See the slide show of photos of the Perrin house, garden, and plants in "Perfect Union: Slide Show."
One day this past winter, after hard rains and heavy winds had battered Southern California, Michel Perrin flew home from a trip to Asia to find a massive palm tree in his swimming pool. Perrin, a French native who has lived in Beverly Hills since 2006, was more amazed than chagrined, though it wasn't even his palm. It had toppled from a city lot. “For such a big tree,” he marveled, “it has such short, shallow roots!”
He shook his head. A plant border lay in ruins, a fence smashed. But that palm…
As recent California transplants, Perrin, his wife Sally, and their teenagers, Chloé and Emma, still shuttle between Los Angeles and Paris, where he is chairman of his family's leather goods firm. To them, the Golden State is a novelty, not a cliché, and they inhabit it in a personal way. When the weather cooperates, which is almost all year round, they live a classic, indoor-outdoor life in a 1950 home that was made for exactly this lifestyle. The house, “very Palm Springs,” in Sally's words, was designed by modern architect Victor Gruen with sunny courtyards for lounging and dining and glass-walled rooms that open onto gardens. But inside, with the help of French decorator Chahan Minassian, who traveled from Paris for the project, the couple ruled out the sort of sun-dazzled colors often found here in favor of ivories, soft sages, and blues. Outside, in a complementary spirit of almost European restraint, landscape designer Judy Kameon kept the plant palette just as simple. Yet the result, as one moves from the street through the large front garden, into the entry courtyard, then the house and out again, onto the lawn and the patios around the pool, is a detailed though subtle experience of a mix of light, air, texture, and tone that seems essential to this place but controlled in a way that California typically isn't.
Cool but not cold, the Perrins' low-slung house and embracing gardens are all of a piece, the product of a collaboration between the owners and their two designers. It was Minassian, in fact, who brought in Kameon (whose architect father once worked for Victor Gruen) to the project after seeing the Parker Palm Springs hotel, where Kameon had designed a striking series of garden rooms using plants to soften the sleek building while adding exotic lushness to the desert setting.
The Perrins gave Kameon a wish list. Michel wanted at least a couple of palms and, given their bicontinental lifestyle, a low-maintenance garden scheme. Avid art collectors, both Michel and Sally requested “sculptural” succulents to harmonize with the house and serve, like the art inside, as focal points. They also asked Kameon to scrap the front lawn and boxwood hedge between their house and the busy street. “They wanted romance,” she remembers. “What existed was classic Beverly Hills, everything clipped and conventional. As the first thing you saw, the front set the tone for the entire garden and the house.”
Minassian walked Kameon through his scheme, showing her fabrics and other materials, which include textured linens and silks, a Tibetan goatskin rug, a curtain of iridescent seashells, all in shades of cream, bronze, silver, and aqueous blue to evoke the ocean and the desert.
Inspired by the look and feel of these, she designed a “demi-screen” of large specimen agaves interspersed with tall grasses to block portions of the road and frame the building with organic curves. She carried inside features out: The ivory stripes of Agave americana var. medio-picta ‘Alba’ presage the living room's rich upholstery. Creamy pea gravel mulch echoes the indoor terrazzo floors, while the plumes of dwarf pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’) mimic the goatskin's pettable nap. Other plants (Agave weberi andSenecio mandraliscae) have a shell-like shimmer and a blue cast deepened by adjacent lime-green ferns. Besides heightening the blues, the bright greens also link the front bed visually to a hillside behind the house, suggesting the landscape's ties to the wilder world.
As expansive and public as this picture is, the entry courtyard is invitingly private, even as it repeats themes from the front. Here, where birch trees and a lawn once created a bland view for the surrounding glassed-in rooms, now more agaves swirl around a curvy sculpture by Michael Arntz. But instead of admiring these succulents from afar, someone standing inside the courtyard is close enough to appreciate their patterned leaves and the contrast of one variety's spine-tipped rosettes with another's broad, fleshy straps. “Tone-on-tone compositions call attention to details,” says Kameon, who loves to play with scale in restricted spots. “My impulse in a small space is to put in big things.”
Inside the front door, the space quickly expands again, and it's possible to see past the airy living room—where a round rug and circular stools counter the rectilinear architecture—to the deep rear garden, the largest outdoor room of all. Thanks to an original sliding glass wall, the whole back of the house opens up to the garden. But initially, what was here wasn't worthy. “The view was missing the middle story, the layered planting between the ground and trees that makes a landscape hospitable to people,” Kameon says. To fix the problem, she fattened and reshaped the plant borders around a central lawn that the Perrins wanted to keep for entertaining, adding tropical birds of paradise, aeoniums and sages, along with silver fan palms for Michel. She left untouched the angled pool, complete with diving board and surrounding paving and, repeating the shape of furnishings inside, a bubble chair was hung from a podocarpus tree. When the Perrins asked for stepping stones outside their master suite, Kameon scattered round concrete pavers in a pattern reminiscent of champagne fizz.
“This is what we were looking for when we moved to Southern California from Paris,” Sally says. “A tranquil and harmonious setting, from the inside out.”
And what of the palm tree in the pool?
Days after it fell, Michel was still waiting for the city to winch it out, he says. But he wasn't impatient. The tree fascinated him. Half-submerged, like some stranded, exotic fish, it seemed to convey a message: California is more complicated and mutable than it seems.
And, as it turns out, so are palms.
Susan Heeger is the coauthor of From Seed to Skillet. Her most recent story for Garden Design was "Top of Their Game" (April 2010).