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Run-of-the-Mill Aquariums Are No Longer the Only Fish in the Sea

February 22, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

I have never seen Lloyd Bridges' house, but I have to believe that it's surrounded by a cactus garden, filled with furniture and decorative items from the landlocked American heartland and that there is not one can of salmon, tuna, clams or anchovies in the larder.

It makes sense. In a world where the familiar ceases to be exotic, why would Lloyd Bridges want anything in his home that reminded him of water? To a guy who nearly drowned at least half a dozen times each week on "Sea Hunt," a Japanese stone garden has to look pretty good. Anything that produces dust instead of bubbles. He probably doesn't even have a whirlpool spa.

For the rest of us, though, a koi pond probably sounds pretty intriguing. The idea of decorating your house with water, and with things that live in water, can seem to us--who live in a modified desert--to be as unusual as building an outdoor barbecue out of moon rocks.

Aquariums are fairly common, sure, but that's not what we're going to talk about. Most aquariums are fish tanks for hobbyists, a kind of prettified laboratory for amateur ichthyologists to putter around with. Their contents may be interesting, but they have about as much decorative value as a bathroom scale. They are stand-alone items and coordinate with the rooms around them about as well as a milk crate coordinates with Louis XVI.

And then there are the sorts of aquariums Pam Plotkin sells. Her Newport Beach-based business is called Living Creations, but think of it as designer fish (and fowl; more on that in a minute). Plotkin, a former lawyer, political consultant and TV talk-show host, sells the kind of aquariums that you've seen in James Bond movies.

"I act basically as a painter," Plotkin said. "I try to make these things look like living art. I think of them basically as paintings that would accent a room or an office."

No one would call them mere fish tanks. The enclosures themselves are like sculptures, most of the casings--from four manufacturers--made of heavy plastic or fiberglass. These not only support large tanks in mostly globe shapes, but also conceal in their cabinets all the machinery--aerators, filters and such--that are needed to keep a small school of fish healthy.

Most of the aquariums in Plotkin's shop on a recent visit were of the saltwater variety, and it was hard to decide which was more dazzling: the fish themselves or the background against which they swam.

To Plotkin, both are designer elements because both involve shape and, more importantly, color. The more familiar colored rock, plants and underwater sculpture are used by Plotkin to dress up the tanks, but in most she adds the element of colored coral in a variety of sizes and shapes. She says she buys the coral from wholesalers who often carry it in warehouse-sized lots. She sifts through it all to find the right size, shape and color for a particular client's needs.

And if the color still isn't quite right, it can be adjusted even further with in-tank lighting. Most of the aquarium lights are colored, but if you're trying for a particularly brilliant effect, it can be left glowing under a white light. One tank in Plotkin's shop is lighted this way and is filled with a display of jagged white quartz and a variety of coordinating fish, one of which looks startlingly like a Dalmatian.

Just how far this color mania can go is illustrated in the most striking tank of all in the shop. It's an acrylic coffee table with the tank inlaid into the surface. Plotkin said visitors to the shop become transfixed by it, often forgetting that they are there to do a bit of shopping. Plotkin makes the most of it by changing the environment in the tank to fit various holidays: Recently it was red and white for Valentine's Day; soon it'll be a St. Patrick's green.

None of this stuff comes cheap. Prices for the tanks are based on their size, and a 110-gallon model runs $3,350. The coffee-table model goes for $3,200.

Plotkin also sells fully decorated and stocked aviaries (if you happen to be Lloyd Bridges) and a kind of hybrid called a vivarium: half terrarium, half aquarium, a sort of mini-Galapagos landscape with turtles, salamanders and fish. The aviaries are fitted with an ingenious little motor that automatically replaces the plastic sheeting on the bottom of the cage when the birds inside have fully had their way with it.

For the budget-minded, however, the fish are a better deal. The more expensive and colorful saltwater fish can run about $150, Plotkin said, whereas a rare tropical bird can fetch several thousand. The downside: Fish can live, with proper care, from eight to 20 years. The tropical birds, on the other hand, may outlive you.

Which may be the one full gonzo whopper of mixed blessings. Plotkin has in the shop a yellow-naped Amazon parrot named Pete who sings "Day-O." A few decades of that and Pete might start to look pretty attractive with a light wine sauce.

The fish are easier to take. Besides, I'm told they taste terrible.

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