Elements of Design: Shape or Form

We often think of shapes as two-dimensional: squares, rectangles, circles, and triangles. This isn’t how we perceive them in the landscape, however. We see them in three dimensions, like cubes, spheres, and cones. Shape (or form) in the landscape can even dictate how a space feels.

This is a backyard I did for a client in Phoenix, Arizona (sorry, pygmy date palms aren’t going to work in your McLean landscape design). As you can see the shapes are all sinuous curves with nary a straight line in sight. This gives the yard a much more casual, relaxed feel.

Here, you see a lot more angularity of design. This house is a very dominating, simple, rectangular shape, so it made sense to carry those lines all the way to the street. In so doing, you can see we also used the principle of unity (part of harmony). It all ties together!

Part of the reason that I think it’s important to discuss shape in the landscape is that I see a lot of folks forgetting that the shape of their home is a dominant part of the design. Everyone wants flowing curves on everything. Well, I wish I could wear a paisley suit jacket, but I’ll never be able to rock that look. Such is life.

Unless your home was designed by Frank Gehry (or you live in an igloo), your home is a box. Or it’s a grouping of a few boxes. Regardless, the dominant form is rectilinear. That doesn’t mean that you’re limited to a simple rectangular patio, for example.

In the photo above, the house is a massive, two and a half story brick edifice. The client initially wanted big sweeping curves on the patio. I tried, but nothing worked. It was as wrong as sticking a trucker cap on the Queen of England’s head. So, we did a stepped edge on the patio to break up the profile and allowed all the plant beds to swoop and curve and blend the landscape design into the woods. The design finally worked, and what’s even better – the client loves it.

Shape’s fun to play with. It’s one of my favorite parts of landscape design.

Next up: Mass!

Principles of Design: Harmony in the Landscape

As a band geek , I’m going to work the music I love into any post I can.  Anyhow, harmony is what happens when you combine all your architectural elements, furnishings, and design elements into a successful, pleasing whole. The shorter definition is “when everything works together and makes you nod your head and say yeah.” Harmony relies on two subordinate principles, unity and variety.

Unity means a single, cohesive identity. This can be established with color, or by keeping all the furniture styles consistent in an interior space. Outdoors, it can be a continuity of materials. For example, in designing the wedding arbor for the grounds at Old House Vineyards I used the same white oak that was used on the pavilion.

If, like me, you’re a Project Runway fan then you’ve probably heard Michael Kors call out designers for being too “matchy-matchy.” Too much unity can result in a very matchy-matchy landscape. It’s why you rarely see a large brick home with a brick patio, brick columns, and brick pathways. Even overuse of a plant can spoil an otherwise good design. This photo is from a greenhouse at Wollom Gardens in Culpeper, but I’ve seen monoculture landscape plantings like this too.

The other essential part of harmony is variety. Variety brings in different colors, textures, and materials, and adds interest to the space. However, variety on its own is also undesirable. Without unity to pull everything together, the design can be chaotic and displeasing. In the photo below, you can see that the stone veneer on the home is echoed in the stone on the columns and the step risers by the curb, creating unity; the brick on the home and the flagstone walk are of a similar character yet still provide interest and variety.

It’s easy to create a landscape design where everything is exactly the same. It’s also easy to create a design where everything is different. The value of taking the time to create a landscape plan is that you’re better able to combine unity and variety to get a beautiful, satisfying landscape.

Next up: the elements of design!

Principles of Design: Balance in the Landscape

I’ve been excited about writing this post. Balance is really important to design, yet it’s often misunderstood. The two main kinds of balance in design are symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.

Symmetrical balance is easy. Take a picture and divide it down the middle. Are both sides the same, or darn close? That’s symmetrical balance, also called formal or passive balance. Why passive? Because it’s very explicit what’s going on and it requires no judgment or interpretation. Historical designs often rely very heavily on symmetry, as you can see in the photo of Mount Vernon above. For this reason symmetrically balanced gardens can evoke that feel, even in spaces that are relatively new. The photo below is of the formal garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. It’s less than 20 years old, in a very different style, yet it still has that sense of timeless design that comes with symmetry.

Asymmetrical balance is a different animal. Think of the idea of balance as it relates to a seesaw (or teeter-totter, if that’s your thing). With symmetrical balance you have 60 pound Suzie on one side of the fulcrum, and her perfectly identical clone Suzie v 2.0 the same distance on the other side of the fulcrum. Again, passive balance – you can look at this and you “know” that it’s balanced.

Now Big Bad Bob comes along and decides he wants to play. For him to balance on one side, Suzie and two of her clones have to be on the other side of the fulcrum to maintain equilibrium. If you look at the kids on the seesaw, you can see that there’s equilibrium even though they’re different kids and different sizes and shapes. The visual weight balances out.

The same idea comes into play in the landscape. We can achieve the same sort of balance by contrasting the visual “weight” of a tall tree with three hefty shrubs.

Asymmetrical balance is called “active” balance because it requires a little more work on the part of the viewer to understand that there is, in fact, balance. It’s also sometimes called “occult” balance. Put away your Ouija board; it’s called occult balance because there are no set rules defining what the right way is to achieve it – it’s a mystery! Woooooo. It’s also really cool and really powerful because of that. I love designs where they just feel right. Asymmetrical balance can do that, because you have to be actively seeking it out to know it’s happening.

So… who cares, right? If you want balance, just mirror the left side onto the right side and call it done. That’s an option, I suppose, but every space is different and lends itself to a different approach. Maybe you’re looking for a more Asian-inspired design, which means that you should consider asymmetrical balance. Or, you could have something in the space – a tree, a boulder, a structure – that is so visually massive that it’s hard to mirror. The way you counteract that effect is with asymmetrical balance.

The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more cool stuff you can build. Isn’t design awesome?

Next up: rhythm!

Principles of Design: Proportion in the Landscape

Proportion and scale are two related design principles. Proportion refers to the size relationship that parts of the design have to each other and to the design as a whole. On a small scale, an example of proportion is the size of a chair’s legs to its back or seat. On a bigger scale, an example of proportion may be the size of a pergola’s posts in relationship to its beam. If the relationship of the parts is pleasing, we consider it to be well-proportioned.

As with many things, the ancient Greeks had this one under control. They referred to a concept known as the golden mean, an imaginary line that divides an object into unequal yet harmonious portions, somewhere between 1/2 and 1/3. It’s easy to see this at work in interior design; think of tiebacks on curtains, or where a chair rail is located.

There’s also the golden section, a mathematical statement of proportions. This uses a progression of numbers – 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… – that relate to one another in a pleasing way. For instance, a patio 5′ wide by 8′ long is considered pleasing. Want it bigger? Multiply both sides by the same number. Using the number 3, that gives us a patio 15′ wide by 24′ long. Theoretically, a room or space created using the golden section should be the easiest to furnish and work with.

Proportion is important in the landscape because we’re dealing with so many large items, and all too often people are afraid to go big. Here are a few examples:

When it comes to pergolas proportion makes a world of difference. Bigger is, quite often, better. Compare the proportions of the pergola that was there (top) to the one we replaced it with (bottom).

This custom arbor I designed is one of my favorite pieces. The house it belongs to is in the 9,000 sq ft range and it sits on 75 acres. The existing arbor was a run-of-the-mill garden center piece of junk that looked like paperclips on a basketball court. This one has the “oomph” to have some presence.

I’ve also talked about picking plants that suit your home and site. Again, proportion is so important! The trick is to find a plant that’s not too big for your lot (especially a smaller city lot) but is big enough to stand up to your house. Not sure? That’s what professional landscape designers (like me!) are for.

Next up: balance!

Principles and Elements of Design: a Series

You may have noticed that it’s winter outside, so there’s not a lot of pretty stuff for me to take pictures of right now. It seems to me it’s a great time to talk about design, and what makes for really good design. Over the next several weeks I’ll talk about the principles and elements of design, and show examples so you can better understand them at work in design. It should be a lot of fun, as I remember when I first learned these in interior design class I had a lot of “aha!” moments.

Principles of Design

The principles of design are abstract concepts at play in good design. They are:

  • Scale
  • Proportion
  • Balance
  • Rhythm
  • Emphasis
  • Harmony

Elements of Design

Where the principles of design are abstract concepts, the elements of design are the actual, quantifiable parts of any design. They’re where the rubber hits the road:

  • Space
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Mass
  • Line
  • Texture
  • Pattern
  • Light
  • Color

Each principle, and each element, will have its own post. It all starts Wednesday, so be sure to check back. If you want to be notified when new posts go live, click here to subscribe to this blog via email and you’ll receive alerts in your inbox.