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Catching a new wave

Once again, rattan and wicker grace rooms, indoors and out. Gentle breezes stir banana leaf prints. If you're not in L.A., you can at least pretend you are.

June 10, 2004|David A. Keeps and Adamo DiGregorio | Special to The Times

Forty years ago, when he was all of 23, Miller Fong sketched a chair on an envelope and mailed it to his father in Hong Kong, where the family manufactured rattan and wicker furniture for its Los Angeles company, Tropi-Cal. The finished product -- dubbed the Lotus chair -- was all edges and improbable curves. An elegant composition of wrought iron and woven wicker, it looked as if it had been born yesterday.

Make that reborn. This year, Andy Hackman, a dealer and expert on outdoor furniture at California Living in Los Angeles, convinced Miller Fong that the moment was right to reissue the Lotus and other Tropi-Cal designs, this time with stainless steel frames and Hularo, an all-weather synthetic wicker.

Tropi-California, shorthand for the tropical California style of home decor, is finally receiving its due as a made-in-L.A. design genre as distinctive as Hollywood Glam. The look, however, has been with us ever since turn-of-the-century Californians outfitted sleeping porches with wicker furniture, and the style has evolved alongside the century's major design movements, from Arts and Crafts to Millennium Modern.

The current incarnation -- a blend of worldly inspirations that includes Asian minimalism, South Seas handicrafts and streamlined L.A. casual -- is fast becoming a national trend. From bamboo floors to sea-grass rugs, formal dining chairs wrapped in woven banana bark to throw pillows studded with coconut beads, the most visible manifestation is in the furniture and accessories industry. Whether it exudes the retro funkiness of a surf shack or has the sleek silhouettes of L.A. designer Barbara Barry's dark rattan line for McGuire, it is high-style, low-maintenance furniture that says, "Kick back and smell the jasmine."

Doubt it? Look around you. The exuberant 1941 banana leaf print used by couturier-decorator Don Loper on the walls of the Beverly Hills Hotel is now available as wallpaper and upholstery fabric from www.martiniquewallpaper .com. The current issues of House Beautiful and Travel + Leisure feature valentines to the California cabana. The cover of the June Sunset magazine trumpets instructions on creating a tropical look "no matter where you live." The advertising industry has gone similarly bananas. Gucci's ready-to-wear campaigns are shot in tropical settings regardless of the season. Even the current Corona billboards on Sunset Boulevard show a glistening beer bottle casting a giant shadow shaped like a royal palm.

The appeal of Tropi-California is more than emotional. "It's not just the mythical, romantic idea of living in a island paradise," Hackman says. "What people embrace is that sense of casualness and lightness that defines Los Angeles. Stressed-out two-income families love to have a little California in their lives."

Now they can. Namesake lifestyle brands like Tommy Bahama and Cabana Joe are volcano-hot. For the latter, a line of furniture developed by Joe O'Brien in his Venice Beach storefront, growth has been explosive. "It's about 20% of our business," says Gary McCray of Lane-Venture, the furniture manufacturer that licensed the line in 2001. "People are now decorating from the front door to the pool," he adds. "We expect this to be a long run."

Don't call it a comeback. In Los Angeles, tropical style is not about revivals but about ongoing refinements. A consequence of our geographic, demographic and psychological makeup, Tropi-California is a lifestyle that is wedded to Los Angeles. It is design philosophy that is so innate to Southern California that it has become trend-resistant, morphing with the times and co-existing with whatever decor fad washes ashore. Although contemporary Tropi-California has recognizable signatures -- an informal mix of decorative genres, citrus colors, organic shapes and woven surfaces -- the look is as individual as the people who take it home.

Landscape architect and interior decorator Judy Marchyn embodies the Tropi-California spirit with striking use of color. Transforming a post-war L-shaped ranch into a personal Eden, she combined vibrant ruby grapefruit walls with lemon yellow trim on the oversized crown moldings. Outside, Marchyn painted the exterior of her Venice home "the color of the wild green parrots that roost in my yard." To cut the strong sunlight from the southern exposure on a small patio, she fabricated draperies out of black plastic window screen mesh, adding a contemporary woven element to the outdoor room. Marchyn curls up with a book under a palm-frond ceiling fan on a daybed of her own design, she says, "as often as I can."

Marchyn's retreat is not the only way to achieve an exalted aloha state. As Jimmy Buffett, Tommy Bahama and the latter day Beach Boys have proved, many Americans gravitate to the more traditional form of Tropi-California.

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