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Beauty by the Yard : Accessories for the Garden Are Getting Artsier and Bigger-- Much Bigger

July 14, 1994|GAILE ROBINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say the words yard art and property values plummet. For many, they connote cast-iron lawn jockeys and ceramic sombrero-wearers in a siesta pose, both terribly passe and politically incorrect.

The decorated yard got a bad reputation when overzealous practitioners refused to stop with just one gewgaw and filled their landscapes with bunnies, burros and wishing wells. Excess gave the movement a bad name, and in the '60s these tchotchkes joined Elvis on velvet in the kitsch closet of the art world.

Anything even slightly reeking of the stench of yard art was relegated for several decades to the rear aisles of garden shops.

But if Pucci prints and boomerang-shaped tables can come around again, so can yard art. It's back in a '90s kind of culturally sensitive, environmentally considerate and, in some cases, quite whimsical way.

Landscape designers call this new incarnation the "garden ornament" (probably looks classier on the invoice), and they are using large, stately, often pricey pieces in some of the finest back yards in town. And in the two- or three-figure realm, stores that specialize in garden supplies are dragging their decorative bird feeders, fountains and ceramic bovines up front, within sight of the cash registers.

Garden art is being reintroduced because it adds drama, texture and color. It can be colossally extravagant or incredibly modest. It can be the focal point or a hidden treasure.

One of the most notable aspects of the new yard art is its scale.

Landscape architect Mia Lehrer of Lehrer Architects and BLS Design in Los Angeles has decorated yards with urns that stand taller than an NBA forward, and stone balls the size of weather balloons. "The sense of scale has changed a lot," she says.

Often, the new outdoor art is combined with water and lighting to perform a dual function.

In the Pacific Palisades back yard of Charles Eglee and Ninkey Dalton, landscape architect Robert Steiner placed a ceramic pot pond-side and plumbed it for a fountain. Glazed a brilliant orange, the pot matches the slippery koi that circle beneath.

And Los Angeles architect Mark Rios of Rios Associates designed massive stone urns with portals of light for a Brentwood home.

Rios has also created outdoor furniture that borders on the sculptural, such as a long, undulating bright yellow bench for a large garden with a huge expanse of lawn.

"A lot of our product design came about because of deficiencies in the marketplace. Garden furniture was boring," says Rios, who is making more of the caterpillar benches to keep up with demand.

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Some of the custom-made pieces are more humble. For another client's vegetable garden, Rios created a bean pole shaped like an oil derrick. On top of the derrick twirls a metal carrot-shaped wind vane, and on top of the carrot is a spigot capable of watering the entire garden.

But such fanciful pieces are rare. Few, it seems, have the nerve to decorate their lawns with bowling balls instead of specimen plants, as record producer Allie Willis has done in Studio City. Or to turn their front yards into shrines to Snow White, as Robert Cohen, a senior vice president of Paramount Pictures who lives in Venice, has done.

"Snow White, of course, represents the eventual and inevitable triumph of love over evil, always so important an object lesson to hold onto when dealing with Hollywood agents," he says.

One proponent of the nothing-is-sacred approach is Jay Griffith. The yard surrounding his Venice landscape design office is littered with treasures just waiting for the right home.

"It's a roiling, boiling cesspool of garden ornament," Griffith says proudly of his collection. Among the prized possessions is a three-dimensional gold arrow the size of a subcompact car and a shed-sized Aladdin's lamp from a movie theater. Both are wired for lights--again, dual-purpose yard art.

For his own garden, Griffith is creating a life-sized rendition of the Mad Hatter's tea party. In the back yard of his neighbors, graphic designers Charles Bennett and Kathleen Cornell, Griffith fashioned a 20-foot-tall stage. Iron beams support curtains made of pleated wire netting with a swag of brass screen. Bougainvillea climbs the wings. Rolling around the lawn is a disco mirror ball. And off to the east, in a shady corner of the palm court, is a treasure chest that hints of a pirate's plunder.

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For yard-art enthusiasts who prefer to do their own decorating, contemporary versions of classic garden ornaments can be had at retail stores. And large but simply shaped fountains, bells and gongs by Washington state artist Tom Torrens are sold at Armstrong's, the Home and Garden Place in West Los Angeles.

"I've always liked doing things for outdoor use. I like the functional overtones of adding sound, and therefore I do a lot of ringing devices, bells and gongs," says Torrens, once a gallery-represented sculptor.

Taking his work from the galleries and placing it in the back yard proved to be lucrative. "It opened up a wide range of markets when we went from the gallery, which was austere and intimidating to the more public aspect of yard art. With the added functionalism, the pieces were no longer considered fine art, but moved closer to a craft."

There is a stigma attached to outdoor artworks, which may explain why the retail market is lacking in well-designed pieces. And, who knows, in a few years, today's oversized urns may join Elvis in the closet, or bob for years in Griffith's cesspool. But for now, they are having a glorious moment in the sun.

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