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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Here's to Those Who Provide the Local Color

May 26, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

They are everywhere, the aesthetic rebels, small-scale Christos, who, armed with imagination and good humor, manage to slyly deflate the tacit aesthetics that govern our neighborhoods.

I've seen the phenomenon everywhere I've called home.

In the Massachusetts town of Hingham, a place of graceful colonials and clapboards, it was a white Cape Cod with obscenely purple shutters, a metaphorical middle finger extended to the world.

In the Michigan town of Birmingham, where the only exterior home decorations more prevalent than the flags of football rivals are ever-changing seasonal wreaths, it was a massive stuffed moose head, a decapitated Bullwinkle, presiding from the porch over the lawn of an oversized yellow cottage.

In Venice near an area that has known terrible gang warfare, it is the low-slung front wall of an art teacher's house, covered in graffiti, a gift to taggers that they might express themselves in a sanctioned setting.

And in South Gate, it is a modest stucco home the color of cafe au lait with an immaculate lawn that boasts four 8-foot-tall, classical-style statues, blinding white on black bases, adorned with Santa hats at Christmas and costumes at Halloween.

There is brash bad taste (recall the conniption fits inspired by Sheik Muhammad al-Fassi's 1978 mansion make-over on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills with its explicitly painted nude statues).

But more compelling, I think, are these little outposts of creativity scattered around town, traffic stoppers that inspire delight when you least expect it.

*

The little house is on Calhoun Street, just north of Milbank in Van Nuys. If you weren't really looking, you might miss the 6-foot stuffed giraffe on the lawn. People who do notice the house often slow down for a closer look. It's the paint job that catches the eye.

What was once gray, lumpy stucco is now a multihued riot of polka dots, stripes, circles and hearts. The entire house is done up in this quirky paint job, and the inside, frankly, is just as odd.

Much of the front room is taken up by a white Formica kidney-shaped table that seats 16 and two Pee-Wee's Playhouse-scale couches. Even the dog is unusual--a cross between a Shar-pei and a dachshund (think long wrinkly snout).

The artist in this residence is 44-year-old Jamy Kahn, a painter with a fledgling paper products design firm. She has rented the house for six years and so far, the landlady has lodged no objections.

"People are so depressed these days," says Kahn as we stand in her frontyard discussing the paint job, which started out as a way to disguise the ugly stucco blobs that are part of the house's textured exterior.

"Without being a therapist, this is my way of contributing to the overall picture of well-being."

*

Without being a therapist, either, I am certain that just as some people are fulfilled by encounters with unexpected bursts of creativity, others are fulfilled by tamping them down. Conformity often passes for control in a wacky, unpredictable world.

I know a woman who once lived in Irvine, home to the most ferocious battles over picayune design matters. In an apparent fit of abandon she painted her front door red. Instantly, she was served with papers by her community association demanding the door be repainted . . . oh gosh, was it tan or white? I can't remember . . . within three days or else.

Soon after, she bought a beautiful house with a red door in Tustin. And no inappropriate paint, presumably, has since adulterated the aesthetic integrity of the beigest place on Earth.

*

To some, the modest, ranch-style house at the corner of Pearl and 10th streets in Santa Monica is an eyesore. It is painted a shade of green that is most closely associated with African parrots--bold, bright, acidic.

"It used to a hideous brick color," says Vicki Johnston, assistant manager of a pet store and mother to a dozen parrots, squawking energetically inside. Vicki was leaning toward painting the house purple until her husband, Breck, who works in the home decor department of a building supply store, showed her a sample card of the green.

"It just jumped out at me," Vicki says. "I said, 'This is it.' "

There are benefits to living in a house the color of an iguana: No pizza delivery person in the world has ever missed them.

On the downside, some neighbors have accused the Johnstons of lowering property values. (They acknowledge that a plunge in local home prices did in fact coincide with their decision to go green six years ago.)

Vicki says the color was meant to be funny.

"Some have gotten the joke," she says, "some haven't."

People who take offense at the color, she says, "are more than welcome to move."

Irvine or bust.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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