A Family Garden
By Lynn Morgan
Photographs: Dominique Vorillon
The house lingered in memory. Sleek and modern, it stood out among the more traditional homes in the suburban Los Angeles neighborhood. Seeing it only as a post-Northridge earthquake fixer-upper, Realtor Susan Gordon showed the house to a client, but couldn't forget it. When it came back on the market six years later, she and her husband, Howard, a marketing executive, bought it, and set about restoring it with the help of designer Guy Cnop.
Raising small children and a big dog, Allison Wright and Andy Kaplan were content with a swing set, a cedar deck and a playhouse in this garden on the west side of Los Angeles. In the blink of an eye, they knew, those swings could come down, and the supporting structure would become an arbor- wisteria vines had already started up its posts. The cedar deck was a favorite dog-napping spot, while the playhouse served as a fort, a club, a hideout from Mom and Dad. "Our goal was to make the outdoors as usable and flexible as it could be," explains Russ Cletta, a Venice, California, landscape architect, who, with his partner Jay Griffith, designed Wright and Kaplan's garden to be "dog-and-child friendly, with lots of options for adults."
A front courtyard is ideal for watching kids on swings, but its concrete bench can double as lunger or table. Its leafy scrim, a mix of Phormiums, and 'Forest Pansy' red-buds against a hedge, blocks the street while creating a green view for the living room. But in contrast to its paved restraint-it's like a well-behaved garden lounge- there's a wilder scene behind the house, beyond the deck: a fanciful woods of citrus, Mayten and Leptospermum with a bark path that curves around lavenders and seems to disappear. With a similar intent-to make the small lot appear endless-Griffith and Cletta plated its edges with the same eucalyptus that grows in nearby yards, so the "borrowed" trees are part of the picture.
When the designers arrived in 1999, Wright and Kaplan had owned their home, a pared-down, early-'90s-style house converted to a more contemporary design, for two years. Wright and Susan Minter, a London-based friend, had already redone the inside, changing windows, floors and finishes, replacing a kitchen wall with glass doors and generally lightening up the living space and tying it to the outside. Minter, an architectural designer, had even swapped an unused side lawn for a deck, where Wright, who has a master's degree in psychology, and Kaplan, a TV executive, would often dine en famille.
They replace the slate with a clean grid of concrete pavers in the courtyard, planting sedum in the seams. In the adjoining space, they gave their arbor-cum-swing-set a soft, chipped-bark floor beneath and ran a low shrub border between the two, full of rosemary, lavender and 'Gold Sword' Phormium. Beside the deck, they cut a long bed and packed it with fortnight lilies (Dietes bicolor), tough plants that could take the shade of a neighbor's deodar cedars. And they linked deck and terrace by planting mayten trees on both and letting prostrate rosemary spill from upper to lower levels, obscuring the wall that divides them.
Up abouve they granted Wright's request for a "small jungle," mixing colors from the rest of the garden-rust, blue, olive green and chartreuse-into a dreamy pastiche of spiked, tumbling and overhanging plants. Westringia, Phormium, agave and lavender, all drought-tolerant and low-maintenance, weave together under the trees, along the path that finally ends at the playhouse, a simple version of the big house. "Children love having places to hide," says Wright, who is tolerant of the youthful impulse to smear paint on playhouse walls.
Only young once is the implication. Let them have their piece of earth. The family has since moved into bigger digs, again with the design assistance of Susan Minter and Cletta and Griffith.