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Gardens : The Shape of Things to Come : An Interior Designer Reintroduces the Lost Art of Topiary

March 20, 1988|SHIRLEY LEE

TOPIARY is the ancient art of training and trimming living trees, shrubs and ivies into ornamental shapes--the most traditional being balls, cones and multi-tiered shapes. Early Roman gardens were garnished with trees and hedges formed into animals--dogs, pigs and peacocks. One design featured a row of trees fashioned into elephants, with the trunk of each holding the tail of the one ahead. The best examples of topiary later developed in England and the Netherlands, where suitable plants--thick-leaved evergreen shrubs such as box, cypress and yew--flourish. The art of topiary reached its height in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries; then a rising preference for naturalism resulted in its decline.

Enter Beverly Hills designer Douglas Pierce Hiatt--president of Hiatt Enterprises International Inc., an interior and architectural design and landscaping firm--who has taken it upon himself to revive the lost art of topiary. Hiatt "prescribes" topiary figures wherever he can integrate them into a client's indoor or outdoor environment.

To Hiatt, topiary animals lend whimsy and character, form and movement to the most sophisticated gardens--English, French and even contemporary. He custom-designs the figures with the help of an artist on his staff who builds a welded-steel frame wrapped in wire, to which the plant is attached. Depending on the locale, Hiatt's choices include Syzygium paniculatum 'Compacta,' a shrub with small foliage that can be trimmed very concisely; small-leaved, fast-growing ivy, or any type of hedge material or vine. These are planted directly in the garden or in large pots. For one client, Hiatt designed a 6-foot-tall topiary teddy bear that was planted in a container and brought indoors during the holidays and decorated to serve as the Christmas tree.

Hiatt's creations include a topiary dog for actress Loretta Swit and a whole menagerie of topiary animals--including a 10-foot-tall mother giraffe and her offspring, and a teddy bear, fox, rabbit and mouse, all holding hands--for singer Michael Jackson. For an estate Hiatt previously owned on Sunset Boulevard in Bel-Air, he designed two nearly life-size horses with riders jumping over a hedge.

Upkeep, Hiatt says, is simple, if one follows the wire form when trimming the plant. That is required about every six weeks to two months. Topiary figures that are cut back on a consistent basis will not outgrow their frames.

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