Thomas Who…?

April 14, 2010

Can you imagine an art student who never visited a museum or looked at an art book to learn about art history, or never bothered to find out what was going on in the contemporary art world? Or what about an English major at a university who never picked up a book or went to see a play by a famous playwright?  Hard to imagine, isn’t it.  And yet, in landscape design the equivalent is far too common.

For example, I was chatting with a Landscape Architect at a party recently and I happened to mention Thomas Church.  The LA looked at me blankly and asked, “Who is Thomas Church?”  So this is the point of my blog today – do you know who Thomas Church is?  If you don’t, then you should probably keep reading this article.

As a professional landscape designer, architect, or even a landscape contractor who also does design, it is more necessary than you realize to take the time to familiarize yourself with the work of the greats in your field.  It’s mind-expanding, inspirational, thought-provoking, and creatively stimulating to see what can be accomplished in the field of garden design, what has been accomplished, and what is happening right now.  And it’s easy – all you need to do is build your garden design library.

It has always been a strong belief of mine that designers should study the works of both landscape architects and architects – I stress this point all the time to my students at the California School of Garden Design.  One of the first lectures I present is a History of Garden Design.  In our Advanced Course, I even assign each student a paper to research and write on a famous landscape practitioner as part of the course.  I myself have collected an extensive library of books on various aspects of garden design, plants, and people and architecture and share these books with my students on a regular basis.

Don’t know where to start?  Visit your local library and browse the landscape section.  Stop in at a large bookstore such as Borders or Barnes and Noble, and check out their offerings in landscape and garden design.  Do some research on the internet.  Finally, you do not need to spend a lot of money buying books – look for used ones on Amazon and similar sites.

Now you may not think you can get anything out of studying the work of someone who created large estates in Great Britain or for Pepsi-Cola in upper New York State,  after all, your typical project is a suburban backyard, but that is just where you are wrong.  Don’t wear blinders – you never know when you will find inspiration to turn that backyard design into something that is one-of-a-kind and thrills your clients in the process.  One thing I tell my students is that, no matter how clever we may think we are, the chances are that we will never develop an idea that hasn’t be thought of or tried before.  Don’t re-invent the wheel – re-interpret it!

So here are some names for you to get acquainted with, if you are not already familiar with them.  These are part of my own personal favorites and are the ones whose work I find most influential in the world of garden design.  They are varied and span many years, but that is exactly my point.

Architects, Landscape Architects and Designers:

Thomas Church, American

Jeffrey Jellicoe, English

Luis Barragon, Mexican

John Brookes, English, contemporary

James Van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme, American

Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil

Laurence Halprin, American

Jens Jensen, American

Gertrude Jekyll, British

Frank Lloyd Wright

As you build your library, don’t overlook books that focus on specific areas of landscape design, such as water features, structures, walls and fences, hardscaping, drought-tolerant/water saving, outdoor rooms, edible gardens, and gardens to attract beneficial insects and wildlife.  Browsing through a few of your reference books can lift the worst case of “designer’s block”, you’ll see.

And the next time you are at a party or an event with others in your field, when someone drops the name Thomas Church, you won’t be the one with the blank look on your face.

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