THE MEDIUM YOU KNOW

I teach an adult ed course in land design at a local university and I’m stunned by the amount of people, talented, vibrant people whom I would think are reasonably artistic, who say they can’t fathom property design. They think I’m a genius, which is great fun but hardly true; I’ve just tapped into what I know and translated the principles of design into my own internal language.

Before I became a designer I was a chef. For a chef, food is a medium of artistic expression; there’s color, there’s texture, there’s aroma, there’s presentation. In a garden, there’s color, there’s texture, there’s aroma, there’s presentation. In the realm of food, there’s the right sequence of dishes and the right combination of flavors; too much spice in the first course might overwhelm the palate and be fatal to the second course. In the realm of gardening, there’s the right sequence of plant material and the right combination of aromas; a flood of material or color might overwhelm the visual palate, and the eye will lose its ability to distinguish one thing from another. In food, you want to pay homage to the classics but adapt them to the modern sensibility, and the same is true for gardening. Classic design should be authentic but not necessarily literal; blind adherence to form is dull as ditch water.

I grant you that both of these mediums have a good deal in common, and that both mediums draw in the same creative personalities. It isn’t true, though, that you need to be an artist to conceptualize your landscape; creativity comes in all forms. One of my recent students is a case in point.

Although she was struggling mightily with the redesign of the exterior, she’d had no problem at all with the redesign of the interior; when she told me about her new kitchen, I asked her to bring photos to the next class. What I saw blew me away: it was bold, clean-lined and surprisingly warm despite the large quantity of granite on the countertops and island. That told me everything I needed to know.

Clearly this was not a woman who would be happy with a fussy garden, which ruled out flowers with frilly little heads or sweet little forms. It also ruled out hardscape materials like brick, which can look fussy because of the sheer number of joints. It can actually be fussy for the same reason, requiring a great deal of maintenance to keep weeds from taking hold or moss from taking over.

The bold lines of the new interior space could be translated to a bold use of plants with a strong architectural bent; the gorgeous cherry cabinets were the cue to a color scheme that was warm and deeply saturated. She had used her skills as an efficiency expert to redesign the floorplan, allowing easier traffic flow; a similar reorganization was needed to remedy the somewhat convoluted landscape.

When I encouraged her to apply the techniques outdoors that she had used so successfully indoors, she got it, and created and plan that worked both for the property and for her. Think this is an isolated case, or that you couldn’t do the same? Think again.

Earlier class, different student, this one on the verge of meltdown because she hated hated hated everything she drew. After a bit of questioning, I found out she was a quilter. Again I asked for pictures, and was amazed by her skill. These are not your grandmother’s quilts; with unusual fabrics and fluid design, they are more on the order of wall hangings than bedclothes.

I held up the pictures for everyone to see, and I began to talk about the property as a quilt. A tiny lot in the city, it was a near-perfect rectangle with the house positioned dead center. Drawing a bird’s-eye view of the plot and adding the walkway, the driveway and the small, detached garage, it became clear there was some pretty strong geometry happening. What is the design of a quilt? A series of geometric shapes. Once Chris applied her existing talents, her existing design sense, to this new medium of landscape, she got it.

When you move from medium to medium, there are always things to learn, and you won’t be proficient in the new for some time. Having recently gone back to school, I appreciate the awkwardness of feeling that everyone in the room knows more than you. The ability to tap into known talents, though, has kept me afloat. Here’s the last student example, with me as the student.

Let me start by saying that I know nothing about wood; lots about trees, a bit about flooring, nothing about wood. When my art professor introduced the second sculptural project and mandated the use of wood, I cringed. In addition to our allotment of milled wood, though, he allowed us to use tree branches. Arguing that the trunk of a tree is, technically, the terminal branch, I got him to expand the concept to include a ridiculously large and utterly phenomenal piece of driftwood I’d found along the Saco River. That still didn’t give me knowledge of the wood itself, but it did give me a sense of familiarity in the use of natural form.

I began to chisel away and quickly realized that carving wood held the same appeal as carving alabaster, which I adore. I don’t know whether wielding a mallet calls upon the same muscle memory as wielding a chef’s knife, or whether I’m just happy beating the daylights out of something. Either way, there was an element within this experience I could relate to and skills I could call upon. I also realized I could edit and simplify the lines of the wood’s fabulously gnarled roots the same way I could edit and simplify the flow of a property design.

These two things allowed me to relax into a new medium, to learn the skills I needed to accomplish the goal and to produce a piece that represents my design aesthetic. Is it perfect? No, because in this medium I’m a beginner. Is that easy to swallow? No, but I’ll get better with practice.

Take what you know, and apply it as you go.
c.2006

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