Bea Arrues is leaving her mark in a decidedly visual way. Arrues, an interior designer, is the creative mind behind, among other things, the living wall that gives The Patio on Lamont Street its lush, tropical feel.
Arrues’ family came to Pacific Beach by way of Argentina, when her father was offered the opportunity to open up a motorcycle shop in Southern California in 1964. The family originally landed in Los Angeles, but on a drive southbound down Torrey Pines Road, her mother decided then and there the family would settle in San Diego. The motorcycle shop her father was supposed to open became Kon-Tiki Motorcycles, which is still operated by Arrues’ brother on Garnet Avenue.
Arrues, who just celebrated her 40th high school reunion at Mission Bay High, said she was trained in interior design “back in the caveman days,” as part of one of the earliest classes of the Design Institute of San Diego. She eventually opened up her own shop on Cass Street called Olga and Stella’s, where she accumulated home décor items from clients whose homes she helped stage for sale or rental.
Olga and Stella’s was ultimately sold after about 10 years in business, but it was during this time that Arrues met Gina Champion Cain, now owner of The Patio. Champion Cain had been looking for a location to open a restaurant, and she and Arrues bonded over interior design.
“Before Gina even got [The Patio], we met and talked about designing it,” Arrues said. “The day she went into escrow, she called me and I started putting ideas together for the vibe of the place.”
The one thing Arrues knew was that she wanted The Patio to be home to a living wall. Having seen one in a design magazine years ago, she had clipped out the photo and kept it with her in the hopes of one day being able to tackle such a project.
“It was my idea to do this before we even got the keys to the place,” she said.
At the time, Arrues said, not many designers had attempted a vertical living wall. She insisted that, for the look to work, it had to comprise an entire wall, not just a portion of one, and that, she knew, would make for a beast of an undertaking.
The structure was built with a steel skeleton and, in all, weighs at least a ton. It took nearly three months to build, and a large crane had to be hired to drop it into place. Meanwhile, a drip irrigation system had to be installed, because Arrues knew it wouldn’t be possible to sustain a wall with tropical plants by hand watering them every day.
“It needs a lot of tending, and the whole thing is essentially an experiment,” she said. “Some plants tend to take over other ones. It has evolved and I’ve replanted a lot.”
Arrues wanted to give the restaurant “the look and feel of Hawaii,” so she built the wall to emulate a rain forest canopy, with hardier plants that soak up the sun on top and more delicate, shade-driven plants underneath. The plants themselves live in felt pockets sewn onto the steel frame, though the lush wall is so dense it’s nearly impossible to see the pockets without delving into the foliage.
To make sure she chose the right plants and planned the maze of vegetation out in an acceptable pattern, Arrues consulted Bird Rock horticulturist Lance Greer. The two still work together on the living wall, which needs constant care. Arrues said she replenishes plants in the wall every other week.
“I actually don’t have any background working with plants, other than life experience,” Arrues said. “[Lance and I] collaborate on what plants to buy, what will last for season, etc. We have to make sure we waste as little as possible, and it’s never a done deal, it’s a constant work in progress. But it’s maintained really well and we’ve figured out a good balance.”
Arrues works on other aspects of The Patio’s décor. She chose the fine-art sculptures that greet customers at the door, as well as most of the rest of the restaurant’s embellishments. She occupies a unique position there, serving as an on-staff interior designer — something she said she doubts many local restaurants have. Most of her time, however, is devoted to the living wall. It’s almost like a pet that needs tending, “a living entity,” Arrues said.
“There are times when we discover something isn’t happy there, so we pull it out and put in something else,” she said. “It tells us what to do, and it looks a little different with the seasons. The job with this thing is like flower arranging, but it’s alive.”
To see Arrues’ living wall, visit The Patio at 4445 Lamont St., www.the-patioonlamont.com