The old building doesn't look like much, standing across East Third Street from a demolition site and the King Cobras motorcycle club. A small sign in a window behind a steel-bar security door says: LOT Parrish Rash.
Since early this year, it has been the Land of Tomorrow, an occasional gallery, and the workshop of Parrish Rash & van Dissel, a small company with big ambitions.
PR&vD hopes to encourage artists and industrial designers around the world to innovate by creating new and more profitable ways for them to produce and market their work.
At the company's workshop last week, there were three projects under way: A high-design chaise being made of Styrofoam and urethane for a Vienna art museum; a stage set for The xx, a British rock band; and a University of Kentucky professor's project that involves creating an LED lighting system for a large model of a planned community in China to be exhibited in Germany.
Upcoming work includes a piece for a show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and two pieces for a show at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Later this month, LOT will bring collectors from across the country together with an international group of designers represented by the NOUS Gallery of London, England. The event will include a mixed-media show called Boys and Their Toys, which will be on display from Oct. 30 to Nov. 8. The opening reception Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. is open to the public.
Why would these collectors and designers travel thousands of miles for an event in Lexington?
"High-end collectors are looking for new places to discover work," said LOT founder Drura Parrish. The event will include a dinner, an afternoon at Keeneland and plenty of bourbon. "You sell the destination, not the art."
It also didn't hurt that one of the British gallery's principals, designer Melissa Woolford, is originally from Evansville, Ind., across the Ohio River from Parrish's hometown of Henderson.
Good connections and a "why not?" attitude have enabled Parrish and his business partner, Rives Rash, to build an international reputation over the past six years by working with contemporary artists and architects to produce their designs. Their work has appeared at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Vienna's MAK Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Parrish and Rash are faculty members at UK's College of Design. They're also workshop wizards who never outgrew playing with sticks and glue.
"The reputation got out there that if you wanted to do something crazy, there's these guys from Virginia and Kentucky who will help you do something crazy," said Parrish, who, like Rash, earned a graduate degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
During the past 15 years, technology has revolutionized architecture and design. Parrish, 33, and Rash, 30, have created a niche by exploring the possibilities of new design geometries and materials.
The company's newest partner, Bart van Dissel, 55, a former Harvard Business School professor and McKinsey & Co. consultant, sees an opportunity for PR&vD to change the economics of design by connecting designers, manufacturers and customers.
That means working with designers to build prototypes and figure out manufacturing processes and costs. PR&vD would do some manufacturing itself and outsource some work to other Kentucky manufacturers.
In addition to fine art, PR&vD is interested in making furniture and household items — really, any object that might be improved by innovative design.
"There needs to be a democratization of design," Parrish said. "People used to not give a damn about design because they couldn't afford it." That is changing as high-design items show up on the shelves of retailers including IKEA and Target.
Designers haven't been well served by traditional retail models, in which mass production and big sales volume are necessary and retailers get as much as 60 percent of the price. It gives designers little incentive to innovate or take risks.
For that reason, PR&vD also is interested in exploring new retail models, from online sales to distribution through museum stores.
"The key point is to shift the way the designers do business," Parrish said. "Our paradigm is simple: Put designers first, and they become the brand."
PR&vD has begun making several products for sale on www.etsy.com, an arts and crafts site. They include flatware, lamps, chairs and decorative items made from a mix of urethane and tree limbs salvaged from last winter's ice storm.
There are limits to what can be made in PR&vD's rented workshop, which also must accommodate the building owner's bass boat. It is moved around the room as space is needed.
"It adds soul to the workshop," Parrish said of the bass boat.
"And it reminds us that we don't go fishing enough," van Dissel added.
Parrish thinks Kentucky is an ideal place for the kind of creative, specialized manufacturing that PR&vD has in mind. The state has a wealth of aluminum and plastics fabricators who moved here for the auto industry but could use more work.
"Kentucky, more than any place I know, is tied to making and doing," he said. "If we don't do it as a profession, we often do it as a hobby. It's just what we do."
After all, look what PR&vD has done so far with limited equipment in an old building on East Third Street. In the land of tomorrow, what's important are ideas — and people with the knowledge and connections to make them work.