Santa Cruz, Calif. — That ubiquitous California phrase ''outdoor living'' generally refers to a life style in which a patio, terrace, deck, or garden is as central to family activity as the house itself. But when used in connection with the home of Roy and Frances Rydell, a converted Victorian schoolhouse surrounded by five secluded gardens and patios, the phrase denotes both a life style and a work of art.
Few visitors to the Rydell home, nestled in the redwood- and pine-studded hills north of Santa Cruz, would guess at how its stunning design, both inside and out, took shape. When the couple purchased the defunct 1887 schoolhouse for running water, electricity, and leakless roof.
Hugging a two-lane highway and surrounded by small, awkward strips of land, it was hardly a homeowner's dream, let alone that of a landscape architect. Yet Mr. Rydell, who is both a noted landscape architect and consultant to Sunset magazine, proceeded over the years to transform the little schoolhouse into a highly original blend of outdoor and indoor living space.
''It's been interesting to look back and see how the whole thing evolved during the past 30 years,'' says Mr. Rydell, relaxing in the loggia overlooking the dramatic central patio of his now L-shaped home. ''All we knew when we moved in was that we would have a roof over our heads - even if it did need to be replaced.''
Back then Mr. Rydell had no idea he would become a pioneer of the now common practice of renovating an old building to serve a new use. To make the schoolhouse livable, he turned the teacher's office into a tiny kitchen and then lowered part of the schoolroom ceiling to accommodate a small bedroom and bath tucked under the eaves. Later, after the addition of half a dozen rooms and nearly as many gardens, the kitchen again became an office and the bedroom a private place for guests.
The gardens are an important extension of nearly every room in the Rydell home, adding a different look and feel to each interior area they adjoin. The original core of the house, the former schoolroom now converted to an elegant living room, is flanked by a latticed patio on one side and the spacious central garden area on the other.
Looking out through the room's tall, many-paned windows, it is impossible to tell that the street lies a few feet beyond the tranquil patio enclosed by a windscreen of translucent glass panes and latticework panels. A small nook of benches and table even allows for outdoor dining in complete privacy.
But seclusion is not the only thing the windscreen offers, says Mr. Rydell. ''Because the windscreen has tall, narrow windows that are almost identical to those in the living room, it acts as a kind of reflection. When you look outside at it, it almost appears to be enclosing another room.''
The central patio has the quality of an outdoor room as well, one that is accessible through wide glass doors opening off the living room's other side. Gracing the patio's two open sides are tall, black Japanese-like arbors, one supporting the twisted, rambling branch of an ancient oak.
If the patio appears larger than it is, the arbors are largely responsible, says Mr. Rydell. ''Anytime you define space in a garden - by means of an arbor or screen, for instance - you give the illusion of greater space. That's what the Japanese have been doing for centuries.''
Other illusions of greater space include a small brick walkway, just beyond the arbors, that becomes gradually narrower at the end. So adept is Mr. Rydell at creating a feel of more space that his own gardens and those he has designed for condominiums are used as prime example in ''Small Space Gardens,'' published by Sunset Books in 1978.Most of the profusion of hardy succulents, citrus, shrubs, and flowering annuals growing in the central patios are in clay pots and redwood containers. ''I find it a very flexible way to garden because you can always switch things around and emphasize that which is in season or full bloom, '' says Mr. Rydell.Beautiful in-ground exceptions in the largely potted garden are hedges of cordon apples, trees trained to grow no higher than three feet while still producing full-sized fruit. Rows of trees at a far end of the garden - apple, pear, orange, and flowering plum - are colorful layers that give a further illusion of greater space.Not only can the Rydells gain easy access to their central garden from the living room, but they can also sit in the airy loggia and enjoy it as well. A rectangular alcove built off a room connecting the original house with a newer addition, the loggia is sheltered by full-length windows at either end and open at the side facing the patio. On all but the chilliest days, the loggia is comfortable for meals and conversations.While the central patio is a natural extension of the more social areas of the house, the Rydells also enjoy two small ''secret'' gardens that most visitors never know are there. The sunniest spot is a pocket-sized wooden deck built off the master bathroom and surrounded by a high fence. Leading down to a mini-garden of succulents, citrus, and bamboo, the deck is a delightfully private spot to sunbathe or towel dry hair after a shower.A tranquil, shady patio off the master bedroom provides both a restful view and a pleasant place to escape with a good book on a hot afternoon. Wide steps flanked by leafy green plants are designed to accommodate seating cushions for just that purpose.So enthralling are the gardens surrounding it that the charmingly eclectic way the Rydells have designed and decorated the inside of their home almost has to compete for attention. When not gazing out of the many windows or tall glass doors, it is possible to admire the wide-ranging antiques, painted furniture, and artifacts that the couple have collected during their travels in Europe and Asia.Oddly enough, the traditional lines of a classic American schoolhouse have lent themselves well to an interior design quite cosmopolitan and untraditional. This is particularly evident in the elegance and formality of the pale blue living room, once the domain of inkwells and chalkboards. An intimate seating group is cozily ensconced on the slightly raised teacher's platform, while an airy expanse of room stretches back to built-in bookcases and cupboards at the opposite end.Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of the Rydell home is that the exterior is painted a rich and earthy orange-red - a slight variation on the traditional schoolhouse color - and trimmed in a flat black. As an unusual accent, the underside of the roof over the front entry way and the loggia are painted sky blue.Because of both the color and design of the house, some visitors often remark that it has a Japanese feel; others say Scandinavian. ''Both may be true to some degree,'' says Mr. Rydell. ''I happen to be of Swedish descent, and, like most people who grew up on the West Coast, I've been deeply influenced by Oriental culture.''As a further enhancement to this, he had the opportunity to lecture at the University of Osaka last year and thus exchange ideas with Japanese landscape architects. ''A Japanese garden is rarely created for outdoor living as ours are,'' he says. ''They are usually created to be looked at, to be admired from the inside. What the Westerner can especially learn from them are ways to create privacy and the illusion of greater space than actually exists.''