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An English Couple Trade Traditional Flowers for Succulents in Their Santa Monica Garden

August 10, 2003|Susan Heeger

Ann Field and Clive Piercy are Brits by birth, but you wouldn't mistake their Santa Monica garden for a slice of England. From the street, its edgy, terraced front beds bristle with yucca, agave, aloe and dasylirion. In back of the house a dragon tree spreads its spiny fans, and giant birds of paradise rattle against a fence. A third area hidden behind a studio feels Japanese in its mix of water, stone and rustling green. Flowers are conspicuously absent.

Yet for the British-born couple, an illustrator and her graphic designer husband, these scenes are rooted in the cool, wet place where both grew up.

''It's quite English of us to be taken with huge, exotic leaves, and preoccupied with detail,'' Field says.

''And to get so turned on by the California light," Percy adds. "Look at David Hockney--the quintessential L.A. artist.'' Sixteen years ago, having lived in L.A. four years, the couple found their small white beach bungalow on a sloping lot that also featured Italian cypresses and large-scale, sculptural yuccas. ''Those got to us,'' Piercy recalls. ''We looked at them and saw the desert.''

They also saw a garden-in-the-making, a chance to create outdoor rooms, where--unlike in England--people can live year-round. The two have developed the rooms over time, in keeping with their 1937 house, which they streamlined and updated in the late '80s with the help of architect Michele Saee. Formerly with Morphosis and now owner of the L.A. firm Building, Saee transformed their garage into a studio for Field, who develops concepts and illustrations for advertising and books.

Building contractor Roland Tso worked simultaneously to design concrete planting frames for the front garden and terrace the hillside behind the house. Ros Cross, an English designer living in Pacific Palisades and a friend of the couple, gave them early plant advice, suggesting the feathery melaleuca that hangs over Field's studio and the bold New Zealand flax and kangaroo paws nearby. ''Given our professions, we're very taken with graphic shapes and spaces, and striking colors,'' says Piercy, a partner and creative director of the Santa Monica graphic design firm Ph.D.

The front garden illustrates the point. There, Piercy observes, ''because of all those dramatic succulents, the garden is the star; the plants, far from just being fluff, are important. In fact, they really make the house.''

A second garden designer, Curt Klebaum of Santa Monica, was the couple's guide to the world of succulents, introducing them to a range of agaves, cactuses and aloes. In Tso's framelike planters, Klebaum set off their striking forms in gravel fields suggesting stream beds. He repeated some succulents in the back and middle gardens where, thanks to the context, the effect is completely different. On the middle terrace, the lot's most verdant, English-feeling spot, a potted agave among wrought-iron dining chairs resembles a giant flower. In the Asian-style rear garden, the hidden view that Klebaum crafted for Field's studio, the same agaves have a peaceful restraint beside a pond.

''I love the mix of casualness and control here,'' says Piercy, calling himself ''a somewhat puttering but enthusiastic gardener'' who specializes in pruning and cleaning up.

Field, whose studio faces the garden on two sides, appreciates both the view and sounds--chirping birds, wind in the leaves and bubbling water from the pond.

Just as passionate about the grounds are the couple's fox terriers, Toffee and Biscuit, who rip through the garden on a daily basis. ''We had to think about them, of course. No fussy plants; they have to run,'' Field says, sounding suddenly very English about her dogs. After all, she adds indulgently, ''It's their garden too, right?''


Resource Guide

Michele Saee, Building, Los Angeles, (323) 932-1793; Curt Klebaum Gardens, Santa Monica, (310) 413-1770; Ros Cross, Praxis Modern Gardens, Pacific Palisades, (310) 459-5881.

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