Los Angeles

Jennifer Golub and Let There Be Dragons

Bus in front of Chiat Day building by Benny Chan.

I first met Jennifer Golub in 1998 when we attended the funeral of Swiss architect Albert Frey, who had died at age 95 after a career spent mostly in Palm Springs, helping define that city's midcentury, desert Modernism. We expected a mournful event but bonded over a moment of hilarity when we found ourselves at a table of octogenarian ladies, fighting over which one of them had been Frey's true girlfriend.

At the time Golub was a producer at TBWA\Chiat\Day LA advertising agency, directing such signature branding projects as Apple's Think Different campaign. But she had found time on the side to create a monograph of Albert Frey's work. Golub, a dark-haired, gregarious mix of motherly and culturally savvy, had come from New York a few years earlier, and, as a newcomer to L.A., had gone in "search of an art world and it was the world of architecture that I stumbled on and that has been my passion ever since."

Fast-forward almost 15 years and I meet Jennifer again. She is back from a decade spent in the Bay Area at the San Francisco office of TBWA, and now she is sitting at a desk inside a large black bus, emblazoned with a red dragon, that is parked in the lot of the agency's offices in Playa Vista.

The bus represents the fusion of Golub's love of architecture and of working on extra-curricula projects. It is both the home, and part and parcel of the branding for a company she has created with her TBWA\Chiat\Day partners, called Let There Be Dragons (LTBD). The name is a call to arms and play on the phrase "Here Be Dragons," found on ancient exploratory maps, and its stated goal is to draw on the untapped creative ideas of the staffers at the agency, as well as some talent from outside.

Bus with awning. | Photo: Walton Chiu

"We have a deep bench of talent at the company and many have deep and wide interests over above what they do," explains Golub. "Very few people have the time and the ability to bring something to fruition so this is their opportunity to get a passion project made."

She describes LTBD as an "independent content studio, working in partnership with TBWA LA, that will curate concepts that cross all mediums: films, TV, apparel, products, games, Apps, books, events. We are open-minded to anything that intrigues us."

Colleagues pitched ideas and some were selected for development. While specifics about projects are under wraps, she says they were drawn to personal stories, such as the colleague with "an entire garage of films and materials" relating to a famous parent of his, "so we've attached him to renowned screenwriter and we will tell that story." Also in production is a TV series, a little product that is "goofy and fun," a digital App and a book with a corresponding product and exhibition. "This," she says, "is what we do for brands all the time.. their identity, their packaging, their print, television, digital and social media. Now we get to do it for ourselves; it is really thrilling."

With an acute appreciation for the power of a strong brand, Golub did not take the choice of a location for LTBD lightly, and the bus was, literally, bound up in the rollout of the company this May. As an indie start-up, she says, they wanted an economical space, "that would be close to the office but independent of it; I considered prefab, an airstream, a yurt. But then we stumbled on the idea of this bus."

"It's a very LA thing," continues Golub, "whenever you see film a crew there's line-up of trucks and there is always one vehicle that we refer as The Moho - that's a motor home and it's the heart of any job when you go out and film. They are double-wide RVs, filled with desks and provide a very efficient way of working. I thought why don't we get one of those."

They found a company in Nashville, Tennessee, that sells buses that have been put out to pasture, many of which had served as touring buses for bands, and "that's when we stumbled on a bus that had served as campaign bus for both John Edwards and Mitt Romney."

Bus interior. | Photo: Walton Chiu

The highly amusing idea of the leather seating having warmed the bottoms of two of America's slickest-haired politicians is hard to shake from ones mind on entering the 40-feet long, steely black bus; a quite different kind of "dragon" comes to mind. But at the same time its earlier occupants prove quite hard to envision because the interior of this bus has been transformed into such a clean and honest space.

Golub enlisted architects, Standard, an emerging L.A. firm helmed by Jeffrey Allsbrook and Silvia Kuhle, designers of elegantly crafted, understated storefronts, residences and arts spaces. Allsbrook decided to focus the limited budget on a few key features, the main one being the transformation of a rusting ceiling with a draped headliner. This they rebuilt and finished as a barrel vault lined with slender oak strips, then added a lighted valance and cleaned up the existing granite floor. They replaced fabric walls with walnut panels and they got rid of existing armchairs but kept the booths. The finished product has the feel of a custom-made yacht, with its curving ceiling, finely detailed joinery and efficient use of every square inch of space. On the exterior the imagery is more fiery - thanks to the swirling red dragon image painted by local tattoo artist, Jason Schroder.

Though vehicular and not a building, the bus fits, as Golub sees it, in Chiat/Day's tradition of adventurous work spaces, dating back to the infancy of the agency, when founder Jay Chiat picked a little-known Frank Gehry to design both his temporary and permanent offices in Venice (the permanent office on Main Street, framed by Claes Oldenburg binoculars, and now occupied by Google, was conceived as a virtual office years before smartphones and notepads made the concept truly viable); he singled out Rem Koolhaas to design his London office and Gaetano Pesce for the New York space. Later, innovative work place architect Clive Wilkinson created the present TBWA LA office in Playa Vista and Marmol Radziner designed the San Francisco office (now closed).

Bus in TBWA LA parking | Photo: Benny Chan

While the bus currently spends most of its time in the Playa Vista parking lot, where LTBD's small staff works in the bus, eating lunch under its canopy, it does occasionally venture out, most recently to an event at Arcana's new store in Culver City. Plans are underway for future expeditions to film shoots and to locations where it will host events. "We love the fact that it's mobile and we feel that it's quite a poetic thing to have that vehicle in LA, it aligns us with LA culture."

The entire LTBD project - its office and its editorial direction -- seems also to align with a broader trend in LA, not to mention global, culture; namely, the at times controversial (if you are following the fascinating fuss surrounding Jeffrey Deitch's direction of MOCA) fusion of high and low culture, of fashion, art, design, music and commerce. One also wonders -- after watching several seasons of jaded (M)ad men -- if for all its advertizing creativity, TBWA/LA's staffers simply yearn to apply their skills to something other than pushing product.

That is not how Golub interprets it. "The fact is," she says,"that in advertizing we employ some of the best and brightest talent in the world: artists, directors, designers, musicians, hugely talented conceptual thinkers. Just like Man Ray did publicity photographs for print, the fact is their DnA is that of artists."

Their DnA is also one of marketers (de rigeur, it seems, in order to succeed as artists) but even the savviest brand developers could not have predicted the convergence of events around the rollout of Let There Be Dragons: both the Chinese Year of the Dragon, and an election season co-headlined by a famous former occupant of their bus. "I wish I could say I planned it," says Golub, with a rollicking laugh.


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Top Image: Bus in front of Chiat Day building. | Photo: Bill Hornstein

About the Author

Frances Anderton is the host of DnA: Design and Architecture, monthly on KCRW and KCRW.com. She is also a full-time producer of KCRW's national and local current affairs shows, To The Point, and Which Way, LA?. In addition, Ms. A...
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