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Castle of Creativity : Mary Foster and her son Alan make magic that goes beyond interior design in their Santa Ana home.


SANTA ANA--In the years of doing this column, I've learned to respect the power of people's front doors. Even the flimsiest pine and Masonite ones seem able to safeguard from the suburban drabness outside the fragile, separate realities created by those living inside.

Some are overtly weird, the homes of people who have based their lives on Dungeons and Dragons, collecting ventriloquist dummies or deifying Vic Morrow. Others might be a gentler shift from the norm, yet those can be the most startling, creating a subtle sense that you've stepped into another world.

That's the feeling I had entering Mary and Alan Foster's Santa Ana home. The 57-year-old and her 22-year-old son have created a wonderland of design in their cozy rented circa-1920s house. Like only a handful of places I've been, their house felt faintly magical, as if a special hand had passed over every aspect of it.

Everything, from a quantity of uniquely decorated Christmas trees to napkin rings made with ears of purplish Indian corn, has been given a distinctive twist or flourish, and each seems as if it has been set in its perfect place amid the antique "early grandmother to early garage sale" furnishings. One felt no less certain that a few months hence, the entire place will have changed, and will be no less perfect.

It doesn't surprise, then, that its co-creator Mary Foster has a high regard for the places people keep apart from the life outside.

"This is your world; it's your sovereignty. This is where you live . This is the real person. Everything else is just window dressing," Foster says.

She is a small, cheerful woman. Alan is smaller, and even more cheerful. Since her marriage dissolved 12 years ago, Foster has singly cared for Alan, whose Down's syndrome and juvenile diabetes require 24-hour care. They will tell you that they are quite a team.

Rather than have Alan institutionalized or in a program, Foster is his constant companion. She receives a small income from a state in-home supportive services program and gets by doing a bit of work as a notary public. Sometimes she helps prepare for weddings, and, when pressed, makes a Victorian wedding cake decorated with hundreds of tiny pastry roses. The two are also aided by some very loyal friends and family, such as Foster's older son, David, who gave them a washer and dryer last year, and a friend who fixed their plumbing for Christmas.

She and Alan spend much of their day working on the design projects in which their house abounds. Christmas trees are reinvented with dried flowers, costume jewelry, holly and decorated toy-sized Victorian hats. There is a wall hanging made from a sled they saved from a local demolished house; it's adorned with twisted sticks, pine cones, toy birds and an old Pinocchio marionette. A sad Emmett Kelly dummy sits in a wagon astride a bale of hay, with an autumnal flow of curly willow and Hawaiian protea bursting behind him.

Although it is now well past Christmas, tables hold festive centerpieces and place settings, while the fireplace plays host to a scene Alan created with evergreen branches, elves busily working on toys and an approving Santa looking on.

"Santa Claus loves the elves," Alan explained with a bemused, musical voice. "The elves do like making dolls and assembling scenery, so Santa can relax." He has a few other solo works in the house, but his pride and joy is the train room, which is nearly filled with a platform holding an electric trolley car course and its surrounding winter scene created by the pair. Covered with flecks and drifts of plastic snow, it is a holiday vision, with even the six handmade dollhouses teeming with interior detail.

The Fosters don't sit idle when Christmas is past: If there aren't holidays to celebrate, Mary and Alan recognize the seasons with household designs. They also make items to sell at a gift show, open to friends, that they hold in their home each November. They usually make $100 to $300 that way.

They already have drawers stuffed with the raw materials, such as a bag of autumn leaves brought from Wisconsin by a friend. Foster lets the two evergreen shrubs in her yard grow wild, so she'll have branches when they need them for projects.

"I love Mother Nature, so everything that I can bring in comes into the house. Flowers, leaves, bare branches, sticks, you name it," she said.

The pair also undertake projects such as re-tiling, wallpapering and painting the house, the latter in a blue-gray hue Alan chose.

On his own, Alan's favorite things are poring through Architectural Digest and watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He likes all the characters best, he says, including the vile Borg.

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