Secret Gardens of Hollywood and Private Oases in Los Angeles
by Erica Lennard and Adele Cygelman, Universe Publishing
Duane Phay is emphatic about what he does and doesn’t like. “I am very picky, very black and white,” he says. “I’m not gray and I’m not wishy-washy.” When he went house-hunting, he had a precise wish list- the house had to be on a promontory so that he didn’t look into anyone else’s bedroom, it had to have a view, it had to have a pool, and it had to be reasonably priced. To his surprise, he found it at the very tip of a street above Los Angeles, with sweeping views from downtown to the ocean.
Phay is equally emphatic about creating a streamlined environment. While the bones of the house were good and it was beautifully sited, its whitewashed bricks and shag carpet had to go. Phay removed the bricks and red-tile roof, ripped out the brown shag carpet and dark wood paneling, and repainted and mustard ceilings; he brought in purple-heart wood floors and experimented with a stainless steel grid paneling on the walls. Now all is calm and minimalist, and every angle is framed for contrast and drama.
“I steal all my ideas from the movies,” admits Phay, who was born and raised in Singapore and London and has spent his life living in different parts of the world, most recently Australia. Now that he has a alighted in Los Angeles, he wants his house and garden to be of the city, but not to look like it. To his dismay, all the landscapers he talked to wanted to put in palm trees. “I didn’t want the garden to look like I was in L.A.,” he says.
Once he found landscape architect Russ Cletta, a partner of top Los Angeles landscaper Jay Griffith, they went to work, guided by Phay’s vision. Phay’s inspirations are a blur of architecture, movies and fashion: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, modern Swedish design, Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings in Brazil, Villa Malaparte, John Galliano gowns, and Mommie Dearest.
Apart from the pool inside the front gate with a concrete deck, all that existed were hills of ivy. There was no outdoor space. They constructed a cantilevered outdoor terrace on the slope outside the living room. Ficus trees planted on the hillside had to be hoisted in by crane. Phay keeps the ficus trimmed, forcing them lower and lower, training them to be his “lawn.” Water now flows around the house, starting with a spout that trickles into the pool; then narrow channel by the front door drops a wall of water over the side down into a spa that is lined in purple and blue tile from Brazil.
Every tiny detail was meticulously thought out and handcrafted. The stairs leading down to the deck, for example, are solid steel, but where they cross over the water, they become grates. The handrail is based on a design he saw in Sweden. The sliding Chinese-style modern screens at the front door came from Disney World’s Tomorrow Land, and they epitomize the past/future tenseof the house.
Phay originally wanted gray, not green, plants in front. Spindly melaleuca trees (an Australian native) border the pool. Very few plant materials were used; everything is very pared down. I hate warmth,” Phay says. “I’m not afraid of color, but I wanted everything gray. Like mywardrobe, with its very limited color palette.” He imagined the pool as a biblical scene from The Ten Commandments, and the plants as reeds. Two round pots were filled with succulents to look like bowls of candy.
From his perch, Phay can see the planes descending into LAX, the Getty Center, oil tankers offshore, and the sun shimmering on the ocean. It’s an idealized picture of the city, and the perfect picture frame for an original spirit like Phay.