Ocean life in a bubble

"That plant just ate that fish!" exclaims a visitor to the Captive Sea showroom on Melrose Avenue, the interior-designers strip of Los Angeles. "Look again," says the saleswoman, laughing.

The blue and yellow clown fish, which had seemed to be gobbled up by a sea anemone, is once again swimming serenely in the elegant "bubble" aquarium.

These are saltwater creatures, the saleswoman explains, and have a "symbiotic" relationship. The sea anemone is not a plant but an invertebrate, and the fish brings food to it while it cleans the fish of parasites.

Looking into one of the Captive Sea bubbles is like catching a glimpse of the ocean floor. And that's what the designer, John Deason, intended.

Mr. Deason started "playing around" with saltwater aquariums five years ago when he was contemplating a career switch. After 10 years in the garment business -- first as a fabric designer and then as West Coast editor for Men's Wear magazine -- he wanted a change and had taken time off to think.

Meanwhile, he filled his Manhattan Beach apartment with aquariums.His first few were the usual rectangular shapes, but after noticing a bubble window on a van, he had an aquarium made up in plastic.

"I wanted to create an interior that is what I envision the bottom of the ocean to look like," he says."It had to be three- dimensional, so when a person looks in he can fantasize that he's actually standing on the bottom of the ocean.

"Then I started thinking, 'Wouldn't it be nice to take something that's always been ugly and make it into something very attractive?' You might see a beautiful home, but they'll have an aquarium on a wrought-iron stand in the corner. It doesn't fit the rest of the room. So I started throwing ideas around."

His aquariums became conversation pieces among his friends, who began to ask for their own."I started doing it as just a word-of-mouth thing," he says, "and all of a sudden it started to move."

He had found his new career.

Finally, with only a credit card -- with a $500 limit -- Mr. Deason started Captive Sea. In the last five years, through word-of-mouth advertising, his business has grown to include hotels, commercial buildings, and individual homes all over the United States and in other countries.

Among the celebrities who have Captive Sea aquariums are Dinah Shore, Cher, Burt Reynolds, Paul Linde, Richard Pryor, and Neil Diamond. He travels an average of once a week to install an aquarium in various parts of the US, and is in the midst of a project in Saudi Arabia.

Each aquarium in individually designed, and Captive Sea also does the cabinetwork. Prices, however, are not exactly in the pet store range -- $800 up to a whopping $175,000, depending on whether the customer want a simple free-standing sculptural piece or a whole room remodeled.

To make his aquariums a bit more accessible to the mass market, Mr. Deason will soon often a mini-bubble, which will retail for around $395. It was be equipped for either saltwater or fresh, so the buyer can choose the type of fish he prefers. Materials for the interior and a diagram on how to assemble it will be included. The fish can be bought in any pet store.

Mr. Deason's long-range goal is to design aquariums for aquatic museums across the country. "I look at my aquariums as a kinetic art form, a living sculpture, but at the same time, I want to educate people. Most people know very little about the ocean, and I think if people are more aware of what's in the water, they'll be less likely to pollute it."

He points out that of all the people who go to Hawaii each year, very few ever see what's beneath the water. "But if there were aquatic museums where people could get the feeling when they walk in that were stepping beneath the water, the skindiver's world could be exposed to everyone from the elderly to little children," he says.

Mr. Deason would also like to try doing saltwater pools so people could have the experience of swimming with fish.

"There's a certain direction mankind has taken in the '60s and '70s. I think we've gone to the plastic end of the pendulum, and I think we're going to go back to the natural type of environment. People are trying to get back into realities. We've gone through the far-out stage, and now we're going to have to come back to something that's more secure. This is one reason I think aquariums overall have become really popular in the last three years."

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