Ornaments are thriving in stylish gardens

ART IN BLOOM

July 07, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

That spot in your garden where the roses are blooming in profusion and the ivy has taken over the crumbling brick wall -- right there would be the perfect place for a romantic ornament.

Let me suggest a foot.

Made of cast stone, it looks like the broken foot of a statue on a marble base. For a mere $115, you can add a delightful piece of faux antiquity to any garden, even the tiny backyard of a city rowhouse.

Today's gardeners are enthusiastically filling their yards with items whose primary function is beauty. As the decorative lines between outdoors and indoors have become blurred, people are accessorizing their gardens just as they accessorize their living rooms.

Vintage garden ornaments haven't been this much in vogue since the 18th century, when the very rich brought home statues and architectural artifacts from their grand tours.

Being revived is everything from Victorian gazing globes (which one historian traced back to formal Dutch gardens in the 17th century) to lichen-covered statuary.

Of course, these days the sculptures, urns, finials and plinths are likely to be reproductions -- in terra cotta, if you're on a budget, or frost-resistant cast stone, which more closely resembles marble, if you can spend a bit more. Most in demand, of course, (if you can afford them) are true antiques. Since the late '80s, the interest has been so great that Sotheby's and Christie's now hold specialty auctions of garden elements.

"It used to be that clients would have these pieces cleaned," says Michael Walter of New York's Lexington Gardens, which is known for its classical garden elements. "Now if there's moss growing on it, all the better. The more story it tells, the more value it has."

Stores that specialize in antique pieces and architectural artifacts for gardens have sprung up all over the country. Locally, you can find vintage garden ornaments in many antiques stores and in stores that specialize in them (for both outdoor and indoor use), like DHS Designs in Annapolis and Queenstown.

There used to be something, well, tacky about garden ornaments -- or yard art, as the cute little trolls and ducks and such were called. Yard art was often made of plastic, and was therefore particularly tacky, like the infamous pink flamingos.

To digress a moment, those pink flamingos are, ironically, among the hottest garden ornaments these days in Florida and California. Michael MacCaskey, editor of National Gardening, explains their popularity by saying: "They're the ultimate kitsch used in a knowing, ultra-hip way. Their very lack of hipness is considered hip." Or as one California landscape designer puts it, "They're just such a hoot."

If you're feeling ultra-hip, you can find a pair of pink flamingos at Kmart for under $10, which is considerably better than $115 for a cast-stone foot. But judging from what local garden stores like Watson's and Valley View Farms are carrying, gazing globes, cherubs, Michelangelo's David in miniature, realistic-looking animals and classical urns are most in demand in the Baltimore area.

A few years ago, a catalog company called Design Toscano, which makes its ornaments out of weather-resistant resin, introduced "gardengoyles," Gothic gargoyle figurines that practically overnight became huge sellers.

These days, however, Design Toscano advertises itself as a "Historical Garden Ornaments" company.

Nancy Ketchiff, a spokeswoman for Toscano, thinks that people are going for a more sophisticated look these days. "People have started treating their gardens as extensions of their houses," she says. "And all the new gardening magazines like Garden Design are dream books for a lot of people." They see what they can do with more serious garden elements, such as Design Toscano's reproduction of a piece of frieze from the Parthenon.

"People want their yards, no matter how small, to look designed," says Debbie Queitzsch, assistant manager of Smith & Hawken, where the cast-stone foot mentioned at the beginning of this story is sold. The upscale garden store and catalog company has Bacchus' and lions' heads, pots from Crete, hand-distressed carved urns, Roman-inspired planters, reproduction stepping stones and medallions and -- for serious antiquity -- terra cotta urns designed during the late Neolithic age. The biggest seller? "Birdbaths are huge," says Queitzsch. They aren't just for the birds -- gardeners also use them as planters, filling them with bulbs or annuals.

Perhaps the ultimate nonfunctional garden ornament is the gazing globe, a silvered glass orb that's enjoying a brisk revival. These reflective globes come in a variety of colors and cost between $23 and $40, depending on size -- 10 inches and up in diameter. Gardeners place them on pedestals, which are sold separately, or nestle them among their flowers. Originally they were made of mercury glass (which is now outlawed), and these vintage globes can sometimes be found in antiques shops.

A Victorian gazing globe, or a statue or an urn, serves as a conversation piece and a focal point for today's gardens. But they also do more.

Like antiques in the living room, vintage ornaments give their surroundings a sense of history, of permanence -- especially in a garden, which is so ephemeral.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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