Westweek, the annual springtime showcase of interior design hosted by the showrooms of the PDC’s “Blue Whale” (the Cesar Pelli-designed building marks its fortieth birthday this year) kicks off today.
And one of its most genial hosts will be the always dandyfied Thomas Lavin, welcoming visitors since ten years to his large showroom, now displaying nearly 100 furniture, lighting and fabric lines, including the Christian Liaigre collection of luxury furnishings from Paris as well as a new line of high performance textiles created with his sister (and woven in the US) called Lavinder.
Lavin, who last year opened another showroom at the Laguna Design Center, is a Los Angeles native who got his start in interior design by accident; but, once in, he brought his family along with him and now runs the business with his sister, mom and cousin.
Jason Eldredge, branding strategist and self-described “bespoke music tailor” who has DJ’ed events for Lavin, spent a day with the designer and got some colorful stories about the nightmare experience that propelled him into design, the importance of family and why he “loves the showroom business so much.”
Jason Eldredge: Tell me about the genesis of your business.
Thomas Lavin: When I got out of college, I worked for a publicist and I was always blown away by the fact that at lunch or in front of clients, he was the most charming man you have ever met in your entire life. Elegant, poised, articulate.
Then when we got back to the office, he was like your mean alcoholic father.
I was the office manager and one day he wanted to move offices. We were at a point where we were just about out of office stationery, so I asked him if I should order more and he said, “of course you should,” as he threw something at my head. It was like working for the Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland.
So, I ordered the stationery and wouldn’t you know, the day that it arrived was the day we found out we were moving offices. So he said, “Goddammit! I can’t believe this! Why would you order the stationery?!” He was screaming, shouting, and throwing things again. So I quit. He said, “You can’t quit. You have to stay here until we move. We’ll make up. We’ll make something work and it will be fine.”
I was 25 years old and I figured I could be reasonable, so I said, “Okay, fine.” We moved the office, I got it all packed and after I placed the last box into the new space he took me outside and said, “You know what? You’re fired. You should just go work in interior design.”
So I did. I started working for an interior design firm making twelve dollars an hour, and I was so happy.
JE: Why did he recommend interior design? Did he somehow infer that you had a knack for it?
TL: He was a really frustrated interior designer himself and he hung out with a lot of really major players in that world. But, I honestly don’t know why he said it to me. It was so random and I just took him up on it. I got a job at a firm working as a runner and it was so fun just being in the milieu. It was a husband and wife team who operated out of their converted garage. They were doing extraordinary work and I loved the hum, the teamwork, and the intimacy of it. I thought: this is fantastic.
Then there was a recession. They laid me off, but soon after they rang me again to ask if I was interested in working in sales because one of their showrooms needed a sales person. I loved it. I moved to the top of the ranks and stayed there for about six years until I wanted to have a bigger experience.
And one day a gentleman approached me and asked what I did for a living. I immediately said, “I’m opening a showroom.” So, this guy said, “Great! I’ll help you.” As it turns out, he was renowned throughout the world for his interior design and furniture. His name is Gary Hutton. Any time I mentioned his name when pitching my showroom to other companies, it completely opened the door for me and everyone said, “Yes. We would be happy to partner with you.”
The final piece of the puzzle was financing the venture. The SBA will give you a loan for half of the money, but you have to come up with the other half. So, I showed the business plan to my family and I got a call from my dad who said, “This is fantastic. We’re going to back half of this.”
I was so shocked, because my father… you know… he probably still has his first communion money somewhere in his drawer.
So, phase one was complete and phase two was that I needed to look around Los Angeles for a space. The landlords at the PDC would not rent to me because I was just starting out, so I decided I would open on the street. I found a space and it wasn’t really in the right neighborhood and seemed like it was too big and too expensive, but I talked to the landlords and negotiated a rate and I got a lease. Then I went home and had a nervous breakdown.
It was $9000 a month and I thought there is no way that I can pay this rent, ever. I called my parents and I was absolutely hysterical and crying and my mom said, “Oh honey, just do it. You don’t want to be 65 years old and look back and think that you didn’t do anything with your life.” So I signed the lease, I opened with a few lines and went from being the top sales person at the best showroom in town, to the new kid on the block. It was so hard to get people in. I was constantly on the phone and on the road like a snake oil salesman in 1855. . . and that was the beginning.
JE: Was the seed of a budding designer was present in you at an early age, or was it really just this tyrannical boss presenting an idea from out of left field and then that’s what you did?
TL: Well, you know, when I was kid I was always moving furniture around in my room and I really wanted to be a fashion designer, which is why I am always overdressed. But, yes— I used to always draw. I went to UCLA initially for music and then I applied for fashion school, but it felt a little bit too edgy. So I stayed at UCLA and got my degree in Art History.
You know, the thing that is always so interesting about my business is that people always think that I am a designer and I’m really not. I’m a merchant and I’m a sales organization. We sell beautiful things and I hope that I have been developing my eye over the past twenty years to continually refine, focus, and seek out what I think is new and interesting. But, at the end of the day, my job is about pushing product, representing the people that I carry— furniture lines and textile manufacturers— and selling them properly in the territory. I am surrounded by incredibly talented designers and it is a collaborative affair.
If anything, when I was a kid I used to always play office and we would bring home old file folders, old ten-keys, anything that was an office supply. We would sit in the backyard— my brother and sister and I— I was the boss and they would always work for me. So today, of course my sister is now my CFO, she is my second-in-command, and we always laugh about how we have recreated our childhood.
JE: And your mom and your cousin Alex [Irvine] both work with you as well.
TL: Yes, my cousin Alex who is the best graphic designer in Southern California. I should say, none of them are with me because they are in my family; they are with me because they perform their jobs better than anybody else I know. It’s the great joy of having family and also having people who are incredibly capable.
In regards to my own upbringing, my grandparents were very sophisticated, they entertained a lot, and they had a very important house. I was fortunate enough to be the oldest grandchild, so I got to have experiences with them more than my brother and sister did. They had silver-flow walls in their entryway, they brought an artist over from Japan to paint on it and these stories always inspired me greatly. My grandfather worked at Disneyland as the COO. He was an original designer of the park and one of the founders there, so he would talk to me about the background of things and to this day, I am always fascinated by what happens in the background and behind the scenes of any kind of experience. Whether it’s the background of how a business operates, or the background of what it means to run a house.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
So DnA asked Thomas what keeps him doing what he’s doing.
DnA: Did you ever consider moving out of the PDC?
TL: We’ve been there for 10 years and I considered moving out and decided at the end of the day it is the design center and having showrooms under one roof is a good thing. Designers still want to go somewhere singular. When showrooms opened on La Cienega, it was tricky because customers wanted a one-stop experience.
Also, the PDC is an internationally recognized structure that brings people from around the world looking for high end furnishings.
DnA: What are you focusing on now?
TL: I’ve moved from doing interiors and am working on products. The showrooms are my primary focus. I started a proprietary company with my sister, high performance materials for outdoor use but with an interior color palette. The line is called Lavinder.
DnA: Why have you moved from designing interiors?
TL: I didn’t want to do design — it takes so much attention and energy. I have become more of a merchant than a designer; I love the showroom business so much.
TH: I love the relationships I’ve forged throughout the last 15 years. And I love the evolution of how its changed over the last 15 years.
If you are an entrepreneur you can watch your own growth and I see how I’ve grown from the year before, and how it informs my client relationships, my business relationships.
TH: Staff would tell you they can’t believe how calm I’ve become. Westweek presents challenges and now if there’s a problem, I’ll just say, there, I’ve handled it. Nobody died.
DnA: What’s the main thing you’d like to tell people?
TH: I think one of the things that’s so important is that people remember the difference between retail and “to the trade” and how important it is for people to hire designers. The public should keep in mind that — if it’s within their means — using a designer is a wonderful experience that can save them time and money. So often a consumer will buy through retail outlets and wind up with a disaster.