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STYLE : The Surreal Thing

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When it comes to his work environment, landscape artist Jay Griffith doesn’t exactly live in the real world. Surrounding his Venice office is a theatrical landscape, waves of robust vegetation boiling up around remnants of the past: dilapidated lawn chairs, an open-roofed boudoir with a sloping bed and urns going to rust.

“I had an image in my head, a cross between Caesar’s Palace and antebellum ruins--beautiful, vulgar and dreamlike at the same time,” he says. The son of a Hollywood lighting director, Griffith was trained as a fine artist but has been designing gardens for 19 years. Recently, he has become known for decorating his eccentric outdoor worlds with chandeliers and Persian carpets.

More than any other landscape Griffith has created, the 9,500-square-foot office garden combines his penchant for drama with his passion for California’s vanishing past. “I’ve spent my life watching things disappear,” he says, citing L.A.’s historical landmarks and yesterday’s kitsch. Thus the view from his drawing board includes a giant Aladdin’s lamp that once drew crowds to a movie theater, a reclining concrete lion and a nymph knee-deep in a fountain of chandelier crystals.

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Griffith uses this landscape to show clients his techniques for articulating space and mixing foliage colors and textures for maximum visual interest. Though unbridled in spirit, the year-old garden was very carefully choreographed, using lush, drought-tolerant perennials--echium, artemisia, sages and grasses.

After sundown, all the garden’s earthly qualities disappear under the influence of neon: Urns glow hot; the ghostly boudoir turns an electric cobalt; red fountain grass, fired from below, looks like massed, crawling tarantulas. Even the windows of Griffith’s office, an ordinary bungalow painted lavender, shine a lonely, mournful blue. “You don’t know whether it’s real or a hallucination,” he says.

The product of a decade’s worth of his obsessions, the garden is a monument to Griffith’s quirky vision. “I love extremes,” he explains. “Any middle ground leaves me cold.”

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