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On The Modern Edge

A Very British Couple Share a Taste for California Contemporary

August 06, 2000|SUSAN HEEGER

She cut her teeth on English gardens, and she's done her time in a Spanish bungalow. But landscape designer Ros Cross is a resolute Modernist.

Take the Pacific Palisades house she now shares with husband and fellow Brit Simon Johnston. Built in 1958, it has a pink pebbled roof, a rock-encrusted fireplace and a kidney-shaped pool--all very "Palm Springs," says Cross, who moved to California 20 years ago. Spare, light-filled rooms are filled with Danish teak sofas, Bertoia chairs and Eames loungers. The garden, which she designed, has a modern edge too, and reflects what she and Johnston, a graphic artist, love: the arid beauty of the desert and the layered richness of the local mountains. And by necessity, it features plants that can take the fog and drying winds that routinely sweep along the coast.

In 1994, such natural drama and the purity of a house that hadn't been changed in 30 years moved Cross and Johnston to leave their Silver Lake bungalow for the Palisades. True, their new home, set between the mountains and the ocean, was also perched above an intersection, with nary a tree or shrub to block out the street. Its tiny, 6,000-square-foot lot was decked with ivy and chain link, a crude contrast to the lush half-acre they'd left behind. But for Cross, size wasn't a limitation, especially given the wild backdrops she could "borrow" as she designed. "I love gardening," she explains, "but since I design gardens for other people, I have less energy for mine. Too big a place could overwhelm me."

Luckily, the house itself required little to make it comfortable. Cross says it had never been renovated or updated. Original fixtures--hanging Nelson lamps, kitchen appliances, Formica counters--had survived from the '50s, and even wood floors, swathed in rugs, were in mint condition.

For the first few months, Cross and Johnston changed nothing. They simply lived in the space and noticed how they used it, where the views were and what enhanced or blocked them. Eventually, when they found themselves repeatedly straining to glimpse the hills from a pint-size kitchen window, they got rid of it, along with parts of two walls, and glassed in one corner of the room.

The garden demanded more radical rethinking, and Cross began by clearing the slate, yanking ivy, saving cutting roses and prioritizing needs. Most critical for the sloping site was definition, structured terraces and walls that would enclose and contain plantings and a gate and steps to call attention to the garden's entry point. They also added a front fence and hedges to seclude patios and walks.

An architect friend, Andie Zelnio (who has since moved to Tennessee), designed a Japanese-inspired gate and fence that suit the clean and simple house. Cross designed terrace walls in concrete block with a pebbled finish and planted hedges--coppery, fast-growing purple hop bush and slower green-and-silver guava. Within their textured screens, she created gardens with distinct characters and palettes. A sweep of gold gravel, which evokes a desert wash near the entry gate, leads to a tiny pool in a cleft rock near which spill 'Limelight' helichrysum and a clipped Pittosporum tenuifolium. A wildflower meadow rustles against the silhouette of the nearby hills. California natives, billowing grasses and purple mint bush enclose a deck outside Cross' office, while behind the house, seen from floor-to-ceiling windows, the pool shimmers amid potted succulents and poppies. "That's our next frontier," says Cross, describing a plan to ax a pergola-like structure, redo the pool deck and, finally, reclaim more planting space.

Until then, she works with what she has, making compost to boost her soil and trying plants (such as shoestring acacia) that test the limits of the wild terrain. "There are always winners and losers," she reflects. "By and large, though, you're looking at some miracles out there."


Thoughts on the Modernist Garden:

Group plants of one kind in swaths rather than use them singly.

Simplify combinations to two or three plants, instead of many, that work together.

Repeat "theme" plants throughout the garden to unify composition.

Limit colors, both in blooms and foliage, from area to area.

Mark transitions with tones that blend different palettes, for example, using coral hues to link a bronze-themed planting with a field of orange poppies.

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