A Mesmerizing Look at L.A.’s Most Eccentric Collections


n my experience, a collector reveals herself slowly and then with complete abandon, as if discovering the extent of the obsession herself. Ask if she has an army of similar things gathered purely for her own enjoyment and you might be greeted with bashfulness — a dismissive wave of the hand as she downplays a collection’s scope, scale or existence. Ask if you can see the collection, however, and in the presentation of it, a collector comes to life. Backstories, recollections and hard-earned discoveries swirl into a sense of pride as she looks over objects that, by their sheer volume, suggest a blatant disregard for the notion that acquisition should overlap with utility.

To look closely at cool collections we’d caught wind of in Los Angeles, photographer Maggie Shannon and I headed to a loft high above downtown, a beloved Mexican restaurant, a shelf of woebegone ceramic animals, a home with a high thread count and a closet that sparkles — literally. Like the city, they were a little bit Hollywood, a little bit old school and, also, charmingly weird.

Cassi Gibson, 29, Painter and Healer

Cassi collects rugs.

My partner Henry Taylor and I moved into a home in West Adams two years ago, and we put a rug in every room in the house. I even have rugs in the bathroom; I’m that kind of person. I would say we have about 25 in total, which we’ve collected from a dealer and from our travels. Most of the rugs are Turkish or Moroccan, and what I adore about both of those cultures is that they’re based on life at home. That’s something I try to embrace; hardly do I ever sit on furniture — we actually don’t have a couch in the living room — we just have rugs and we throw down pillows. I spent a little time as a studio assistant for Susan Cianciolo, and I remember her Chinatown apartment had minimal furniture and this one beautiful rug in the center with a bunch of pillows where we’d sit. It was just very cozy and kind of inspired the way I thought about how to live in a home.

It’s similar to African familial culture. I’m from Mozambique, and when you have a big family gathering, you lay out a mat made of something like raffia and sit on the floor. I think it just invites a different thinking than, “Let’s sit on the couch and watch a movie.” It’s more of a conversation piece; it feels like a different way of living. I just came back from a trip home and actually bought a couple of raffia mats with beautiful geometric shapes. I look at them through ethnomathematics, which very much informs the textiles of sub-Saharan Africa — down to the cloths, baskets and hair braiding.

As a painter, a lot of what’s interesting to me about rugs is incorporating the dialogue of what each represents into a room. I keep the walls white, so the rugs are almost wallpaper — they add a painterly quality. I’ve always believed the bedroom should be a place of celebration, excitement and romance. People are surprised when they see how my bedroom is: There’s bougainvillea coming in from the balconies, and I often have roses or peonies, in addition to bright carpets and pink bedsheets. There’s Turkish kilim on the wall with two lions and a sword, so I feel like there’s a duality between being a little fierce but with a sense of real liveliness. It invites me to be in the bedroom and open up a book and explore worlds. I can kind of get lost in the space rather than it being super white and simple.

I’d like the next rug I acquire to be from somewhere less common. I’d love to go deeper into rugs from Asia, or Tuareg culture in Africa.

Iris Alonzo, 38, Founder, Everybody World

Iris collects objects with faces.

I didn’t even realize it was a collection until it just kind of became one — I guess that’s how things happen. Starting from when I was about four years old, my grandparents would travel to a different country every year and bring me back a doll with a little personality and outfit. I put them in storage as I got older, but when I got my own place, my mom was like “Okay, it’s time for you to get these dolls.” About 60 of them sat in a box and I finally took them out about 10 years ago.

I didn’t even remember how beautiful they were. They’re not, like, creepy porcelain dolls – they’re small and funny, and because they’re all from the early ’90s, they have style from then too, which is kind of cool. They’re all consolidated into a little doll army over the doorway to my room — it’s very “It’s a Small World.” As a kid, I looked at them in a fantasy way, like, “Wow, these are from far-off lands!” Now I look at them like, “Oh, look how they’re put together!” The outfits they’re wearing are really inspiring — you look closely and a kimono or a serape is sewn together from factory scraps. And that’s something we’re into right now with Everybody World.

Then I realized: I have all of these other things with faces that are somehow compatible with these dolls! Chairs, pots, cups, vases; faces just bring a little personality to mundane, everyday things. The biggest faces that I have are those metal chairs that I found at the Rose Bowl flea market and I had powder-coated with bright primary colors. They’re very abstract-looking. I also have a jar for my utensils that has this really funny man’s face. He’s got a mustache and looks somewhere between comedy and fury. It’s from a thrift store, made by hand for sure.

My favorite mug is one I got from Ithaca, New York, at a strange little local crafts store. Everything was kind of country except this mug, which was almost Memphis — it has an unusual face with an angular nose and these eyes that stick out. Oh, and I forgot I moved a bunch of faces to my office! The faces are taking over my life. One of my favorite things is an acrylic sculpture that’s the silhouette of a man crying to the sky. It’s in front of the window and if it rains, it looks like water is pouring down his face.

The realization that I had this collection came after a cleanse of unfunctional things. Because I like objects and tactile interesting forms, I decided to make a rule for myself that everything has to have a function besides sitting on a shelf. I have a soft spot for these pieces, so I’m trying to find a balance between this weird affinity I have for inanimate objects and being a hoarder. How do you live between that?

Isa Beniston, 25, Artist

Isa collects sad animal figurines.

I definitely had a penchant for figurines when I was a little girl, and I played with plastic animals, probably out of some god complex. But my actual collection began two years ago with a little 1940s poodle that started it all. It was part of a pair I found at a thrift store, and its mate had this horrible stupid hat on its head, but his own hat had been broken off. He just looked so sad — he had no hat! I immediately bought him, leaving the one with the hat there. I was like “You’re fine, you have a hat, you don’t need me.” I took the hat-less one back to my studio and painted it, and realized it was fun because it was purely observational. Sometimes as an artist, you don’t want to think about what you’re going to paint. It was a nice jumping-off point.

The collection happened too fast. Right around the time I bought the one with the broken head, I found out I would be having a show in upcoming months. Leading up to it, I realized I was loving painting the figurines — they were kind of becoming my body of work. The moment I validated them as part of my artistic process, it became easy to validate them as purchases. Then it was a slippery slope. I started picking up ones that I could afford at estate sales or flea markets. I usually cap out at $10.

My solo show was all about pieces that were based on these figurines. They start with an observational sketch or painting and take on a life of their own. Some of them are unrecognizable by the time they’re in the painting, but I kind of know where they started. On the second floor of the gallery, I put each figurine that had prompted a painting on its own precious little ledge.

Ones from the 1940s and 1950s are my favorite — I think because most of these were hand-painted in a factory in rapid succession, and one flick of a paintbrush when you’re moving quickly can completely alter the expression. I’m a super-empathetic person, so if I see a figurine that has a really sad face, it just makes my heart break; it doesn’t matter that it’s an inanimate object. What I really love about them is that there’s this moment when you’re creating a drawing when a mark with your pencil will dictate the entire mood of the piece. The way you draw a dog’s mouth says everything: about what it’s doing and how it’s feeling, and how you’re feeling because you’re drawing that dog. My art is about capturing a mood, a moment, a feeling, and the figurines do that so well.

I haven’t wanted to count how how many I have, but I think it’s 100 tchotchkes and then 50 dumb-looking animals specifically. They’re all in my studio and it’s like I shop my shelf; I’ll take off three that I want to paint that day. At a certain point, I allowed myself to delight in them. I think that’s why old ladies have them — they’re just kind of delightful to look at. It’s a simple kind of joy.

Randi Molofsky, 39, Co-Founder, For Future Reference

Randi collects vintage sequins.

I think this started because I’m a lover of all things sparkly. I work in the jewelry business and I just couldn’t stop there — I continued to be a little bit extra in the clothing department. I like vintage sequins specifically because of the thrill of the hunt, the wackiness and finding them inexpensively. I’ve learned a few secrets along the way to avoid picking things that don’t feel like bad 1990s prom sequins. Most of the pieces I have are real vintage — there’s a weight to them, especially when it’s a mix of beads and sequins; they’re more structured and substantial and feel good to wear.

I’m also very into the 1970s and disco is my jam, so many of my pieces have a fun party vibe to them. And I love a 1920s look — not literally flappers, but a drop waist or something a little baggy. I’m really petite, so an oversize silhouette works for me; sequins that are fitted to the body can be a lot. I also like the more buttoned-up stuff of the ’60s, like my small collection of little jackets from a guy named Lawrence Kazar, who was a New York designer.

I get most of my pieces from Etsy, eBay and little vintage shops where there will be one rack of sequins. They’re cheaper there than online or in the bigger, fancier vintage stores because in real life, most people stay away from the sequin section. The amount of stuff I find for cheap is mind-boggling! I’m like: Who wouldn’t want to own this? Why is it only $15? But online is where the weirdos congregate, so it’s a little more expensive.

These give me a way to buy pieces that are unique for all of the dressy work events I go to. You kind of become the disco ball at the party, and people always want to talk about sequins. Right now, for example, people are asking me if pieces that I’ve had forever are Gucci because they’ll see a bow detail or a floral pattern. I have a lot of things in my closet that, when paired with a great shoe or the right bag, people think are new and expensive. It’s very satisfying.

I’ll also wear sequins during the day. I’ll wear my favorite shirt from the collection — the Oleg Cassini one with the tiger — with a good pair of jeans or a white pant. But I don’t think it’s too much to wear sequins all together. I’d wear that Cassini shirt with lamé.

I probably have 100 pieces of sequined clothing, shoes and bags, and I’ll reach for that section of my closet for all kinds of occasions. I have to do a lot of vacuuming — the sequins are everywhere, but that’s part of the charm.

Carlos Haro Jr., 68, Owner, Casablanca Restaurant, Venice

Carlos collects ephemera From the Movie Casablanca.

My father, Carlos Haro Sr., opened his restaurant on December 21, 1979. He’d moved to the States from Nogales, Mexico, where he’d had several businesses, and when he came here in 1959, he didn’t want to work for anybody. He started restaurants, including Casablanca, which used my grandmother’s recipes as the basis for the menu.

He named it Casablanca because he owned a movie theater in Mexico in the early ’50s and loved Humphrey Bogart, and he liked that the movie had a smart script with beautiful lines. But you know how people are — when you go to eat Mexican food, you expect everything to be Mexican — serapes and sombreros everywhere. People were confused by the restaurant — everyone thought it was Moroccan, especially because at first the seating was low to the ground. My father loved the idea that there were so many nationalities in Casablanca, and so he made the menu very international: escargot, pork chops from Germany. People would leave because they said it wasn’t Mexican, so one of the first changes he made was to teach the staff how to make the flour tortillas from northern Mexico, where I grew up. They’re what we’re known for. Gradually, the restaurant transitioned to tables and booths, we integrated more familiar Mexican food and customers also developed a wider understanding of what our native cuisine is.

I moved to the States in 1978 and came to work at the restaurant in 1981 when my father retired. That’s when I started collecting Casablanca memorabilia. People from the movie would come into the restaurant — Dan Seymour, who played Abdul the bouncer; Paul Henreid, who was Victor Laszlo; Leonid Kinskey, who played Sascha, and others. The first piece of memorabilia I brought into the restaurant was a poster I asked Kinskey and Henreid to sign. In 1984, Henreid, Kinskey and Seymour put their handprints in the floor tiles.

The life-size Humphrey Bogart took two years to make. I looked into having it made by a wax museum and they said I would need a very sophisticated system to keep it. So I found an artist from the Hare Krishna community in Venice who made it from fiberglass. It even has natural hair! In the beginning, I had him in the open, but people started putting tortillas on him, so I thought: Better to put him in a box.

I both seek pieces out for the collection and am also given things by customers. There’s a hat that’s a replica of the one Captain Renault wears in the film, which I got from a company that used to make props for old movies — it might be the original hat. I have sheet music signed by [Ingrid] Bergman and Bogart; a $5 bill signed by the cast; typewriters that were used for scripts; the original Oscars program when Casablanca won three awards; a chip from the casino scene in the film. There’s a copy of the movie’s infamous “letter of transit” with Victor Laszlo’s name. In the ’90s, I tried to buy the car from the movie, but someone bought it while I was waiting for the auction to start. It was affordable then — about $37,000. Now, I think it’s worth a half-million!

We’ve tried to create a feeling for visitors, and I think people come for the atmosphere. My wife told me I’d run out of space and have to put things on the ceiling, and there is, actually, a painting on the ceiling!

Photos by Maggie Shannon.

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