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Post-recession, starting over in a Costa Mesa garden

January 6, 2012 |  2:41 pm

Laura Haskell, Laird Stoneman, Andrew Stoneman
The struggling economy has forced many Americans to ponder, if not live out, their Plan B question: How would I start over? In the case of Andrew Stoneman, the answer sits in his Costa Mesa backyard.

When the structural steel salesman was laid off twice in two years, he and his wife, vintage-textile consultant Laura Haskell, pooled their sales experience and design savvy to create the Haskell Collection, a Midcentury-inspired line of outdoor furniture and patio planters. If he wasn't going to sell steel for others, Stoneman thought, why not manufacture his own furniture using what he had learned during 20 years in the business?

Andrew Stoneman garden“Steel is the most recycled material in the world,” Stoneman says. “I thought, why not take the greenest material there is and create something that will last forever?”

The clean-lined collection has been well received in the press, and Times readers even made Haskell's recycled aluminum and steel planters the top vote-getters in their category a few months ago in a poll to determine the “California look of 2011.” But beyond that, for Stoneman the primary rewards have been working from home alongside Haskell, who sells fabrics to Marc Jacobs, Stüssy and Paul Smith in London, among others, and spending more time with their bubbly 2 1/2-year-old son, Laird.

“It's a stressful time,” Stoneman says. “But we are content. Exercise, painting, gardening, playing with Laird keeps me sane. What's the alternative? Depression. And that gets you nowhere.”

Their 1960 home has been a therapeutic outlet of sorts for Stoneman, 44. When he and Haskell bought the house six years ago, they knew it needed work. But they were knocked out by its bones — a rare bit of Midcentury architecture with generous outdoor spaces set in a high-density neighborhood zoned for duplexes.

“I died when I first saw the house,” Haskell says. “But my heart started pounding when I saw the yard.”

The casual, indoor-outdoor design of the home is fitting for the couple, both born and raised in nearby Newport Beach, acquaintances in high school who reconnected at their 20th reunion. These days they spend most of their time outdoors, in spaces remade for relaxing, playing, working or dining. The couple recently hosted 100 friends for a sit-down dinner in the backyard.

Laura Haskell gardenThe 1,500-square-foot house splits the lot, with the front courtyard as Haskell's domain — an elegantly spare space whose choreography flows from its patterned cinder-block walls. It's an outdoor room partially floored in decomposed granite, concrete pavers and white rock. A concrete planter surrounding an enormous olive tree provides seating and can serve as a table in a pinch. Existing papyrus plants, bougainvillea and succulents were left intact, accents to a house that from the street makes a modernist statement with its white-on-white design. “I wanted to create something minimal and peaceful and calming,” Haskell says.

And the backyard? “Anything goes!” Haskell says with a laugh. Or, as Stoneman describes it, tongue firmly in cheek: The back is “landscaping by garage sale.”

Indeed, most of the furnishings — including the dining area set under a pergola and a sitting area defined by more decomposed granite and edged in clipped bamboo — were garage sale and Craigslist finds. The fire pit “room” has seating made from wood that Stoneman found on the street. The fire pit was constructed with found rocks.

Haskell is sincere when she says she loves the result, but she can't help but poke fun at her husband. “Andrew loves plants so much that he does not discriminate,” she says. “I wanted one yard where we discriminate.”

Stoneman planted angel's trumpet, blackberry, camellia, avocado, guava, azalea and gardenia. He transplanted bird of paradise and other plants that came with the house, and he edged the lawn with succulent cuttings. He even replanted the Trader Joe's mums brought by a dinner guest as a gift.

“They keep coming back,” Stoneman says. “I don't know why people throw those away.”

The family also strives to eat what it grows. One bed includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, parsley, red onion, butter lettuce and strawberry. Stoneman crafted the raised box from found lumber. “He sees things in what people throw away,” Haskell says.

Friend Jennifer Volland says the result is a comfortable house where anyone can feel at home. “They amaze me because they are able to make something from nothing,” Volland says, adding: “There is nothing forced about their design sensibility, and that is what is so appealing.”

The house today is a far cry from when the couple moved in — both yards overgrown, the front exposed to the street. In the back, Stoneman discovered lava rocks and traces of plastic liner buried in the dirt, probably remnants of a pond. No matter. The yard proved to be a fortuitous project in a difficult time.

“For me, the best therapy is tinkering back there,” he said, not bothered by the fact that there's always something to do. “Seeds to plant, trees to trim, weeds to pull. For me, that's my tranquillity.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Stoneman and Haskell's home in Costa Mesa

Because the Haskell Collection furniture is made with recycled steel and fabricated by hand in Southern California, it's positioned in a high-end market — a market that's still sluggish in a slow economic recovery. So even though Stoneman is trying to stay committed to his Plan B, he acknowledges that he may need to consider a Plan C if sales don't pick up. Setbacks notwithstanding, he remains philosophical about the future — and the past.

“There are ups and downs,” he says. “But the more I have been in this situation, the more I realize how lucky I have been to spend these first few years with Laird.”

Might that be high praise for Plan B? Says Stoneman: “I wouldn't trade these last two years for anything.”


Elizabeth LowHomes of the Times

Celestino Drago's backyard kitchen

Small space, sustainable design, modern look

James Duell's tiny garden makes a big statement

-- Lisa Boone

Photos: Top, Laura Haskell and Andrew Stoneman with their son, Laird; middle, an area in the backyard; lower, the front yard. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times