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The religious symbol as decoration? It's complicated.

June 12, 2008|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

IN ALMOST every room of Susan Cohen's Santa Monica house, there are Buddha statues: sitting, standing, reclining. Some are gray, others purple or pink. A 4-foot-tall copper-colored cast-resin Buddha head is propped up in the backyard pond, and a tiny ceramic figure gazes from the dashboard of her car.

Cohen isn't a Buddhist, and in 10 years of displaying symbols of the ancient religion, no one has asked if she is. She's just drawn to what the statues represent: serenity, wisdom, peace. "Who wouldn't want that in their home?" she asks.

Very few, it seems. Buddhas are big. They're everywhere these days, more likely bought at the local mall or garden center than during an overseas vacation. The principal religious figure for an estimated 6% of the world's population now doubles as visual shorthand for soothing interior design to so many others -- an instant tranquilizer set on the console or hung above the mantel. Scott Thomas of Thomas-Somero Design in Hollywood says that whenever he hears the word "Zen" from clients, he automatically draws a Buddha into the design sketch -- much to their approval.

Demand has even spread to the art market. In March, Christie's sold a 26-inch-tall wooden Buddha sculpture dating to the 12th century for about $14.4 million, setting a world auction record for traditional Japanese art.

Since 2004, Sotheby's has held three "The Arts of the Buddha" auctions that have included paintings, drawings and sculptures. In September, a 13th century Buddha from China sold for $541,000, more than double its pre-auction estimate.

Then there are the $7 Buddha-shaped bars of soap at Stone Candles in Culver City, the $117 Serenity table lamp with a Buddha head base under a black shade at, the $10 Buddha wind chime at Cost Plus World Market.

"While you'd typically see these items in our collectibles department, we're expanding the image to other divisions including our new bedding and pillows," says Marilyn Incerty, division merchandise manager for World Market. She adds that the chain has carried Buddha sculptures since 1958, but only in the last couple of years has demand spiked. "It's definitely a hot item."

The trend has even spawned the inevitable spoofs, including the sage dog in the classic contemplative pose -- paws poking out of its monk robe -- for $25 at the Pilgrims Way Community Bookstore & the Secret Garden, a Carmel shop that sells mostly serious items representing world religions. When a Japanese Buddhist monk saw the concrete canine, he laughed out loud, store owner Cynthia Fernandes says. "So I figure it can't be offensive."

Indeed, Buddha has become such a ubiquitous element in living rooms and on patios, the questions are inescapable: Has Buddhamania gone too far? What is the proper way to showcase such pieces? And at what point is the religious symbol reduced to a decorating tchotchke?

MICHAEL REITZ wasn't looking for spirituality when he found a Buddha statue for sale in a design showroom. His first reaction: "I'd like to come home to that face." Gentle looking, with partially closed eyes, princely long ears and upturned lips, the countenance was as relaxed as the body, held gracefully in a lotus position.

Made of stone and heavier than a refrigerator, the 5-foot-tall statue was hauled to Reitz's Nichols Canyon home. When he moved a few blocks away, he put the Buddha on a dolly and wheeled it down the street. It now sits on a pedestal embedded into the hillside, soft moss growing on it Reitz has since bought two more statues.

"Now I can see a Buddha from every window," says the film hair stylist, who sought relief from chaotic workdays. "They have friendly, nonthreatening faces that make me feel protected. If I ever moved, they'd go with me."

Thomas and design partner Brian Somero say a Buddha can represent an attempt to bring peace to a space. In a project steeped in irony, Thomas put a 2-inch Buddha near the soaking tub of one client -- a casting director "who screams and ruins people's careers all day."

L.A. interior designer William McWhorter says the image of Buddha speaks subtly about spirituality without being overtly religious. It also falls into so many Southern Californians' desire to connect with the environment. McWhorter has a Los Feliz client with a larger-than-life Buddha seated in a fountain. "It's serene," he says. "And you feel you're a part of nature."

In two new contemporary Venice town-house rentals, developer and designer Georgie Smith installed a 19th century marble Burmese Buddha with his right hand on his chest. The open living-dining space has another Burmese Buddha standing in the center, and garden patios have sculptures seated in the lotus position, which represents balance and tranquillity.

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