty by designing furniture, growing a business, and raising two daughters. Baffled clients would watch an eight-months-pregnant Leslie emerge from behind her desk, and would realize just how committed she was to her work. Those reactions, she says, were priceless.
We talk about the way spaces evoke a feeling and how objects become tactile memories: “I’m often surprised at how dismissive people can be of furniture. Sometimes, when they’re lucky, they realize it does matter. You can see the emotions good furniture evokes for them, how it opens them up, and then they want more…perhaps a painting, then a rug…”
Leslie remembers her mother’s assemblage of six separate furniture pieces that became a sculptural couch in their living room, spanning about 22 feet. They had to knock down a plate glass window to get the whole thing in the living room. Her mother was charmingly inventive and unconventional in that way.
As a dancer, a painter, a designer, a mother, wife, and entrepreneur, Leslie proves that—like her predecessor—when there’s a will, there is, most assuredly, a way.
Describe who or what inspires your designs. My designs are inspired by a mixture of things: the American Shaker designers that focused on practicality and local resources, the restrained elegance of Japanese designers, and the modernist designers of last century that changed the landscape of furniture design. Some of my favorite designers include Andrée Putman, Isamu Noguchi, Frank Gehry, Carlo Scarpa, Hans Wegner, Antonio Citterio, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake. The furniture of designer Chris Lehrecke is a huge inspiration—his eye is so refined. I also love interior designer Michaela Scherrer’s work—simply beautiful.
Have you had any memorable collaborations or experiences with a particular client? One of my most memorable collaborations was the creation of my first commissioned piece in 1994. It was a dining table. I was so excited, I danced around the wood shop and the carpenter looked at me like I was out of my mind. The tabletop incorporated a Chinese temple door into the center. There were four panels to choose from, each offering a poem about a season. We used the door that represented Winter, because the writing was so beautiful. My Chinese friend translated the poem for me. Before beginning fabrication. I made a life size model of the table out of cardboard, so the clients could road test it. They were as excited as I was. It was a great success, and I still have a part of the original temple door as a souvenir.
You’ve been making sustainable furniture all along. How does it feel to see that demand surface? When I opened the shop, my goal was fairly simple: design and create beautiful, minimal furniture of heirloom quality. To achieve this, I needed to be an integral part of the process. This demanded that resources and fabricators remain close and local. In addition, the purist side of me favored hand-applied finishes for their elevation of the material. Both of these strategies were challenging in my early years, because people were used to mass-produced items which cost less, often with a heavier finish, which supplied more protection. It has been many years, but the thinking has indeed changed. People are tired of buying low-priced furniture and throwing it away after little use. They like the idea that an item has been created locally. There’s been an embracing of the well-thought-out, handcrafted piece because it leaves the user with a sense of connection.
As an artist, the ultimate goal is to have your work appreciated and lovingly enjoyed for a long time. The model I put into place over 16 years ago has finally gained a level of acceptance, and that’s really gratifying to see.
What are five things that define you?
My solid wood designs and watercolor paintings
My awesome daughters and husband
My love of 60s ceramics and Japanese pottery
Photos by Leslie Shapiro Joyal.