Spare Change

Two years ago, Pat Nakahara and landscape designer Jay Griffith squinted hard at a piece of concrete-ridden ground in Pacific Palisades and envisioned a garden. Behind a ho-hum ranch-style house and beyond a pool shaped, Griffith recalls, like "a drunken trapezoid with funny doglegs," was a grove of sycamores and eucalyptus that led the eye to an ocean view.

"The trees clinched it," says Griffith, who found the house--on its sweeping 1 1/3 acres--for Nakahara and embarked with her on their seventh consecutive residential renovation.

"This one was all about paring down," explains Nakahara, who owns a wholesale produce business and is obsessed with turning ugly ducklings into swans. "Here was a site with a lot of drama," she says. "I wanted that. I didn't care so much about the house."

Though unremarkable, the house was from an era that appealed to her--the 1960s--and it was nicely oriented to the outdoors. What it needed most to make it livable was a coat of paint and a few additional glass doors.

The garden's problems were more complex. Informed by what Griffith calls "an early tract-house mentality," the landscape featured a patio crowded against the house and no incentive for anyone to stroll the property to reach the view. The disconcerting pool was the focal point, and it was set off with what Griffith calls "a run-on sentence of concrete in all the wrong spots."

His first job was to reshape the pool, filling in parts of it, squaring off odd angles and streamlining the coping and deck. At the same time, he all but nixed the enormous terrace, saw-cutting the concrete and reusing it for a patio a greater distance from the house.

The site for the new patio emerged during several hours he and Nakahara spent walking, sitting and observing views from the property's many vantage points. On a spot overlooking the best vista, Griffith installed a rectangle of recycled pavers and, from the same saw-cut concrete, built a table and bench to match. He framed his free-standing terrace with a carpet of lawn, both to set it off and to create a walk to it from the house. Later he added other amenities and destinations, including an outdoor kitchen and a secluded lounge, complete with concrete sofa and coffee table and a bark mulch "shag rug."

Throughout the project, Griffith's inspiration was the 1960s, the period that produced the house, Nakahara's white Corvette and the Richard Schultz lounge chairs they decided on for the garden. Plantwise, too, Griffith stayed with the '60s functional, low-maintenance sensibility, using large groups of a few kinds of plants. Around the pool, for example, one border contains only red 'Guardsman' flax and gray gazanias. Another is stuffed with grasslike juncus. Both shine against the backdrop of the trees--the original sycamores and coppery eucalyptus--which established the outdoor color palette.

"The seeds of this garden were here from the beginning," Griffith observes. "The house and property told us what to do. And we obeyed."


Jay Griffith's '60s Inspirations:

* Psychedelia in all its forms.

* The advertising slogan for Maybelline mascara: "Long, longer, longest."

* Modular furniture.

* Post-nuclear rubble, conjured up by video of the apocalyptic mushroom cloud.

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