Raoul Benassaya brought his furniture restoration

skills from paris to L.A., where his rapidly growing firm

counts tom cruise and michael eisner among its clients

Raoul Benassaya grew up on a cobblestone street in Paris that was home to a strip of furniture makers and restorers. As a teen-ager, he served as an apprentice to his mother, whose family has been crafting handmade furniture for more than 100 years.

That kind of background is rare in the age of Ikea, and rarer still in Los Angeles, which helps explain why Benassaya's company Classic Design has proven so popular among high-end furniture buyers. The company's revenues have jumped from $369,000 in 1993 to a projected $1.8 million in 2000.

"No, no one does that kind of work here. He's a master," said sales rep Patty Niedermeyer with giant furniture maker Knoll International. "He does museum-quality antique work as well as 20th century restoration, which is what we use him for."

L.A.'s booming economy and focus on fine living have encouraged people to spend heavily on decorating and furnishing their homes. With more people entering the millionaire (and billionaire) clubs, Benassaya's work is increasingly in demand.

A feel for antiques

Benassaya is especially unusual because he can restore and reproduce furniture from the 17th through the 20th centuries.

"He's just a very gifted craftsman," said Rick Irving, director of interior architecture at Richard Meier and Partners, the architecture firm for the Getty Center. "He's one of the best, if not the best, source for this kind of work."

Classic Design has restored numerous pieces of furniture in the Getty Center collection, and created all of the museum's original public and gallery furniture, wall coverings and drapes.

Benassaya also designs and restores furniture for Hollywood stars and executives like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Kevin Costner, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. He created and restored much of the furniture for Gucci creative director Tom Ford's Westside house, built by Richard Neutra in the '50s.

Although many customers rely on him for classic European furniture, Benassaya specializes in and prefers modern and contemporary furniture, like restorations of the wire Charles Eames chairs and the oversized square chrome and leather tufted Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair.

Benassaya's love for all things old is evident when a 17th century Louis XIV reclining chair comes into the studio and he minutely ponders its movable iron arms, wooden legs and aged, fraying tapestry. He mentally ticks off what he will need to do to restore the chair, like replace its horsehair innards and its burlap ribbing in the back, and sew and repair the tapestry cover, using the same processes used 400 years ago.

At the same time, he assesses what he will not restore. "Of course, you have to keep some of the imperfections. If you start repairing too much, like with the tapestry on this chair, it will lose its personality and its history," Benassaya said.

A walk around Classic Design's 11,000-square-foot studio reveals shelves upon shelves piled high with chairs, settees and sofas, dating from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

Coming to Los Angeles

Benassaya first considered leaving Paris in the 1980s, when he found he was coming more often to the United States and particularly Los Angeles to restore fine homes and furniture. He was finally talked into moving here in 1986 by clients.

When he arrived here with his family, they only had one car between them a 1973 Monte Carlo. He got a bike and tooled around town handing out business cards to some of the French design firms around town. "But I was turned down by the French snobs," he said.

The Benassayas couldn't afford to buy a pickup truck, so he would deliver furniture orders on top of the Monte Carlo and park a block or so away so his fancy customers wouldn't see the car.

One day he walked around the Pacific Design Center and stepped into Knoll International's office to give them his card. The folks at Knoll were impressed that he and his mother had worked on Knoll chairs in the '50s and '60s, so they sent him two Tulip chairs to be restored and reupholstered. He finished the job for $50 each, got two more orders the next week, and has been a regular for Knoll ever since.

The biggest challenge for the business has been hiring new employees. At first, Benassaya only hired expert workers from France, but he says they expected to be treated like kings and complained about American food too much. A Latino worker showed up at his door and offered his services, and Benassaya discovered that the skill could be taught. That employee has been with the company for more than 10 years now.

"I'm a pain in the neck," Benassaya admits. "Everything has to be perfect."

SPOTLIGHT

Classic Design

Year Founded: 1986

Core Business: Custom-designed furniture, upholstery and drapes, and restoration and repair of antique furniture

Revenue in 1993: $369,000

Revenue in 1999: $1.2 million

Revenue in 2000: $1.8 million (projected)

Employees in 1993: 8

Employees in 2000: 17

Goals: To produce classic modern furniture, like the fine furniture Hermes was doing in the '20s

Driving Force: Increasing demand for high-end furniture

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