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A haven, properly aged

Castoff furniture and indoor decor give a Manhattan Beach yard a timeless, lived-in feel.

April 24, 2008|Debra Prinzing | Special to The Times

It's not unusual to see vintage collections adorning a fireplace mantel, china cabinet or bookcase. But now those found objects are moving outdoors, infusing the landscape with character and personality.

Salvaged columns, urns, railings and finials are among the one-of-a-kind (and often affordable) castoffs that lend age to a new garden. While you're waiting for the plants to mature, the vintage shapes and chipped fragments give you something to admire.

Greta and Mike Jarvis like the patina of time that comes from decorating their patio garden with reclaimed and recycled artifacts. In their 30-by-40-foot backyard, geraniums spill from paint-chipped wooden boxes; succulents thrive in a pair of 1930s concrete urns. Distressed planks form the top of an iron coffee table. A stone horse trough catches water spilling from a French lavabo.

Designing with fragments from the past is an appealing alternative to the cookie-cutter approach, says Greta, an attorney. "We went to some of the new homes around here, but all the gardens we saw had that generic 'outdoor living' look. Or we'd find gardens in design magazines, but they were too modern-looking."

The Manhattan Beach couple were tired of never using their backyard -- a patch of sod and a tiny concrete patio occupied mainly by 10-year-old Annika and her playmates, including Asia, the family's papillon. A hot tub, perched on a terrace 4 feet above ground, felt distant and awkwardly placed. A free-standing grill dominated the view. The height of neighboring properties loomed overhead, making the backyard feel hemmed in.

Then a magazine article about interior and garden designer Sandy Koepke's eclectic, vintage-looking property in Beverly Hills caught Greta's eye.

"It looked how a backyard should look: rustic and old," she says.

A self-described hunter-gatherer of architectural salvage and artifacts, Koepke tries to make functional spaces feel comfortable and livable. She prefers weathered and aging finishes over new surfaces, using timeworn materials and found objects to suggest a sense of permanence.

"I want things to look like a really good craftsman created them, but a long time ago," Koepke explains.

When the designer toured the Jarvis property, she was struck by how the yard felt dark and disconnected from the home, a two-story Mediterranean-style built in 1997.

"There was no easy access from the house to the backyard," Koepke explains. "The kitchen area had a picture window, and only one of the family room doors operated; the other two were fixed in place."

She recommended enlarging the two openings and adding 9-foot-tall lanai-style doors. They fold open, accordion-style, to invite sea breezes. "Now there are no interruptions to the sight lines," Koepke points out. "There's no 'in here' or 'out there' but instead, it's as if the back of the house is gone."

The redesign also eliminated the diminutive lawn. "Yes, we had grass, but it wasn't enough for throwing a football around," says Mike, an investor in racehorses at Santa Anita Park.

The Jarvises shared stories of their favorite vacation spots in places such as Hawaii, Tahiti, Costa Rica and Mexico. "We like boutique hotels with little outdoor areas," Mike says. Their preference for open-air patios to dine and relax inspired the designer's approach. She pictured a Mexican village square where people gather with friends, share meals and bring jugs to fill at a communal water source. A wood-burning fireplace and rustic fountain would be focal points.

After contractors removed the original lawn and tiny patio, the designer reconfigured the rectangular yard with a courtyard-like feel. She suggested shortening a towering bamboo hedge across the south property line, drastically reducing ominous shadows cast by its height.

The designer sketched out a fireplace-conversation area, an outdoor kitchen and bar, the dining room and a breakfast nook with a cafe set. Comfortable seating is arranged around the wood-burning fireplace (made from golden stucco and topped with a rusted grain bin, re-purposed as a chimney).

Handmade iron chairs and a daybed, found in Mexico, are upholstered in all-weather fabric that resembles Guatemalan blankets. An 18-inch raised planter box gains new purpose as a cushion-covered bench.

Nearby, water trickles from antique spigots mounted on a half-wall, evoking an Old World fountain. The terrace staircase is tucked behind the wall, relocated from a corner of the yard. The new acid-washed concrete floor looks appropriately weathered. Ochre-pigmented stucco, embedded with sand, ages the appearance of new and existing walls.

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