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Elite Flock to New L.A. Design Store

Visitors can see some beautiful things at The Melrose Project, unless the celebrities get there first.

LOS ANGELES (TheStreet) -- In the shade of West Hollywood's crane-covered Pacific Design Center on Melrose Avenue, home to stores such as Rose Tarlow and Formations, is a revolutionary new design store that is shaking up the way Hollywood decorates.

The Melrose Project

is in a massive new retail space wedged between an outpost of fashion stalwart Balenciaga and a 20-table Nishimura sushi restaurant (usually prefaced with the words "really expensive").

Some would say the same of The Melrose Project. Window shop at its modernist two-story glass facade and you might see a photo-ready 12-foot antique French banquette, 18th century covered produce cart from Provence doubling as a chic bar and hundred-pound Italian marble bust -- that is, if you get there before celebrity design hawks such as Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi, who are regulars at the store.

The Melrose Project is a rare high-end L.A. design store that is open to the general public as well as to the trade, the wealthy and celebrities.

Hand-picked dealers from the world of antiques, fine art, rugs and contemporary furnishings who cherry-pick some of their best pieces to send to this L.A. showroom. The items are arranged among items from other partner stores in a sort of avant-garde version of a furniture commune that's quickly become the talk of the town.

Shoppers are greeted by creative director Tommy Clements, acting more like an on-site curator. Despite his mere 28 years of age, Clements is a regular in industry magazines such as Elle Décor -- the store is featured in the October issue and was featured in an eight-page spread last July with a beaming client in her newly decorated New Orleans home.

Despite his youth, he's no newcomer to the design business; he and his mother have grown Kathleen Clements Design into a successful L.A. design company with clients in New York, Pittsburgh and Miami. Some are famous, some are rich and some are just chasing a signature taste called "a marriage of styles" that seems always one step ahead of popular taste.

"We wanted to mix refined, polished antiques with more primitive and deconstructed pieces," says Clements of The Melrose Project, "along with clean-lined contemporary pieces and modern art."

Notable design contributors include Obsolete Gallery, of Venice, Calif., with its spooky-chic mix of American gothic furnishings and such artists as Ethan Murrow and Dennis Manarchy, both of whom also have a large presence on the walls of The Melrose Project.

Other designers participating in "the project" include Atlanta's Robuck & Co., Lee Stanton and Woven Accents, which supplies most of the incredible Oushak, Kysari, Moroccan and Khotan rugs lining the store's floors.

The Melrose Project is arranged within an industrial-style, high-ceilinged space of all-white movable walls. A curved rear staircase leads to a loft where a Raj-inspired British Colonial desk may sit among paper artwork in the shape of a man's suit by artist Greg Lauren -- yes, Ralph's nephew.

Other visual vignettes include a Sahara desert camp scene with writing chair and vintage Moroccan rug next to another scene of distressed-oak table with single chair on one end and long bench running down another, looking equally like the chambers of King Arthur and Sigmund Freud.

The clientele is a mix of fashionable passers-by traipsing through the space like Holly Golightly in front of Tiffany's to pouty celebs with sunglasses who browse just beyond the lenses of the occasional carnivorous paparazzi.

In an attempt to buck a retail slump, many high-end design stores have resorted to continuous sales or to adding entry-level accessories to supplement the high-end furnishings and artwork. But you won't find candles or chocolates at The Melrose Project, where an 18th Century console sits stoically amid artwork by Cristof Yvore and Elger Esser from the Michael Kohn gallery and a line of custom furnishings by Kathleen Clements Design.

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When asked if the store's high prices -- we couldn't find a single item under $1,000 -- was a deterrent for customers, Clements hesitates, then says: "We simply aim to source the very best and most exquisite pieces we can find from our partners. The price befits the object in every case."

It's also one of the only shops of its caliber open to the general public. The Pacific Design Center, just across the street, is for-trade only.

"If you have good taste and are looking for one-of-a-kind furnishings, you can come into the store and buy with or without having your decorator present," says Clements, who -- as a decorator himself -- dispenses ideas and design advice freely to visitors. It doesn't lower costs at the Project, but it certainly raises value to an incalculable degree.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.