Nancy Goslee Power talks about inspiration in garden design—where it comes from and how it gets passed on.
We all love to be surprised—in life, in love, and even in gardens. The gardens we love most are never boring. They speak to us, draw us in, and comfort us.
Does that just happen? Of course not. It’s up to the garden designer to lay out the plan, set the tone, and be guided by inspiration to complete the vision. Each project is unique. So where do garden designers find fresh ideas?
For Los Angeles-based garden designer Nancy Goslee Power, it all begins with what she knows. As she puts it, “If you’re creative, you borrow from what you know and then do something new.” Her favorite gardens are those that include what she calls a “ twist”—an innovative solution to a traditional problem. Whether subtle or obvious, the result can be dramatic.
It’s all a matter of balance and of learning what works. Nancy is not interested in shock value. She learned, early in life, the value of discretion. Growing up in a 1950s house, where all the furniture was scrutinized before it was allowed to stay, she learned that old could be blended with new. Japanese and Chinese antiques, for example, blended beautifully with the contemporary house, but her grandmother’s farmhouse furniture simply did not work and had to go.
Look to the Past
In her work, Nancy has always emphasized how important it is to look at the past in order to design for the present. By taking these common elements and turning them on their ears, she gets to a fresh design sensibility. She explores an idea and works it into something new and different. For example, a white almond orchard planted in a uniform grid might have one pink-blooming almond in the middle or a tree purposefully left out of the pattern.
Is this just being quirky? She thinks not, but admits to working all sides of her personality with her clients and their gardens. I have been happily pushed into fresh answers when the solution to a design was not apparent. I always start with a site plan on paper. Then I add the geometry to it. I find that this exercise settles me down and allows me to explore the possibilities by shaking up the geometry in some way. For example, I might place trees on a diagonal instead of in a rectangular grid. Or I might enclose a view so that only a small portion is readily visible until, from another vantage point, an expansive view opens up as a surprise. I have also played around with the ancient technique of catching glimpses of a house on the approach to it and then, subsequently, losing it. This adds mystery, and gardens are even more wonderful when they contain some mystery.
Introducing innovative design ideas to clients is not always easy. It takes charisma, skill, and patience to bring some clients along. Some want her to recreate for them what they have seen elsewhere or what she has done for a previous client. And no matter how hard she tries to get them to embrace a wonderfully imaginative idea, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Nancy believes the client should always, in the end, get what he or she wants. A new idea will always be a new idea and might be applicable in another garden.”
Sometimes existing elements stimulate original ideas. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, had no natural gate or entrance. So Nancy planted two Platanus mexicana trees in front. They became the gate and caused museum visitors to pause for a minute. Nancy likes that about a garden—the ability or necessity to pause, to become aware of one’s surroundings.
Does everyone respond well to these surprises? “No,” she says. “At the Norton Simon, I listened as men asked what the trees were doing there. ‘They’re not supposed to be there,’ they said over and over. But I also watched children dance around the entrance trees and witnessed a Mona Lisa smile appear on the lips of women as they approached the entrance. They got it!”
In another garden Nancy wanted to introduce a straight path, but a tree stood in the way. She simply left the tree there and forced the garden visitor to meander around it. These kinds of surprises, she feels, perk up the imagination.
A Garden Philosophy
With a number of years of award-winning garden design and extensive travel behind her, Nancy now feels a sense of oneness with the past, present, and future. Her garden vocabulary is coming together. She has created a garden philosophy that is anchored in the past but reflected in innovative ways in her designs. Along the way, she has developed a few guiding principles:
A garden isn’t complete without water.
Water in a mediterranean climate is particularly precious. It adds a cooling effect in a hot dry climate and, she adds, “Rain on a pond is a beautiful sight.”
A garden should offer enclosure and protection.
Nancy understands that feeling comfortable in a defined space is probably primordial. So is seeing the sky, particularly at sunrise and sunset, so she tries to incorporate those views from relaxing vantage points in her gardens.
A garden needs to incorporate different levels.
Breaking up the horizontal lines in a garden helps define the perspective. If everything is on the same level, it’s all a mush.
Garden surfaces have also attracted her attention. She has experimented with new patterns, unusual colors, and original materials on the floor of the garden and is fascinated with permeable surfaces. “I’m actively trying to find permeable surfaces that are attractive. We need to work hard to be sure that ‘green’ solutions are also positive design elements.”
Exciting issues are percolating in the world of garden design today. Most intriguing for Nancy is the challenge of stewardship: “The need to be responsible caretakers of our planet has to be communicated to garden owners.”
Spreading Fresh Design
Just as history and gardens and past designers have influenced her own “fresh design,” she has influenced others. Several Los Angeles landscape and garden designers, who got their start in Nancy’ s office, are now leaving their “fresh design” stamps on the gardens of the world. Nancy says, “They are taking design to new and exciting dimensions—their careers are taking off!”
Bill Nicholas, of Nicholas Budd Dutton Architects, Los Angeles, and a former associate at Nancy Goslee Power, feels that landscape architecture and garden design are moving in positive directions. His clients come to him for his reliability in creating gardens that can be experienced from within, and not just viewed from without, to be fully appreciated.
Bill is noted for his innovative work with plants from all over the world, using them as constructive elements in the garden. Like his former employer, he creates spaces with them. As he puts it, “Whether you need a soft surface or hard edge, it can be created with plants.”
Another former associate, Joseph Marek, of Joseph Marek Landscape Architecture, Santa Monica, admits that he is thrilled when clients call to tell him how much they’ve used their new garden. One client even served Thanksgiving dinner outside last year. For them, Joseph’s fresh interpretation of their garden changed the way they see it and use it.
Joseph uses a client’s house as a reference point for the design of the garden. He also listens carefully to his clients’ thoughts, and, like Nancy and the others, acknowledges that it’s the client who occasionally pushes a design to new creative heights. In one instance, clients with a hillside house in Pacific Palisades wanted to evoke the image of being on the beach. Joseph introduced a clumping grass but imaginatively planted it as an allee. It worked! In another instance, the house dictated a brand new approach to a Jacuzzi. In keeping with the 1920s Spanish-style home, the new Jacuzzi will replicate a Moorish fountain complete with twirls and tiles.
Laurie Lewis, of Laurie Lewis Design, Pacific Palisades, says that her goal, too, is to create delightful outdoor spaces that her clients want to be in. Each house and each client demands a fresh approach. Success, she learned from Nancy, comes in paying attention to the details that work. In designing roofless rooms, be sure doors open out. Look at how the light strikes the space. Use the sound of water. Embrace all the senses.
Laurie, like Nancy, takes the site plan and then simplifies and edits. She creates harmonious and serene settings through the use of homogeneous planting schemes and through conscious repetition. She no longer feels the need to put every plant, every pattern, or every color in every garden. Color, now, is introduced in pots, pillows, and paint.
For these Southern California landscape architects and garden designers, fresh design is less about which plants, which colors, which gravels, or styles, but rather about that delicious space you want to be in. While it’s wonderful to realize that design ideas are infinite in scope and that new designers are demonstrating that, Nancy is the first to remind them that “we design for the client, and we make a mistake when we try too hard to be an artist. Artistry can come out in the subtlest detail.”
In those subtle details, Nancy and her current and former associates are leaving bold, creative marks on the landscape of the California garden.