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Helms Bakery: A Design Feast & Trip Down Memory Lane

The Helms Bakery Complex in Culver City offers a design feast.
The Helms Bakery Complex in Culver City offers a design feast.

If you’re looking for a furniture design feast, look no farther than the Helms Bakery complex in Culver City. While you’re there, you might even spot a celebrity – such as Diane Keaton, whose appreciation for art and design are well known.

The Helms Bakery, which operated from 1931 to 1969, was an institution in Los Angeles. A native Angeleno, I remember well the Helms trucks rumbling through my neighborhood, drawing residents out of their homes to buy loaves still warm from the oven, along with donuts, cookies, pastries and candies.

Now, it has been re-purposed into a warren of furniture showrooms, art galleries, restaurants and other retail outlets including the famed but now closed Jazz Bakery. Walter N. Marks, Inc. lovingly restored the historic structure and its famous rooftop signs when it purchased the building in 1974.

I recently met a friend there for a lovely lunch at La Dijonaise, after which we wandered through a few of the many huge furniture stores in the complex, admiring everything from fabulous chandeliers to chairs by top designers.

Our first stop was at Room & Board, where I quickly spotted an iconic Eileen Gray tea table (displayed as an end table) that is still fresh almost a century after she designed it. An Irish-born furniture designer and architect and pioneer of the International Style in architecture, she was unknown for many years until one of her exquisite lacquer screens came up for auction.

At H.D. Buttercup, we spotted a Tulip Chair designed by Eero Saarinen with Charles Eames. The Finnish-American designer, who didn’t like legs on dining room chairs, won first prize for the Tulip Chair in the "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" competition in 1940. Not only a famous furniture designer, he was with his father Eliel’s well-known architectural firm that produced such iconic structures as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the Jetsons-like TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. In Los Angeles, he worked with Eames on Case Study House No. 8 in Pacific Palisades.

At Arcana Bookstore, where we spotted Diane Keaton, we discovered a treasure trove of all kinds of books and other publications on art and design. We could have spent hours browsing through the huge collection. One of the books on the shelves was “Tony Duquette / Hutton Wilkinson Jewelry.” Having purchased one of Duquette’s iconic jewelry designs at auction, I searched through the pages to find a necklace similar to mine.

Duquette – the first and only American to be honored with a one-man show at the Louvre in Paris – worked with business partner and design collaborator Wilkinson for more than 30 years prior to his death in 1999. Aside from being a designer, he was a collector of everything from crazy kitsch to high-end style, items he displayed in Dawnridge, his West Hollywood Hills home. A term was even coined to describe the eclectic taste – “Duquetterie.”

A final treat was buying ice cream at a Helms Bakery Café wagon parked at the complex. A replica of one of the original Helms trucks, the vehicle – staffed by a friendly young man in a Helms uniform – was a nostalgic reminder of the bakery’s glory days. The young man gave us good news – a Helms Bakery will open in a space in the complex this summer, bringing back delicious baked goods and a sense of sweet nostalgia.

What more could a girl ask for?  (Perhaps an original Eileen Gray lacquered screen?)

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