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Encouraging New Ideas to Bloom

Nancy Goslee Power, a noted designer who upended tradition,

explains her ideas and offers a glimpse of the future.

May 11, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Design 2000 is an occasional series on the many aspects of design and the men and women of California who are shaping its impact on our lives.

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Home gardens have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Neat lawns surrounded by ground-covering gazanias and tidy junipers have given way to variety and drama in plantings and to more natural and thoughtful design. This is especially true in backyards, but sometimes even out front.

Nancy Goslee Power of Santa Monica is one of the influential landscape designers involved in this sea change--along with designers such as Chris Rosmini, Isabelle Green and the late Bob Fletcher. Power's radical garden caused stirs and sighs when it first appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1988. It had a sunken ornamental lily pool in the frontyard, a fountain and towering fireplace on the patio, and a checkerboard of green and gray santolina instead of a back lawn.

Her firm, Nancy Goslee Power & Associates, still specializes in dramatic and often daring residential gardens for clients with last names such as Bloomingdale or Doheny. She did architect Frank O. Gehry's garden, among others, and now is working on private gardens in Los Angeles and St. Helena in Napa Valley as well as a children's garden for Kidspace, a museum in Pasadena.

Power's company also has designed some bold public spaces, such as the entry garden at Universal CityWalk, with its masses of blue-gray agaves, and the new garden at Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum, with its jewel-like pond and wandering paths.

Power, 58, was born in Georgetown, Del., "a small town with a benign climate where we could grow camellias." She studied art and architecture in Florence, Italy--"Where else can you study frescoes, when frescoes are on the classroom ceiling?"--started a "mildly successful" interior design studio in New York City when she was 27 and ended her career there with an interior design project showcased on the cover of House & Garden magazine.

When she moved to California 20 years ago, she took up gardening and garden design, an interest of hers since childhood.

Power now lives in a colorful, contemporary 1,200-square-foot house of her design in Santa Monica that has a small but bold garden that includes water, brightly colored walls and tropical plants. Her office and studio are housed in a refurbished neon-sign shop, also in Santa Monica, but her projects take her to such diverse places as Australia, Singapore and Germany. She has a 24-year-old son, Oliver, who is studying language and culture at the University of Waseda in Japan.

Recently I asked her about the dramatic changes in gardening and garden design, and for some thoughts on what's next.

Question: What's behind these quantum changes in garden design?

Answer: I think this burst of exuberance in design comes from the fact that travel is cheap. Everyone is bringing back what they see and incorporating it into their gardens, at least that's certainly true of me.

I am now less influenced by English "good taste" in gardens and more likely to be influenced by ideas from other cultures and climates. I know I'm more bold with color and composition.

Also, there's so much money around that people are spending it on their gardens and hiring people to actually design their gardens. They didn't use to do that.

Q: How has garden design changed?

A: When I first got to Santa Monica 20 years ago, everyone pretty much had a tidy green lawn and a foundation planting of nice-looking green shrubs. There was beauty in that sameness, which gave a cohesiveness to the community that felt good when driving around.

Now, when you drive around, each property is an experience unto itself, with a total disregard for the next-door neighbor or even the street tree out front.

Part of me thinks that the old way probably looked better as an overall community plan, but it is a hell of a lot more fun to walk around now when everyone is doing his own thing. And it makes total sense in Southern California since we have always done this with architecture. No two houses are remotely alike. Spanish sits next to Tudor next to '50s modern.

Q: What about all the new plants?

A: Clients don't usually say anything about the plants they want, unless they tell you they hate spiky plants or orange flowers, their two most common dislikes. So plants are up to the designer.

When you do a lot of gardens, you start wanting to use something different, which has really helped the plant explosion. Thank goodness there is so much more available now!

I try not to use one of everything, but one way to get around this is to group similar colors. I might plant several different things together, but they all have yellow flowers.

But the plants should be appropriate for the building. Of course, as soon as I say that, I'll do just the opposite, but at least it's a place to start.

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