Groundbreaking landscape architect Jay Griffith helps grow the Venice Design Series
By Joe Piasecki
As Jay Griffith creates nature, he lets nature guide his hand.
A genuine Griffith landscape loosely melds plants and trees plotted in Fibonacci patterns of ones, twos, threes and fives with geometrically simple structures and art objects — often glass or metal spheres — according to the golden ratio of the perfect rectangles that contour the logarithmic spiral of a nautilus shell.
“I do this on purpose, but I don’t really look at it that way. It’s visceral. It’s intuitive. It’s what feels good. I don’t think about it,” he says. “That’s just the way God does it. Mother Nature. I’m just replicating nature.”
Griffith’s gardens — hundreds of them over the past 40 years — and those of his imitators have helped shape a certain sense of place about Venice.
A diverse place.
And slowly dying.
Griffith describes the cultural landscape of the Venice he discovered in 1967 as a 17-year-old “hippy kid with green eyes and red, red hair” as a hodgepodge of humanity representing every possible walk of life.
Now, “the populace of Venice has morphed. It’s changed over the last 20 years. People don’t build gardens, they build big houses,” he says. “And it’s very hard to get a lot of the new-entry people interested in old causes. The cause we’re currently working for is trying to keep diversification — social, economic — as part of Venice’s essential fabric, without it being a government edict.”
On Saturday, Griffith will host the kickoff party for the inaugural Venice Design Series, a string of fundraising events for the nonprofit Venice Community Housing Corporation that includes architecture tours, literary readings and dinners catered by leading local chefs.
Proceeds — so far more than $100,000 — benefit the organization’s outreach efforts to homeless people and low-income youth, including the operation of its 14 permanent supportive housing complexes that will soon undergo Griffith landscaping treatments pro bono.
“Gentrification has accelerated exponentially in the last few years more than ever in the 45 years I’ve been here. I call it a [real estate] feeding frenzy. Venice is quickly becoming a very different place,” says community organizer Linda Lucks, Venice Community Housing Corporation’s public outreach coordinator and a former member of its board.
“If there’s going to be any low-income people left in the community, Venice Community Housing will be the one housing them,” she says.
Griffith and Lucks go back 23 years as original organizers of the Venice Garden & Home Tour, currently on hiatus, that raised millions of dollars for the Neighborhood Youth Association.
Griffith and Venice Community Housing Corporation Executive Director Steve Clare became neighbors when Griffith bought his first home, a modest bungalow on Palms Boulevard with a big yard, for all of $25,000 in 1973 shortly after completing visual arts grad-school studies at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Clare had a unit in an aesthetically challenged co-op apartment complex.
“He would look across the wall at our two stucco boxes facing each other over scraggly grass — he always referred to it as Stalag 17 — and tried mightily to help us upgrade our landscaping,” Clare recalls. “We became much more appreciative later.”
Griffith sold the house on Palms seven years ago in order to save a restored Spanish Colonial Revival home in Pacific Palisades from the wrecking ball. The 1925 home with sweeping canyon views in its backyard was designed by celebrated Santa Monica architect John Byers for actress Billie Dove and later belonged to actor Eddie Albert and his actress wife Margo. Griffith now lives there with five small rescue dogs, an overfed goat and an American miniature horse, and that’s where he’ll host Saturday’s party.
“Everyone wanted to tear this down because it’s Spanish and Spanish is out of style in this neighborhood. These people have never heard of genius loci — sense of place,” he says. “They have a very myopic view of life and a very myopic education. They used to teach music appreciation, wood shop, auto shop in school. Now they teach the basics and a lot of computer technology, and people are excelling in very specific fields but they don’t know Shinola from Chopin.”
Griffith’s education was anything but narrow.
Griffith grew up in Woodland Hills, the youngest child of a Hollywood lighting director and an artistically inclined mother by a margin of 10 years — “a love baby,” he says, and one whose every creative impulse was indulged by mom, dad and wealthy grandparents in equally generous measure.
“I could draw. I could paint. I could sculpt from a very young age. I was a backwards child from the point of spoken or written word — slightly dyslexic — but I have a photographic memory when it comes to anything visual,” says Griffith. “I failed geometry. I failed math. I’m an idiot savant, if I must say so. The point is I really have a calling for what I do.”
Like his grandparents, Griffith’s parents were avid gardeners.
“We had this pretty crazy garden — a lot of groovy plants, a tropical forest in the backyard,” he says. “For my birthday or Christmas they’d ask what I wanted and I’d say I wanted to go the nursery and buy some plants.”
Griffith says his gardening bug was also nurtured by the world-class horticultural education programs offered by San Fernando Valley public schools at the time, a relic of the area’s pre-World War II agricultural roots.
“I was a gardening major in grammar school. I was a landscape prep major at Taft High. To get out of high school I had to know Latin names for all the plants,” he says, naming the various plants in a section of his backyard: camellia japonica, kentia howea, philodendron salome, acanthus mollis.
The high school art teacher who lobbied for Griffith’s diploma despite his poor grades urged him to forgo plans to study agriculture in favor of a liberal arts education, a path that would eventually lead him to Mexico.
“At graduation my grandmother gives me a letter from her bank — carte blanche for school, clothes, a car, everything: $10,000 now, $10,000 for graduate school, another $10,000 if you want to start a business,” Griffith recalls.
This was in 1968, when $10,000 had the buying power of $67,500 in today’s currency.
“In high school I didn’t quite fit in. I struggled. My grandmother took me aside and said, ‘Listen, I know you compare yourself to all these football stars, but they’re blooming now. You’ll bloom later. The early bloomers are the ones who wither on the vine.’ … The point is I had help. I had these mentors in my life,” Griffith says.
After struggling to adapt at UCLA, Griffith left for the California College of Creative Studies in Santa Barbara. He left there in 1971, after only his junior year, to pursue his passion for fine arts in Mexico.
Griffith uses the same phrase to describe San Miguel de Allende in 1971 and Venice in 1967: “a land that time forgot.”
Even at 12 pesos to the dollar, Griffith blew through nearly all of his second $10,000.
He returned to L.A. and got a bricklaying job building back patios — grunt work for $3.50 an hour.
That didn’t last long, however. Griffith says he kept himself entertained by following his own design patterns on jobs, which got him noticed by neighbors to the degree that he eventually did build his own business on word-of-mouth.
About a decade and a half later, Griffith turned 40 and doubled down on his calling, seeking out an A-list client roster. He eventually found himself working for an editor of Vogue magazine who, after a few calls to Conde Nast headquarters, nabbed him the June 1993 cover of House & Garden magazine.
His client list expanded over time to include names like Brad Pitt, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the king and queen of Jordan.
As for what Griffith considers his best work in Venice, much of it no longer exists.
“My favorites have been destroyed,” he says.
But not all is lost.
“Every time I worked on a project in Venice I always planted some foundation trees. I planted street trees in front of houses. When I look across Millwood [an area bounded by California Avenue, where Griffith long maintained his office, as well as Lincoln, Venice and Abbot Kinney boulevards] and other areas I can see canopies of trees that I put in over the years starting to meld into an urban forest. That would probably be my proudest moment in the profession, as far as Venice is concerned,” Griffith says.
“Particular gardens are ephemeral. Landscapes are eternal.”
Tickets are still available for the Venice Design Series kickoff party on Saturday ($300) and a Gjelina-catered Mother’s Day Jazz Brunch at architect Gregory Ain’s “Modernique” housing tract in Mar Vista on May 10 ($500). Call (310) 526-3857 or visit venicedesignseries.org.