Tichenor and Thorp—both native Southern Californians—were born three days apart in 1959 and met in the ‘80s at UCLA’s graduate school of architecture. Tichenor had trained as a painter; both had traveled extensively in Europe, and they share a love of all things Moroccan. They also admire the gardens of Southern France, where the fullness of English–style planting meets the geometric discipline of neoclassical palace gardens and the rich colors of the Mediterranean. These passions—and a commitment to desert–appropriate flora-guided the energetic duo in organizing their personal terrain.
The house in the historic enclave of South Carthay (near Wilshire Boulevard) was built by a Greek émigré, who erected the garden’s stucco walls and brick fireplace. By 1992, when Tichenor & Thorp bought the place, four staunch cypresses anchored the lot, and bougainvillea lolled invitingly over patios. However, the grounds were generally overgrown, the borders stuffed with clashing blooms. The couple’s task, says Tichenor, was “to give each space a character suited to its use but compatible with the whole”—on less than a kingly budget.
They began by drawing an overall plan, but they implemented it in stages, to control spending and to see whether, as they lived in each space, they really used it as they had envisioned. The front yard, for example, where they had imagined relaxing on a small terrace behind a low wall, turned out, Thorp recalls, to be “too public to be truly comfortable.” When an earthquake damaged the wall, they demolished it and replaced it with a bay laurel hedge. Along with other drought–tolerant shrubs and trees—flax, bird of paradise, westringia, queen palms—the hedge provides enough screening for the house without raising an unfriendly barrier to the neighborhood. Most of the couple’s lounging, as well as their entertaining, now takes place in the backyard areas.
Their expectations for the rear courtyard were more on target. Here the two got to work brightening the dull beige walls, painting them white with a wrap around celadon dado. They replaced the cracked red concrete floor with a carpet of inexpensive concrete tiles—set in one of Tichenor’s favorite Islamic paving patterns—and used small blue–and–white accent tiles to give an indoor finish to the old brick fireplace.
For outdoor dining, the couple created a side court out of a portion of the original driveway. Not wanting to spring for new paving, they just removed part of the paving and filled the gap in the concrete with decomposed granite, which is much softer underfoot. The remaining concrete was inexpensively turned into a pastel checkerboard with shades of concrete stain. They opened the house to the courtyard with a new French door and, as a romantic tapestry for the dining area, coaxed thriving bougainvillea over the wall from the main court. In this way, says Thorp, “We brought the garden into the driveway and made the driveway disappear.”
It wasn’t long after they moved in that the garage was pressed into service as a studio office. At the same time, they recast what had been a dirt utility yard into the most experimental part of their landscape: a totally enclosed “secret garden.” This retreat is focused on color, massed foliage and roses. “In California,” says Tichenor, “contrasting leaf shapes and tones are more important than flowers, which can look overexposed in the harsh light.”
Proceeding “like a painter with tubes of pigment,” he paired the red and olive spears of the ‘Maori queen’ flax with fuzzy silver lamb’s ears, a parade of pale–pink roses and red–splashed pelargoniums—all set against a spicy, salmon–colored wall. The deep–blue wall opposite is edged with black–leafed plants and brugmansia branching over a bubbling pool. Clipped myrtle hedges and a gravel path add structure, while repeating plants—true geranium, westringia and bay laurel—link this room to others. (The “true geranium,” genus Geraniaceae, has smaller blooms than the familiar windowbox variety, which are, in fact, genus Pelargonium.)
Though the garden is already well established, the tinkering hasn’t stopped. “With the frame in place,” says Tichenor, “you can play with colors, try out plants you like, fool with fountains. That’s the fun of being your own client.”
“And if you go over–budget,” adds Thorp, grinning, “who’ll complain?”