Corporatised and anodyne 25 years ago, LA has since undergone a creative renaissance that today presents a city of uniquely progressive cultural confidence. Artist, designer, craftsman and bad-ass barber Dax Savage arrived just in time to watch it all unfold.
“When I first moved to LA, at the end of the Nineties, it was kind of dead,” says Dax Savage, “a creative wasteland. Everyone I knew would laugh about LA being ‘gross’ and how nobody would dream of living there. It had become so corporate. All the fun, rock’n’roll stuff from the Seventies and Eighties was long gone. But even though all that was true, the city resonated with me somehow straightaway.
“I’d been living in New York for a year, trying to get into modelling and acting, and that summer I’d gone to my first Radical Faeries gathering, a Beltane celebration in Tennessee, and met a guy who lived in Venice Beach. I followed him out here to explore that relationship, and liked the light, the sun, the big open sky. Nowadays, pretty much all my friends from New York and Seattle, where I lived before, have moved here. They joke that I was the pioneer.”
As such, Dax’s timing was on point. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the first vibrations of a new underground culture began to thrum, a culture in which Dax, already an accomplished self-reinventor, felt right at home. To give himself an edge at auditions, he had learnt circus skills and how to make his own outlandish costumes, proficiencies that could hardly have prepared him better for the countercultural revolution that was about to catch fire in his adopted hometown.
“The Burning Man festival had so much to do with it,” he says. “It was getting really big at that time, and was a huge influence on so many people on the West Coast. So suddenly there was this whole punky, circusy, vaudeville thing going on, and underground parties and warehouse raves with loads of crazy performances started happening in Hollywood, which had been dead for years. All these creative people started moving in, everybody was a performance artist or a musician or a maker. It was really DIY, a rejection of the polished, corporate vibe that had kind of put the city to sleep.”
It was a DIY ethic Dax had been surfing long before he arrived here. Growing up in a poor working-class family in Twin Falls, Idaho, one of three boys raised by a single mother, he had from infancy loved drawing and making things. He would fashion jewellery from found objects, notably the discarded antlers and horns which were to be found in abundance in his rural, hunting-crazy little town. Years later, as an early-20s raver living in Seattle, he started making himself jewellery from cheap metal hardware-store items and leather, earning him endless dancefloor compliments – and his first orders.
Forming an alternative circus troupe with friends once in LA, he started making his own costumes, as well as more jewellery, and was asked more and more to replicate his pieces, or make custom designs, which playfully fused influences from religion to wilderness to retro sci-fi to Native American with a cool, classic rock’n’roll sensibility. And so his first business venture as a maverick maker was born – “completely organically. I don’t know what I’m doing, never have. I just roll with it”. A client list which today includes Debbie Harry, Lenny Kravitz, Matthew McConaughey and the wardrobe department of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, suggests this MO is working for him. “And I was a shit actor anyway.”
Like more and more creative people moving to the city, Dax was drawn to its less-polished eastern neighbourhoods, both for their cheaper rents and their sense of ungentrified creative possibility. Areas such as Silver Lake, Los Feliz and historic but dilapidated Downtown suddenly bristled with youthful creative expression and the palpable desire to build something new. And this migration continued to fuel the city’s transformation and, before long, to remake its cultural horizons. Fine artists who, shivering in their tiny New York garrets, had for years sneered at the West Coast’s perceived vacuousness began to flock here for the comparatively capacious and comfortable spaces they could rent cheaply (a phenomenon predictably long since mothballed by voracious gentrification) and the increasing numbers of savvy gallerists who sensed that LA’s moment was coming.
Music, too, shook off the city’s 1990s hair-rock ghosts to forge a progressive, experimental and collaborative new scene that reappraised and passionately embraced the city’s eclectic multiculturalism. And with the advent of streaming somewhat democratising the film and TV industries that Hollywood had always felt entitled to dominate, it was at last the turn to succumb of the other great artistic frontier in this megalopolis of multi-million-dollar homes – high-end interior design.
“Today, there are galleries and design showrooms everywhere,” says Dax. “Eve. Ry. Where. There used to be specific art districts – and Downtown’s Arts District is really thriving, even though parts of Downtown became rough again after so many people left during the pandemic – but now it’s all over the city. I saw some cool installations at the Hammer Museum the other day – they show fantastic contemporary work. The Broad, too, is a great spot for fine art. On the design side, I’m excited that Coup D’Etat in Beverly Hills just took some of my baskets. They have amazing functional pieces, and artists I admire.”
“While the days of cheap rents and underground raves are gone, the new cultural openness and cross-pollination that have powered LA’s latest resurgence seem irreversible and are a source of huge pride across this revitalised city.”
Now very much a Dax Savage signature, stunning, sculptural baskets woven around antlers as handles entered his repertoire eight years ago, after his mum Margaret made one in a craft class back home in Idaho. Dax had it, filled with fruit, on his dining table when an interior designer friend “said, ‘I could totally sell those’. So I got my mom to give me a five-minute lesson, then started making them, with my own twist. I rock’n’rolled them, I guess. I gave three to my friend and he sold them right away, for more money than I could have imagined.”
It’s a mark of how much the new LA has embraced the maverick creativity of Dax’s generation that when the achingly cool Siglo Moderno design gallery opened a spectacular new showroom in a deconsecrated 1930s Spanish Colonial church in Silver Lake, it launched with an exhibition of Dax’s work. And when we speak, Dax has just heard, with some excitement, that Coup D’Etat has priced some of his baskets – which he supersized, making them more statement sculpture than functional – at $8,000.
The revolution has, for sure, been monetised. But while the days of cheap rents and underground raves are gone, the new cultural openness and cross-pollination that have powered LA’s latest resurgence seem irreversible and are a source of huge pride across this revitalised city. Dax raves to me about unreconstructed neighbourhoods, where he finds his favourite massages, Asian grocery stores, leather bars, haircuts, hardware for jewellery – Eagle Rock, Silver Lake, Boyle Heights, where four years ago he learned to be a licensed barber, just in case he needs to roll with it in a new way sometime.
He tells me not to miss the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, and an oddly little-known haunt of his of 25 years, Beverly Hot Springs, a simple, no-frills spa in Koreatown that has the only natural thermal springs in the city and is his destination every Christmas Day and Thanksgiving. He speaks too of how much he loves LA’s access to nature, and of days spent foraging driftwood on the beach at Nicholas Canyon by Malibu, stoned hikes up to Dante’s View, in Griffith Park, above Griffith Observatory, and chilled days at San Onofre nude beach, an hour south of the city.
And he tells me about the resolutely body-, age-, gender- and ethnicity-positive queer scene that continues to be one of Silver Lake’s trump cards, to the point “it’s not even unheard of for West Hollywood pretty boys to come check it out, because they know the East side is more fun. I’m not so much for clubbing nowadays, but I like a queer Sunday in Silver Lake. I’ll go to The Eagle late afternoon, have a beer, talk to friends. I love the music there; whether it’s Eighties punk or house, it’s always hard and loud, and I love that the whole leather thing is coming back. It’s cool to see.
“Then I’ll go check out this amazing night called Hot Dog, at El Cid Mexican restaurant. My friend Mario Diaz, who used to run The Cock in New York, is the promoter, so it’s really sexy, but fun and trashy and dressed up too, and really chilled with loads of patios, where people hang out in the sunshine and chat. It’s whatever you want. I like to think I’m too cool to stand in line nowadays, but I stand in line for that. It’s the hottest night in LA right now.”