THE first thing you notice in Megan Boynton's downtown L.A. loft isn't the enormous curved window or the striking black and red furniture. Instead, it's an almost life-size image of an elephant swimming that Boynton, an apparel executive at Guess, had copied onto a 14-by-9-foot swath of nylon-polyester that stretches across the room. Art installation? Hardly. The elephant curtain, which hangs from a piece of 1-inch pipe to separate her living room from her bedroom, is one of the more creative solutions to Southern California's emerging design dilemma: how to live without walls.
The boom in loft living as well as an insatiable demand for open-plan houses have brought homeowners and renters some unexpected realities: undefined rooms and a lack of privacy. The problem is only more apparent during the holidays, when overnight guests and back-to-back parties can suddenly make those wall-less wonders look like one endless mess, open for all to see.
But instead of walling themselves back in, Angelenos are turning to DIY ingenuity as well as designer- and architect-conscripted solutions. Curtains, bookshelves and lighting are suddenly moonlighting as room dividers, as are sculpture gardens, pivoting walls, even floor-to-ceiling flower vases.
For Boynton, bisecting her loft had as much to do with aesthetics as functionality.
"When you walk into my apartment, you see the bathroom, which I really don't like," she says, adding that the curtain not only blocks certain sightlines but also shields her bed from a streetlight that shines through her window all night. Printed on the side of the curtain that faces the bedroom is a satellite picture of Earth. "It's a negative of the image, so the map is yellow and the lights are black," she says. "I played with it in Photoshop forever."
For parties, she undoes the 12 wall hooks that keep the curtain taut on each side, whisks back the fabric and voila: She has 1,700 square feet of uninterrupted party space. Cost: $1,200.
For Amy Arroyo, the solution came to $25,000. The designer and her husband, Jim, live in a 1,400-square-foot loft in Elleven, the first all-new-construction condo built in downtown L.A. in decades. The units have interior walls only for the bathrooms. Instead of slapping up Sheetrock, Arroyo used wood-framed glass walls installed on ceiling tracks. The "flex walls" barely graze the floor, dividing the two bedrooms from the common areas.
"This way we don't lose the views," says Arroyo, who had the glass colored a shade of taupe called Chai Tea. In another Elleven unit that Arroyo was hired to design, she used walnut sliding walls to carve out some privacy. A few units away, a couple installed Japanese restaurant doors as movable screens hung from the ceiling.
THE contradiction of wanting open space as well as walls isn't lost on architect John Hirsh, who shares the L.A. design practice Space International with Michael Ferguson.
"People want this open feeling, but then the reality is you need privacy to make that phone call," Hirsh says. "Philosophically, it's that desire for the open plain, the great expanse, but in reality there are domestic issues that need to be differentiated."
The two Southern California Institute of Architecture graduates attempted to give one client both worlds with what they call their "AV wall," a steel-framed structure with laminated glass that transmits light yet separates the bedroom and the living room. The audio-visual element? The architects floated a flat-screen TV in the middle of the wall, mechanics cleverly hidden. The entire piece is set on ball bearings, so it pivots with the push of a pinkie, allowing the TV to be viewed from either room.
"The wall privatizes space when you want that, but it also acts as a viewing surface by virtue of the fact that the doors retract and spin," Hirsh says.
On the low-tech, high-style end of the scale, you'll find people such as designer Amy Finley, who used expandable floor-to-ceiling metal poles with flower vases from Italian designer Industreal to separate the dining room from a hallway in her open-plan Rancho Santa Fe spread.
Or Matthew White, an interior decorator who until earlier this year lived at Castle Green in Old Town Pasadena. He used Indian hand-woven silk to curtain off a small square of space for his bedroom in an otherwise wall-less 2,000-square-foot loft.
"I used the architectural details, the arches and ceiling heights, as well as the furniture plan, to divide the space," White says. "This is a great way to live, but you couldn't live like this if you had children. There's no privacy."
DAVID GRIECO might disagree. The sculptor and designer lives with wife Kio Nyakio and 18-month-old daughter Lulu in a Flower Street Lofts penthouse in downtown L.A. Grieco has used his own work, a series of creations he calls his "sculpture garden," to divide his studio from the living room, dining room and kitchen.
"I've never liked barriers in any form," says the artist, who lines up six pedestals with his bronze sculptures to demarcate his work space. "Lulu can come in whenever she wants. The pedestals create an amazing separation from the rest of the loft in its openness and flow."
And according to architect Hirsh, this double duty is what these designs are all about. "It's very simple to put up a wall; it's a little more complicated to create multifunctions for that partition," he says. "But that's exactly what adds layers of meaning to any space."--