“I never forgot where I came from,” says Ethiopian-born fashion designer and philanthropist Gelila Assefa Puck. Operating from an office in Los Angeles, she moves seamlessly between her twin passions for art and charity. In early October, Puck was just days from attending the soft opening of CUT in Downtown New York. Nestled in the Four Seasons Hotel in Tribeca, the restaurant is the sixth branch of her celebrity husband chef Wolfgang Puck’s successful steakhouse chain.
As creative director for the Puck Fine Dining Restaurant Group, she presided over the design for the new CUT branch, which she describes as a “rich environment with a modern feel.” For collaborators, the Pucks tapped Kimberly Brown of Strata architects and French interior designer Jacques Garcia. As for the art, Puck—who included the works of such Los Angeles art stars as Mark Grotjahn, Sterling Ruby and Ed Ruscha in the 2012 reopening of Spago in Beverly Hills—wanted to highlight the “soft touch” of women artists in the masculine steakhouse setting. CUT New York features a pink neon work by British artist Tracey Emin, with the words “Move Me”—a request well-known to power diners, while Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu contributes black-and-white abstract prints. Joining their work is The Chef, a 24-foot diptych by artist Alex Israel and writer Bret Easton Ellis. Conceived as a kind of Puck family portrait, the dramatic text-based work depicts a conversation between husband and wife. Their words pop against a photographic backdrop of fireworks.
Back in L.A., Puck is busy fundraising for an initiative that brings together culture and philanthropy: the new Watts Campus of Children’s Institute, Inc. (CII), designed by architect Frank Gehry. Founded in 1906, CII provides services such as counseling and family support to more than 28,000 children in the city. Puck became a trustee of the charity after receiving its prestigious Champion of Children Award in 2009, based on her work on behalf of women’s health and child welfare. In 2010, she founded the Dream for Future Africa Foundation to serve underprivileged populations in East Africa. A mother of two, Puck says, “We live a privileged life in L.A., but you cannot forget the community.”
Puck reached out to Gehry to design the CII campus in Watts, a neighborhood in South L.A. where more than 50 percent of residents live on less than $20,000 a year. Puck recalls telling the architect, “20 or 30 years from now, you’ll be known as a man who helped change Watts.” Gehry will construct a state-of-the-art facility on the 50,000-square-foot campus, the former site of the County South Health Center. While groundbreaking has been completed, CII is still working to fund its comprehensive capital campaign. The $35 million Watts Campus project is part of a $75 million sustaining effort. “When an idea comes to life, it’s like conceiving a child and giving birth to it,” she says.