Friday, November 28, 2008

Kitsch and Pop Culture in the Garden

Manohla Dargis' review of Baz Luhrmann's 'Australia' in the 11/26 issue of The New York Times has got me thinking.

In her discussion of the director's style, she contrasted his work with "art world jesters like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, who have appropriated kitsch as a (more or less) legitimate postmodern strategy."

All of the artists mentioned by Ms. Dargis have achieved mainstream success yet, when the same postmodern aesthetic is applied to residential landscape design it is considered a tacky crime against nature. Here, in the northeast, where I work, much of the collective American garden memory is imbued in our colonial cultural orientation. The most common landscape design references are the European models of the previous centuries. Of course there are exceptions, but they are just that.

The idea of a postmodernism's free association and appropriation of ideas/images/icons doesn’t seem to sit well with when it comes to our own backyards. As landscape designers we appropriate ideas and vignettes and combine them all of the time--we just don’t do it with everyday elements of garden kitsch. Even mainstream advertising has embraced the most enduring of the garden’s pop culture icons. Travelocity has successfully used the garden gnome as an authority on world travel—although that concept was used before them in the film Amélie. That a garden gnome is an authority on the exploring the natural wonders of the world is surely, for us, a landscape design paradox.

Now I’m not proposing that every garden has a wishing well, a donkey planter and gnome, but I find it fascinating that we are willing to accept these images in other forms but not in our own. Is it because we are so very serious? Maybe it’s time to lighten up a bit. Maybe our own backyards should help us smile.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Landscape Design as a Second Language

Years ago I lived in France. When I moved there I thought that my high school French would be good enough—until I tried to buy something from a local merchant. I soon discovered that I didn’t speak French at all and that I was excluded from really joining into as much as I wanted to because I didn’t understand the nuances of the language. I very quickly improved my French.

Landscape design has a multi-layered nuanced language of its own complete with colloquialisms and slang. It’s much more than botanical Latin. This language encompasses the technological terms that landscape designers need to communicate to effectively to clients, nurseries, contractors, engineers, and a host of others we interact with on a daily basis.

In the early stages of my landscape design career, I would go enthusiastically to seminars and trade shows and come away shell shocked. There was so much to learn, so many interconnected disciplines with so many terms I didn’t understand. What did B&B mean? What was an ogee? What was rise and run? What does GPH have to do with the waterfall I was designing? That beautiful plant was a Rhododendron what? What do you mean ‘green side up’?

When working with a woodworker on-site the other day, I realized that I had once again, become fluent in another language. I was discussing the construction detail of a pergola using words like ogee, facia, stringer, mortise and header. Then I moved on to the planting crew and at the client's request asked them to order additional plants using the botanical Latin names that now flow easily in my conversations about plants. After I had finished, another contractor, who had been eavesdropping while waiting for me to talk to him, approached me and asked…’How do you know all of that?’ I answered, ‘I have to I’m a landscape designer’.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Current Project Update

Another work in progress—probably the final one until the thaw. The plan, originally included in my 8/27 post, is below and is largely unchanged from the presentation drawing you see below. I used Dynascape color for a down and dirty rendering. I’m not overly fond of the color module of Dynascape despite its ease of use, but clients love the drawings. I can save them as a PDF and email them or print them out full size. Even a very detailed drawing takes less than an hour to color up with this point and click program. I still prefer the look and feel of hand colored drawings, but they're more cumbersome to deal with electronically.

This particular project has been challenging due to the laundry list of elements to be included as well as the stone that we finally chose to use. Since bluestone was not an option, we settled on local granite that is quarried in upper New York state. It's got lovely texture and color and is available both as wallstone and flagging. Below is a photo of the patio seatwall, firepit and stone carpet in progress.

The patio is raised one step up from grade to create a better transition from the house to the steps I'm stood on to take this photo. We ordered custom salt and pepper granite curbing to create that transition. Each 8" wide and 8" tall piece was snapped on three sides to work with the rusticated look of the stone. The dark spots in the photo are dirt...not defects.

I'll continue to post on this one as more progress is made.

Monday, November 24, 2008

After the Fall...

It seems an appropriate title for today's musings. Leaves and the past few days' temperature have fallen as rapidly as the collective psyche's confidence in consumer spending.

Now that the depressing news has been dispatched, I'm moving on to proactive and positive news.

I'm going ahead full throttle with my foray into Web 2.0 marketing techniques. I don't have any expertise and there's a lot out there to learn. I'm a bit late to the party, but the party is still going strong. Like anything else, all of this takes time to set up, become fluent with and maximize for its full potential.

Here's a great tool for landscape designers and anyone else who loves gardens to discover, use and connect with each other:

is an online community, developed by fellow APLD member, Michael Franklin. It has plant databases, portfolio and project development, communication and management tools, a professional directory and lots of cool features for landscape designers to explore and use. It's one of the top 10 applications for the iPhone so you can take your projects with you...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thoughts, ideas and Web 2.0

Like many others, I'm wondering what is next for my small design studio. Although we're successful, I wonder how many people will be wanting new or renovated landscapes next spring.

Well, I've never been one to wait for the other shoe to drop without doing something, I've decided to turn to social networking to promote my 'brand' through the winter months. Because of that decision I've spent the past day or two entering passwords, tags, info and posting photos. I've also reconnected with people--that's the fun part of it all.

So today, I have a Facebook profile page and my business has a separate page. I'll report back on this later when I've figured out how to link to my blog from that page.

So much cyberspace, so little time...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Project Updates...almost...

It's been a while again...actual 3D flesh and blood life takes precedence over blogging...

I've been working on the project I last blogged about. It will be the last one that gets built before the deep freeze. I've been lax about taking photos. Anyway that's not what I wanted to talk about today, but the subject is related.

Being a creative nutcase, I go through periods that force me to evaluate where I'm at and where I want to be. Anything can set off these re-evaluative creative but not necessarily productive moods, and this time it was the rapid fire changes in my personal and professional lives the past three months. Empty nest, empty wallet (related to empty nest by virtue of tuition), and empty retirement account. Add to that nasty stew exhaustion from a very busy season and I came to a semi-stop.

Well I'm back and inside so it's time to blog again and do all those other things that will help move me and my design studio forward.

Talk to you next week some time.