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All the World's a Stage at Artist's Mountain Retreat : Arts: The artist and award-winning set designer wonders if his paradise is about to be lost to county planning department zoning regulations.

July 15, 1993|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unlike Prospero's magical island, a tempest is not required to deliver visitors to artist Tony Duquette's 175-acre ranch. It's an easy drive for visitors to Sortilegium (Latin for "land of enchantment"), located at the top of a sun-drenched world in the Santa Monica Mountains of Ventura County.

But once through the gates, culled from an 18th-Century Spanish church, one immediately senses a shift in reality.

Even before encountering ornate pagodas or the Venetian gondola atop the boat house, guests may feel as though they have walked onto a movie set. And they have--several, in fact--starting with the transplanted courtyard of a Chinese temple from the old Paramount ranch.

Since 1957, Duquette and his wife, Elizabeth, who is nicknamed "Beegle," have cultivated their personal Shangri-La as a work of living art. And here they have entertained students, artists-in-residence and luminaries. The guest list has included Vincente Minnelli, Christopher Isherwood and Greta Garbo.

Until recently, Duquette--a Tony award-winning set designer, was the only American to have been honored with a one-man show at the Louvre. And last month at his 79th birthday party, held at the ranch-retreat, he was presented with a proclamation from the California Legislature honoring his lifetime achievement in the arts.

Despite the accolades, all is not well in paradise.

Through what county officials are calling creative and illegal development of his property, Duquette ran afoul of the regulations on development with the Ventura County Planning Division about two years ago. Currently, both sides are trying to resolve the building code and zoning violations that Duquette fears may result in the bulldozing of his dream.

Inventing Civilization

The approach to the lushly landscaped deck, which leads to a covered luncheon terrace, illustrates that Duquette's vision of life is not limited to the traditionally framed view through a proscenium arch. Like Shakespeare, whose work he is fond of quoting, Duquette sees the world as a stage and people as players.

Guests navigate through a maze of potted plants to the main dwelling and the covered terrace that resembles a tree-house worthy of the Swiss Family Robinson. While descending a green metal stairway salvaged from a Navy ship, one's gaze is captured by an ethereal metal-and-carved-wood antique sculpture of Indian musicians perched above the railing, with Boney Mountain serving as the backdrop.

Over lunch, Duquette says his artistic bent for landscape adornment started in childhood when he decorated moss gardens with birthday candles.

"And as a little boy I was drawing Mandarins and Indians--but with ermine tails, not buckskin," he said.

Duquette is a cancer survivor and he is noticeably mystical in his conversation, praising the healing power of green. As he quietly discusses his art, he twists the jewelry he wears for health: a gold and jade toad ring and a turquoise archer's ring from Tibet.

"I'm fighting totally the least common denominator," said Duquette. "This comes mostly from television. I see the individual disappearing. And I find there is no interest in art today. So I'm inventing a game to make people think. We're pretending we've found a lost civilization here at the ranch that we're calling the 'Chu-chin-chow-mash.' "

Duquette's hypothetical civilization is part of a teaching project for which students who come to the ranch must pretend to dig up archeological artifacts. Three graduate students from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles are presently at the ranch as part of a six-week summer internship. Duquette expects them to invent an entire culture for the civilization, including furniture, art, jewelry, musical instruments, fashions and even a religion.

"He was looking for creative students. It didn't matter what discipline they were from," said Jeanne Orfinik, chairwoman of FIDM's visual presentation department. "It's an opportunity to work with a great artist who is renowned in so many areas you can't slot him into one category."

This is Duquette's first collaborative teaching effort with FIDM. But he has taught many classes for UCLA, including some on the ranch.

"Tony is one of the most important people in the history of design," said Jody Greenwald, chair of the Interior and Environmental Design program of UCLA's Extension program. "His value to us is his ability to have people release inhibitions and pull on inner visions and childhood images. And he never accepts barriers in art or in life.

"He's the master of the objet trouve-- the found object. If this were Japan, he'd be a living treasure."

The Phoenix Rises

The Duquettes were married in 1949 at Pickfair, the home of Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers. Pickford and Rogers served as matron-of-honor and best man.

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