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Fashion statements

In the hands of Big Red Sun, a landscape company with a contemporary bent, succulents and other hardy plants can be hip expressions of style.

January 05, 2006|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

SUCCULENTS are more than a hot trend, says landscape designer Selena Souders. They're the smart choice for the time-strapped: slow growing, hard to kill, water saving. "Less of a commitment than having a pet, but more of a commitment than having a couch," she says -- and particularly appealing to an under-40 crowd.

"People in my generation are creating nests," says Souders, 34. "Because design and art are much more appreciated, readily available and discussed, we want more than just grass."

Demand for gardens that eschew tradition in favor of invention -- that make the outside of a house every bit as cool and creative as the inside -- makes Souders and her partner, Dylan Robertson, 36, the right people at the right place, at the right time. Their contemporary landscape design firm, Big Red Sun, is building a reputation largely on a hipster approach to succulents, cactuses and hardy tropicals that need only the occasional pinch to keep their shape and a few spritzes of water each week to keep them thriving. When used to their fullest effect, the plants are nothing less than fashion, and like a good martini, they even can be party conversation starters.

"They are yummy," Souders says. "People want to collect them, embrace their form and watch them grow."

Souders and Robertson called upon their training in architecture, welding, stone carving, field botany, and floral and interior design to launch Big Red Sun in 1994 in Austin, Texas. There they still occupy a city block with a nursery, landscape offices and a retail space selling original designs for plant arrangements, vessels and furniture. Ten years after opening in Austin, the couple chose Venice for their second studio because of the emphasis here on outdoor living.

"L.A. is still ahead of the rest of the country in this way," Souders says, adding that the quality of the nurseries and roadside succulent growers were important factors in choosing a place to expand. "These growers don't know the impact they're having on the world right now. They may not be rich yet, but because of their passion there's a richness to what they're doing."

Some of those plants land in the company's Metro Botanicals line of containers: streamlined concrete and steel, often filled with vertical aloes set next to rosette-shaped Echeveria.

"People go nuts when they see this modern approach," says Souders, who grew up watching "The Jetsons" and reading high-concept design magazines, both of which helped her dream up her own otherworldly creations.

It's hard to turn away from a display of finger-like Fenestraria, spiky agave and artichoke-shaped Jovibarba. They look so alien, so uncommon. Crinkled or straight-leafed, they bring texture, color and form to tabletops or entire gardens.

"If there is such a thing as 'modern' plants in the home, these would be them," says Philip Fracassi, co-owner of Equator Books in Venice, which has a 25-foot-long display of Big Red Sun's container plants. "We've seen everything here in the way of florals and vegetation, but these arrangements are so unique that throughout the day I hear customers say to each other, 'Hey, come look at this.' " Impressed by the company's store installations, Equator co-owner Michael Deyermond hired Big Red Sun to bring succulents into his house.

"We fell in love with their work, and the relationship grew organically," Fracassi says. "They do larger projects, like rooftop terraces and gardens, but we think of their small raw containers as 'mini landscapes' versus just plants. They have an eclectic vibe."

At the Rose Cafe and Market in Venice, buyer Sheila Vasquez says Big Red Sun's swank arrangements are popular because of their clean, modern aesthetic.

"Young customers like them, but the prices -- around $100 -- keep some from buying them," she says. Other shoppers, however, are willing to spring for something unusual. "They're great-looking and easy to keep alive."

Souders and Robertson, both architecture aficionados, see nothing but creative potential in the revitalization of old dwellings here. "It's great to see downtown L.A., Silver Lake, Santa Monica and Venice rediscovered, recycled and upgraded," Souders says.

The spare lines and clean shapes of the company's arrangements complement midcentury moderns and newly built lofts alike. Container plantings of vertical aloe and jade work indoors or on balconies. Souders has sculpted succulents into basketball-sized orbs that hang from ceilings. Urban thumbnail yards have been transformed into scenic Old California courtyards, and water-gulping lawns have been replaced with less-demanding native grasses and ground covers.

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