The Designer’s Travel Guide to Los Angeles

As with any affair of the heart, you have to love the other person for who they are: Surrender yourself to Los Angeles, and it’ll change your life. Wide-open horizons, endless freeways, every cultural offering you could hope for, and all that fairy dust that still sticks to everything from the heyday of the movie and music industries. What’s not to love?

Granted, if you’re used to the magic of the New York subway, you’re in for a tough transition, but I’ve always felt that a ride on a Southern California freeway is one of life’s great meditative pleasures. Put on your sunglasses, scan the radio dial for a good tune, and enjoy the scenery as it zooms past. (Offer not valid between 7 and 10AM, 5PM and 8PM, or on the 405.)

The romantic core of Los Angeles is formed by the fact that most Angelinos weren’t born here. They have chosen to come to L.A. to achieve something. There are no strict generational caste systems that define so many other great cities. L.A. demands only the shallowest of roots to feed you. If you have a dream (or better yet, a plan) this is the place for you. Much like New York, Los Angeles runs on ambition and desire. Except there’s a bit more space here and a lot more sunshine, so we can pretend that we’re more relaxed about it all.

The Design Community
The local graphic design industry reflects this. There’s no deeply entrenched structure. Locally prominent studios produce great work for decades—before, during, and after their moments in the spotlight. Even established powerhouses wax and wane as they work for their close-ups. There are no established checkpoints you have to pass to get great jobs. You might get discovered interning at Imaginary Forces, or by simply doing work on your own and posting it on your website. The market is remarkably egalitarian and rewards talent compared with the willingness to work harder over connections.

Of course, the local design scene is also entirely balkanized. Design for the music industry is separate from the motion picture and television industries. Interactive and game design, design for cultural and non-profit clients—everybody works in their own little circles. The physical size of Los Angeles makes it difficult to get together socially.

The Los Angeles chapters of AIGA and the Graphic Artists Guild provide two solid social hubs, though they cater primarily to general practitioners that aren’t firmly entrenched in one particular industry. Events put on by the prominent local art schools Art Center, CalArts, and Otis also serve to connect parts of the community. Overall the local scene remains loose, which also means that it’s easy to find your way in.

Where to Stay
If you’re planning a trip to Los Angeles, your hotel choices are legion. Depending on your budget, you might want to stay at the Chateau Marmont for a taste of Hollywood history and some very current star sighting. Or go across the street to the Mondrian or the Sunset Tower Hotel. If that’s a bit too stratospheric for your budget, try the Standard Sunset or Standard Downtown hotels, or the Farmer’s Daughter Motel across the street from the Farmers Market on Fairfax. All come with their own hipster scenes. Unless you have to impress somebody while you’re here, I’d suggest finding a decent chain hotel and saving your money to buy some fabulous shoes at Fred Segal on Melrose Blvd.

Where to Eat and Drink
For dinner, take a look at AMMO on Highland. The food is delicious, and the atmosphere is minimalist-swanky without being annoying. The desserts are outstanding. Try Mexico City on Hillhurst for some great Mexican food and (I’m told) great margaritas. For an after-hours nosh turn to Swingers on Beverly Blvd., which offers excellent diner food served by shockingly cute Suicide Girl escapees from 6:30am until 4am. Between 4am and 6:30am you can always find refuge at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax. The lighting isn’t flattering, and the food is… let’s call it “down to earth”… but I’ve always found the vibe of the place entirely comfortable and low-maintenance. Which is really what you want past 4AM.

Bars are not my forte, as those tend to be my prime working hours. That said, you can’t beat the 360-degree city view at the Standard Downtown rooftop bar, which also features waterbed pods and a lit pool. The bar does draw the L.A. equivalent of a bridge and tunnel crowd, but it’s entirely tolerable if you’re with friends. For more Golden Age of Hollywood refreshments, make your way to the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard, or—if you’re not one for frills—to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Blvd. (next to the Pantages Theater). You can pretend you’re Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential. The neon sign is worth the trip. In the downtown area, get dressed up in your finest tailored threads and climb down the stairs to the Edison in the basement of the Higgins Building at 108 W 2nd Street #101 and imagine yourself in a glamorous 1920s speakeasy.

Where to Shop
You’ll find the best designer shopping at Giant Robot and its sister shop GR2, both on Sawtelle. Also swing by the Tim Biskup store in Old Town Pasadena for everything Biskup. The store is hidden in the back room of Johnson Motors at 36 W. Colorado Blvd., #7 Mills Place Alley, Pasadena, CA. 91105 (closed Mondays). Don’t miss a trip to the aforementioned Fred Segal store on Melrose Ave. Prepare to marvel as you feel the fabrics and gasp at the prices. Look out for Beck. Across the street is the beautifully pink Paul Smith store that’s always a pleasure to browse through. If you want to stock up on Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood fashions your best bet is the otherwise horrendous Beverly Center at the corner of Melrose and La Cienega. But if you can afford McQueen and Westwood, buy in New York or fly to London and do it right.

What to Do and See
Now, you ARE in Los Angeles. Do the Los Angeles things you know you’ll want to do: Pack your cynical self into a duffel and go to Disneyland already. It’s great. Disney’s been doing this for 53 years and they’re damn good at it. Just surrender yourself to the experience. If you can, go on a weekday. If you go alone, bring a book and the lines will fly by. Going to Disneyland on your own is very Zen. Universal Studios are worth doing once, just so you can laugh at the shark and go on the Simpsons ride. It also lets you marvel at the mall cheese overload that is Universal Citywalk. Screw it. You’re here. Have some boba. Try not to think so much.
And go to the beach already. It’s the Pacific Ocean, the edge of the continent! Next stop Hawaii. Go at sunset. Pay your respect to the cheap showiness of nature. Also, don’t miss the recently and beautifully renovated Griffith Park Observatory. It’s the best view you’ll ever have of all of Los Angeles from Pasadena to the beach and everything in between, including the Hollywood sign. Not to mention all the excellent exhibits and a close-up look at our celestial neighbors through their giant telescope. It was good enough for James Dean, it’s good enough for you.

Most importantly, make it a point to see the L.A. Philharmonic at Disney Concert Hall. I don’t care how you feel about classical music. You’ll have to trust me here. Go. See. Hear. This is one of the great musical spaces in the world, and you get to see it used by the orchestra it was built for. The L.A. Phil in full swing is the Breath of God. (And you’re getting this from an agnostic.) Get your tickets early in the day, spend the day across the street at MOCA, then board Gehry’s glorious spaceship. See you on the other side!

Have a brilliant time in Los Angeles!

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