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CALIFORNIA TROPICAL | The Eye by Barbara King

Once the tropics are in your blood, there they stay

From the bayous of Louisiana to the beaches of California, bamboo, wicker and rattan cast a lasting spell.

June 10, 2004|Barbara King

"LET'S GO SIT ON the divan in the breezeway," my mother's friend directed us when we went for a summer afternoon visit. Divan. Breezeway. I was a preschool small-town southerner, already captivated by the sound of words to take me places I couldn't otherwise go. A ceiling fan flung balmy air around the screened room, a room like I'd never seen before -- or, I should say, furniture like I'd never seen before, big fat pieces with bright, leafy upholstery and rounded strips of wood that curved and swooped in the most impossible way.

What was it, I wanted to know.

"It's called rattan, Sugar," Mrs. Gormley told me, and went on chattering to my mother and drinking her ice tea. Rattan. As enchanting a word as the object itself. Rattan. Thereafter I was caught in its spell, in the whole poetic resonance of it.

Then came New Orleans. It was there, years later, that I was initiated into the wider world, one of faded elegance and mystery and divine decay, a place that until then existed for me only in the suggestive power of words. No matter where I've been since I left Louisiana long ago, images of New Orleans have gone with me. Not just photos, which of course I have, or drawings by French Quarter artists, which I also have, but mental images -- and it surprises me now to realize exactly what they are. Bourbon Street? Jazz clubs? That streetcar named Desire? No, not the expected. Rather: tropical backyard oases. Banana trees. Clusters of potted palms in courtyards. French olive jars filled with broad, veined elephant leaves. Dried palmetto fronds propped against doorways like sculpture. Plant-enshrouded verandas with peeling old white wicker furniture.

Semitropical south Louisiana is as close as I've ever come to actually living in the tropics, but that hasn't stopped me from my vicarious pleasures. I have British colonialist bamboo furniture in five of my rooms. I have sisal and sea-grass rugs, palm motif lamps and candlesticks. With certainty, I knew as soon as I was shown my new duplex with its louvered shutters, its banana and citrus trees, its sago palms, that it was the place for me.

Inside and out, there was more than just a hint of the tropics, there was a loud insistence.

Tropical, as you now understand, is practically in my blood. I notice it wherever I am, and always, whatever its manifestation, it is inspiriting. It bespeaks holidays in the sun, handcrafted furniture, Hollywood. The movies popularized tropical decor, brought it into our homes -- even those of the Deep South.

And now, for the past two or three months, every time I turn my head, it seems, I'm seeing some version of tropical in stores, houses, magazines, catalogs, websites, ads. Much of it is plainly seasonal and temporal, but in L.A. it has a more year-round, here-to-stay feel. Randomly strolling shops on Beverly Boulevard a few weeks ago, I got the amusing sensation that it was a setup, because one after the other yielded tropical designs as their most dominating features.

At Nell's, I found a baroquely beautiful shell chandelier, the kind of piece that first makes you smile and exclaim, and then recognize just how much bang you can get out of the loot you take home from a beach walk. And minutes later, at Bamboo Colony, we saw pillows with coral beads, faux bamboo lamps, striped cabanas. Nearby, at the Fainting Couch, sea-grass furniture, and more faux bamboo, and still near, at Twentieth, a magnificent specimen of a sofa in the window made of steel and abaca, a rattan-like wood. At the Grove, Crate & Barrel vibrates with citrus colors, juicing up plates, napkins, pillows. A few steps away, Tommy Bahama is ... well, Tommy Bahama, all woven wickers and palmy prints. Wicker storage containers break rank with the see-through plastics at the Organizing Store. All this in the space of a few hours.

L.A. might have started life as a desert, but it has reinvented itself as a piece of tropical paradise.

I'm reminded all over again of New Orleans when I see how easily tropical motifs pair with our encyclopedia of house styles here. Back home, where Greek Revivals, French and Spanish Colonials, Victorians, Neoclassicals, Craftsmans and Creole cottages mingle eccentrically but beguilingly, there's scarcely a household that doesn't have a touch of the tropics, even if it's simply variegated ginger in a vase.

It works just as well here, with our haphazard melange of architectural expressions, if you forgive the inappropriateness of those water-hungry plants. A palm frond here, a plantation shutter there, and suddenly you're removed, traveling, on your way to someplace more soft-edged. Rattan. Just say the word.

Barbara King, editor of the Home section, can be reached at

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