Outlier–Maybe Not.

I promised I would be back here when I thought I had something new or interesting to say. There is no eye candy today–just words and thoughts. I also don’t feel the need to push my ideas on anyone else–so you don’t have to agree or disagree with what follows.

I have never been one to blindly follow a trend or an idea. My thoughts, like most people’s, spring from my own experience and individual point of view. When I was working in the fashion industry, I was always interested in designers who were doing things differently from the rest.  I admired those who translated a burst of thought into ideas that were at first strange and wonderful but would ultimately be borrowed, watered down or interpreted by others. I was also interested in those who looked back and used history as a starting point celebrating the traditional and making it contemporary. For me, there is a healthy dichotomy of design thought there with equal emphasis on the new and the old.

In my mind, gardens or landscapes are defined as spaces that are outside of nature. They cannot be truly of nature since they are conceived and made by people. These human endeavors at garden making do not include restoration of native environments or habitat although they can incorporate those elements. They can try to mimic nature, but a garden is ultimately a space made by people for human activity, introspection, observation and the appreciation of beauty within the context of what is right for its particular environment and time. The human element of a garden is important. It is also where the outlier part comes in.

The gardens being made by the New Perennialist movement that started almost thirty years ago in Germany and have been perfected by Piet Oudolf and others are in my mind are largely to look at. I have visited some of the best of them and it’s the auxiliary spaces that invite human interaction, not the plantings. The gardens themselves may have a path or two through them, they may be large or small, but they are like paintings hung on a wall. They do not invite human participation. They are broad strokes of planting design artistry that invite visual reaction, not physical interaction.

There is great value in this idea when a site’s topography or limitations don’t allow for safe passage or it is a space that will act as a visual foil something else. This concept is what makes the High Line so successful and in my mind is also its downfall. The plantings are something that are passed through while doing something else. They can be admired, but in all but a few places they cannot be entered. They are beautiful, bold, border designs. The border as a garden design concept has been around almost as long as people have been making gardens. They exist on the sidelines. True, those sidelines can be breathtaking and can be beneficial to wildlife and the planet at large, but I am talking about garden making and that, as I said before, is a human undertaking that invites interaction.

Conversely there are historic gardens (remember that dichotomy?) that make plants such background players that they become almost irrelevant. They are decoration, they could be fake. These ‘gardens’ were designed primarily for people with little regard for the natural world other than how the designer could manipulate it into abstraction. Those gardens lose the sensory, introspective and observational aspects of plantings in a garden, leaving room only for human activity.

I believe there is room in contemporary garden and landscape design to celebrate human activity combined with interactive planting design as equal partners.  I also believe that the gardens and landscapes that do that will be long term successes. There is room for structure, hard surfaces and places for people as well as plants and habitat to co-exist and intermingle. They are not static or fixed in the moment past or present. We have changed our planet too much to be able to go back to nature as it was and gardens can help define how humans appreciate and savor the outdoors. What we really need to be thinking about is what is right for a specific piece of land in a specific region that will be used regularly by a group of individuals in a meaningful and participatory way. We need to consider how we entice people outside into the garden to observe, delight, create, to spend time and do things and think about their place in the world instead of just moving through it or looking at it or worse ignoring it and paying attention to hand held technology instead?

As a landscape designer I have questions that roll around in my brain to be solved by working through my design process. How do the successful attributes of traditional gardens and the best ideals of the new perennialists combine to create something new–something that balances the being and the seeing? How do I foster understanding and appreciation of our not so natural world, the one we now live in, through the design of spaces that allow people to interact with all of its pieces? Making planting design precious unto itself relegates it to the same place as a great work of art in a museum. It’s not that, it’s a living changeable thing. What is the most valuable human experience in any garden–is it different for every individual?  I try to strike a broad balance between the traditional and the contemporary–sometimes there are no perennials or grasses at all in my gardens. If that makes me an outlier, I’m okay with that.

Edit:  I sat on this post for a month or so until a group who I had a conversation with about this feeling of being an outlier and who I would consider to be New Perennialists encouraged me to publish it. –Susan

 

Kismet

Not to belabor the point but sometimes the stars align. I’m working on an expansive landscape master plan and just presented the concept to my clients.  In that plan is a pool with twin covered  structures at one end of the enclosure. One will house an open air yet covered outdoor kitchen and the other will be a small poolhouse with a bathroom, shower and dressing room.

SUSAN COHAN GARDENS LANDSCAPE

I would have never thought to suggest this as part of my purvue prior to attending KBIS. I have my interior design sisterhood to collaborate with on the details and some beautiful features to include that I would never have known about had I not gone to Las Vegas. On the kitchen side, there were some beautiful options as well.

So let’s talk toilets.  Wouldn’t it be nice to come in from a swim and sit on a heated seat? And wouldn’t it be nice not to have to worry about constantly cleaning it? The small space allotted for the WC in the poolhouse will also benefit from a wall hung unit.  As a guest of TOTO, I learned that all of this is possible. I won’t be doing the technical design in the space, but I will be asking that their products be specified. Why? Because they are super high qualtity, elegant, and innovative. That’s a no brainer.

My Hashtag Sisterhood

None of us work in a void. Sometimes when wrapped up in client projects and deadlines, those of us who have boutique design firms can feel like a vacuum is sucking us in and all that surrounds us is ourselves, our clients, and our own work. For a landscape designer in a four season environment, January is especially devoid of just about everything so when I was invited by Modenus-The Design Directory to join a group of interior designers in Las Vegas to speak about luxury outdoor kitchens I said yes. What happened next was so unexpected. What follows will be a wee bit off topic.

Those of you who know me personally usually see the gregarious and social me. I am what is called a social introvert. I need and spend lots of time alone, but when in social situations I am connected and present–even though that’s not my natural state. The prospect of meeting 24 women who were absolute strangers was daunting. Enter the sisterhood.

SW Steakhouse Sisters

Rather than my usual ‘Hi I’m Susan’ with extended hand routine I started off as of an observer. I wasn’t sure if I would be the proverbial square peg in a round hole–I’m a landscape designer not an interior designer. I wasn’t. These women–all interior designers, design bloggers and project managers- not only welcomed me but were just as curious about why I was there and what I did as I was about them.  For three days we shared incredible opportunities and experiences from a private tour of the Wynn resorts with its general manager to a beautiful luncheon with incredible food and wine sponsored by Thermador at the uber midmod Las Vegas  Country Club to a fun and lively dinner hosted by Toto.  We went by bus to see the new seamless indoor/outdoor Responsive Homes designed by Bobby Berk for Pardee Homes, who, afterwards, huddled with us under a patio heater in the chilly Nevada night. We visited the upscale, sustainable 2016 New American Home, built to showcase  green technologies, techniques and products. In between all of that we attended KBIS2016 to see the best in Kitchen and Bath Products. I found plenty to like for outdoor living.

Throughout the three days these designing women questioned, shared, learned about their design discipline and about each other. There was no bitchiness or jealousy or drama. Everyone showed up ready to be and give their best. They were authentic and enthusiastic and supportive of each other in every way. They will forever be my hashtag sisterhood. #designhounds #blogtourKBIS #KBIS2016 #KBISoutdoorliving

The Newish Year

It’s a newish year and of course I’ve already deviated from my not so best laid plans.  On Sunday though, something I’ve been working towards for several years will happen.  I will be travelling to Las Vegas with a group of interior designers as part of Modenus‘ Blog Tour Las Vegas to visit KBIS. I have a portfolio up on the Modenus site.

BlogTour-Badge-vegas-drkblu

A kitchen and bath show?  Why would a landscape designer want to go there? As the lines blur further between inside and outside, it’s important for me as a designer to know what’s out there–what the trends are and what new materials are available–not just for outside.  My clients expect the same level of performance and design outside as they do in.  I design outdoor living spaces that include kitchens and sometimes showers. It makes sense to go. Additionally, the lines have blurred to such an extent that I will be speaking on a Voices of the Industry panel about Outdoor Kitchens. You can follow along with the hashtag #KBISOutdoorLiving.  I’ll also be using two other hashtags #designhounds and #BlogTourKBIS if you want to discover the same things that I do.

This is a big experiment for me and I hope to connect with designers from a ‘sister’ discipline. The tour sponsors other than KBIS  run the gamut from counters to hardware to sinks to flooring and all other design details and are Thermador, Blanco, Top Knobs, TOTO, WoodMode, Wilsonart, Karastan and Mr. Steam.