Winging It: Migrating Vaux’s Swifts, SoCalWild, September, 2011

Only in the asphalt jungles of downtown Los Angeles can one witness the powerful and mouth-dropping mysteries of nature from atop a simple parking structure. And we’re not talking the leery-peeping-Tom, things-you-don’t-want-your-grandma-or kids-to-even-KNOW-about brand of wildlife. No, we’re talking authentic feathers, beaks, talons and razor sharp bird brains. Real-time 3-D wildlife.

The flight of the petite but speedy Vaux’s swifts from Southern Alaska to their Central America winter home is just as astonishing as the great migration of the wildebeests across the Serengeti-Mara plains – perhaps not as thunderous and with, thankfully for the observer, no chance of being trampled underfoot.

No, the only real danger of watching these amazing flappers take their evening roost in a single chimney of the nearby Chester Williams Building is that where there’s 14,000 birds overhead in one concentrated place, there’s bound to be some, er, um, “avarian leakage” frosting the scenery. (Forcyringoutloud, people wear a hat when you come to see them.)

Jeff Chapman, director of the Audubon Center at Debs Parks, has been tracking the movement of the birds with his fellow Auddy buddies up and down the coast. Determining when the birds will hit Los Angeles is an unknown science, but he generally expects the birds to reach their peak from the mid to late September on their southbound migration. This year is no exception with the small, cigar-shaped birds with crescent wings currently filling the sky at dusk amid a backdrop of skyscrapers, roaring helicopters and spewing busses.

Perhaps there’s a twinge of jealousy when Chapman talks about when the swifts roost at more bucolic locales. There’s Chapman Elementary School in Portland which boasts a dedicated website, volunteer swift spotters, and grassy beds for bird watchers.  “Here we have the city surrounding us,” he says noting that the urban grittiness only adds to the delight of seeing the thousands of birds circling overhead in a dance of pure instinct and primal drive. “We’re in nature all the time and sometimes we just don’t see it.”

Indeed, the spectacle gives pause to any causal non-bird watcher who unsuspectingly notices the kinetic cloud overhead. “Are those bats?” asks one parking lot patron who sees Chapman and a small group of birders sitting on folding chairs with heads cocked skyward and binoculars in hand. Chapman gives him the low-down. Twice a year, Vaux’s swifts pass through Los Angeles, but it’s only been two years ago they have been found using this spot for overnight housing. Chapman heard that folks used to see them use the abandoned old Nabisco Bakery near the Loft District, but that was years ago.

“There may be other places they roost in the city. We just don’t know,” he says adding that the next big roost for the swifts on their southbound journey is in downtown San Diego. “We know that they can make it from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one day.”

When not plunging into the chimney for the night where they will cling to the walls and keep each other warm, the swifts are extremely active eaters during the daylight.  Vauxies have voracious appetite for small flying insects, beetles and bugs, as they gorge themselves to keep up their strength for their travels. For anyone who’s swatted a fly or cursed a mosquito, these birds are your pals.

It’s nice to know that the swiftly-flying swifts are not technically endangered, but there is concern that many of their favorite man-made roosting centers are disappearing. With many old masonry chimneys being torn down, the birds are without adequate cover for the night and safe from predators, like the ravens that perch on the chimney top, picking off a swiftie evening snack. The birdwatchers on the parking lot roof see the ravens nonchalantly capture swifts and fly away with their prey for solitary dining.

“This is probably why swifts lay many eggs, because it helps their numbers when they migrate,” explains Chapman.

Still, it’s not hard to feel sorry for the few Vauxies that are snatched away; it’s easy to raise a shaking fist at the opportunistic ravens. After all, those black birds haven’t flown hundreds of miles in a single day – they just laze around trash cans or scoop up fallen food here on downtown’s Broadway Avenue. What do they know about sacrifice and endurance?

As the sun finally disappears and blackness settles in, the birds pick up the pace as they enter their nightly lodging. Suddenly, they swirl in unison, a giant whirlpool of feathers flapping, accompanied by small tweets and then, swoop! Down the chimney they zoom and in a flash, the sky is suddenly empty of swifts.

“People pay big money to see the whales migrate up and down our coasts,” says Chapman. “Well, here is another migration that is as equally as impressive that everyone can witness – and it doesn’t cost much at all.”

We agree. We also think that the swifts need a better creative marketing manager. After all, their cousin the swallow has songs, traditions and parades built up around their annual migration.  Musicians, now is your time. We challenge you to write that inspiring song that will tell this bird’s story. Get cracking. They are only here for a few more weeks.

The Audubon Center at Debs Parks will hold two organized public viewings of the Vaux’s swifts from 6 to 7:30 on Friday Sept. 23 and Sept. 30 atop Joe’s Auto Park at 440 Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. Parking is $3. Birdwatchers are encouraged to bring picnics, binoculars and something to sit on, plus head covering. Park on level just below the top, because if you park your car on top, it will get “painted” by bird poo. We’re not kidding.




Midcentury Marvelous, Arroyo Magazine, Sept. 2011

I love discovering people in my neighborhood, especially if they are folks who have an artistic bent and lean toward the retro sensibilities. For this month’s Arroyo Magazine, I met Highland Park furniture designer, David Johnson of Sidecar Furniture, a local Highland Park boy who is lost in the midcentury. I enjoyed an afternoon in his studio (aka garage!) and was impressed by not only his work, but his philosophy and dedication to his art. Did I mention he does cane weaving? You don’t see that everyday! Here’s the article:

Midcentury Marvelous

David Johnson of Sidecar Furniture takes us back to a time when furniture was in a delicious groove.

By Brenda Rees

There’s an informal saying amongst designers that creating a piece of furniture is akin to making a box. A simple box? Think about it: Whether it’s a couch, chair, table or bed frame, each piece is like an open cube, either a rectangle or square. Boil it down, and any piece of furniture is a really a plain old box in disguise.

While practically anyone can slap together a box, only someone with a spark and a glint can turn that simple box into a piece of high-end functional art that can be soul-satisfying today and decades from now. Consider Highland Park furniture designer David Johnson, designer/proprietor of Sidecar Furniture, who’s continuing a Southern California tradition of handcrafting practical objects like those artisans who practiced the Arts and Crafts techniques of a century ago. Johnson, however, is drawing on the ideals of a later period — the clean lines of midcentury modernism — and propping them up with 2011 sensibilities. Sidecar’s lines echo those sleek designs and riff on modern masters of the 1950s and ’60s, sometimes giving a nod to the’70s. Johnson’s low-slung Maria chair, composed of walnut with a cane seat and back, is a tribute to any of Hans J. Wegner’s classic woven chairs. Johnson’s turntable cabinet practically jumps out of a 1960s picture postcard, when every home had a swinging Zenith record player. His simple teak cabinet brings back the Scandinavian 1950s with panel details would make Kaare Klint – the father of Danish modernism – nod in approval.

“I feel more comfortable around old than new,” says Johnson, 43, from his home studio/workshop. A California Central Valley native, he cites his inspiration from varied sources: vintage motorcycles, black-and-white TV programs like The Andy Griffith Show, grand old cars, not to mention antique furniture which he collected and sold in his late teens and early 20s. “I really like a variety of art styles, especially art nouveau, but when I sit down to design, that’s not what comes out of me. My head and hands go completely another different way.”

Setting up shop in Southern California in 2008, Johnson brought with him clients from his early days as a furniture designer in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, but Southland folks are discovering and embracing his vision. “I met David at a recent Dwell on Design show and fell in love with his stuff,” says Brian Macken of Highland Park, who commissioned Johnson to build a lanky, low-slung bamboo TV console. “It’s the only piece of hand-made furniture I have in the house, and not one day goes by without me looking at it and thinking ‘That is so beautiful.’ This piece will be with me for the rest of my life and hopefully one of my kids will take it with them.”

In addition to annual design shows and Sidecar Furniture’s online photo galleries (, Johnson’s pieces, which range in price from $600 for a stool to $7,500 for the TV console, are showcased at WhyrHymer gallery in Hollywood. “David takes traditions and turns them on its head,” says owner Brandon Morrison, also a furniture designer. “What I really like is his caning; it’s something that’s not easy to do, and it complements his designs in a contemporary way. It’s just beautiful to look at.”

Indeed, Johnson’s weaving prowess — an homage to midcentury techniques — adds another layer to his furniture pieces, distinguishing them from a lot of other designers. A quick lesson: Very popular in 17th-century England, woven cane furniture was once favored in conservatories and dining rooms of the wealthy. Rattan saw its American heyday in the late 1800s, used in  settees, rocking chairs and cabinets. Weaving experienced its last wave in the chair design during the 1960s and ’70s. The four traditional weaving patterns include: the Danish cord pattern which uses tightly compressed paper or cane (the outer layer of the rattan palm); the sea grass pattern (popular for baskets); the rush pattern (typically done with cattails, paper rush or Danish cord); and the Shaker tape-and-wood splint, an over/under pattern used on early American and Shaker chairs.)

For all, weaving is a labor intensive process, says Johnson, who learned the basics from Jim’s Widess’ book The Complete Guide to Chair Caning. “I think the reason why [weaving] appealed to me is that I wanted my [furniture] to be a mixed media,” says Johnson. “This gives my work another level that you don’t see every day. It’s another voice.”

In addition to creating stools, chairs and door designs that feature woven elements, Johnson restores damaged woven furniture, sad pieces that all come to him with a story. “We had a full dining room set with 10 chairs from the 1950s, classic woven seats in need of restoration because we were hosting Thanksgiving that year at our house,” says Robert Puertas of Irvine. The chairs were stricken with frazzled and fragmented strands, and damaged and broken backs.

“Most of them you couldn’t sit in. We were going to tell people to not BYO beer but BYO chair,” says Puertas, who met Johnson at a design show.  Johnson came to his house, picked up the patients and in two weeks, returned them all in fine form. “Honest to goodness, they look practically new,” Puertas says. “He duplicated the pattern and did a beautiful job.”

(This fall, Johnson will be teaching his first-ever Danish cord-weaving class at Pasadena City College as part of its Extended Learning offerings. At presstime, the course was tentatively scheduled for Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, from Sept. 24 through Oct. 15.)

Johnson’s path to furniture design began at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County, where he studied art history before enrolling in the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program in Fort Bragg. Founded by Swedish furniture- maker James Krenov, who studied under the master woodworker Carl Malmsten, the school, says Johnson, reflects a distinct European influence on its courses, teaching methods and direction —  lessons that are engrained in Johnson’s work today. “We were instructed to slow everything down, pay attention to every move and detail,” he explains. “No short-cuts, no going quick or punching it up. Slow it all down and pay attention to balance, form and proportion as well as color and texture of the wood. Let nothing escape your eye.” Indeed, an intricate TV console can take as long as three months to complete.

After completing the intensive nine-month program, Johnson moved to Santa Cruz and joined an woodworking arts collective where he continued to develop his own style (“It was an idyllic setting overlooking a graveyard!”). From there, he took on a stint in San Francisco at a cabinet shop (“A great education in dealing with clients, sub-contractors, the practical stuff”) and another art collective, where Sidecar Furniture was eventually born. Along the way, he kept refining and honing his craft, inspired in part by the life work of woodworker extraordinaire Sam Maloof.

“While Maloof’s designs were – and are – widely copied, I think how he worked and developed his techniques most strike me,” says Johnson. “Maloof had really only a handful of techniques, but it’s how he played with them, enjoyed them and expanded on them — that’s how he was able to develop his own language with such artistry. That’s the Maloof that impresses me, and that’s what I am trying to follow with my art as well.”