Finding Inspiration in the 2020s

Finding Inspiration in the 2020s

From a California Landscape Designer in the Pandemic

By Daniel Mazawa, General Manager

All of us are looking for something, and sometimes inspiration is all we need. At our design-build landscape construction company in the beautiful San Luis Obispo County of California, we are an inspired group that deal tranquility and beauty as our fare. One of the downsides to caring so much about landscapes is that we are a little snobby about our profession, cringing at the demeaning term of “landscaping” as a shrub-it-up afterthought. Now in the midst of 2020, we find ourselves a little lost, like everyone in the pandemic, on how to keep the stoke up and do what we do best.

We work from home now, remoting into our CAD production softwares with the amazing technologies that allow us to keep working safely among the ever more cautious world. We have everything we need on paper, work to do, people to do it, and eloquent technology. But something is missing.

Designing landscapes in a self-imposed echo chamber can be a lonely and frustrating process. We are finding the need to reinvent our methods to get a dose of inspiration from the world without the in-person team comradery of the now defunct design studio. Limitations have forced us to look within ourselves to find new sparks of inspiration.

Acceptance

At some point we have all settled on some level of acceptance; we can’t just go back and pretend nothing happened. We can reminisce about the way it used to be: the morning greeting to a group of co-workers turned friends, high-fiving when we get a contract signed, and sitting shoulder to shoulder working out a plan problem. But clinging to the way it was is no way to find inspiration, and at some point we need to evolve into our new reality.

Embrace the Tools

Technology is always colder than true human interaction, from emails to video conferencing. We all put on the smile to try to keep everyone else’s spirits up, but like looking at a photo of a good memory, we just wish we were there.

That being said, a 90% feeling of human interaction is still something. We can keep it light, talk about how we are doing, bring up silly jokes like we would if we walked by someone’s desk, or talk about something cool we found. We tend to focus on the business at hand in a video conference meeting, but being ourselves and making idle chit chat is what opens us up to finding inspiration. In fact, I was inspired to write this piece by just asking my fellow designers, what do you do when you get stuck on a design? I was inspired by the answers.

Zoom Out

The literal nature of our video conferencing software is to “Zoom” in to the little boxes with talking heads and focus on the task at hand. Sitting at a computer all day can be a strain on the eyes as well as the search for inspiration. Get up! Walk around, look outside, go outside, see what’s going on out there! I find a lot of inspiration in my garden. A 10 minute break to go prune some tomato plants can break the inspiration block, allowing me to unintentionally brainstorm my work with free mind while performing an idle task with my hands. Not to mention the feeling of the sun, the sounds of the birds, and the smell of the tomato vine. You can take this further by walking your neighborhood, taking a hike or driving around the town. Being a landscape designer, it is impossible to turn off the manufacturing of stoke from visual stimuli, sometimes we just need to get out of our own way.

You can also embrace the internet to find inspiration from the comfort of your own chair. One of our all-star designers, Megan Savage, keyed us into looking at real-estate websites. It is a great way to look at homes or properties from the perspective of the consumer. So often we are looking at construction details or diagrams, and it is eye-opening to just see landscapes from the eye of someone looking to buy a property. The access allows us to look at very nice properties with professional photography, and the perspective allows us to zoom out and react, “wow that is a peaceful setting!” Undoubtably, we will see something that emulates the vibe we want to create in our design, and we will change our design from the new inspiration. For planting design, looking at local California Central Coast landscapes gives us great ideas on plant material that will grow here.

Reach Out

In a design studio setting, we are right there next to inspired experts ready to help solve problems and give inspiration. At home, calling someone for what feels like a dumb question seems like an undue burden on the other, and that becomes the excuse to stay stuck in the mud. We have quickly found that everyone is in the same boat and getting a call is far from unwelcome. Reach out to those you work with early, often, and willingly. You also may have people you live with, or friends and family sitting home bored who would love a mundane question about a design, so they can feel valued and useful. You don’t need to be an expert to give a great perspective on a design solution!

Appreciation

This is it, folks! Here we are in it, so deal with it! Maybe the most important tool for inspiration is an internal perspective shift to appreciate what we have.

The wise Taylor Boyle once told me he loves being out working on the hottest day of the year, or being outside in the middle of a giant storm. Why? Because you can’t escape being present in the moment and that is truly living. With the current pandemic, I don’t mean to be stuck in the news or the happenings of the world, I mean be present in your home with your work at hand, in one of the greatest places to live (we are very lucky to live in San Luis Obispo County). We are lucky to be here in a place that surrounds us with natural beauty. We are lucky to have the space to be outside safely while many do not.

We can find inspiration all around us, and if we look a little closer with a freed-up mind, we can create inspiration from ourselves. Inspiration can be contagious… in a good way!

Work From Home: Designers in Their Home Habitat

Work From Home: Designers in Their Home Habitat

Madrone’s Landscape Designers: a unique breed. Creative, social creatures; it’s not often you’ll find us alone. We tend to work in packs.

But these days are not the norm. We’re currently working from our home habitat – roaming our yards and living rooms, and keeping a safe social distance. While on one hand, it’s nice to have time to work on our own gardens and yards, it’s also been a challenge to work away from the office, field, and teammates.

#WFHLife: The Pros

For Megan Savage, working at home has some real benefits. “It’s a flexible workspace,” she says. “I usually set up at either the couch in my living room or at my dining table. But, on nice days, I can sit at my patio table in the sunshine while I work; it looks over a small greenbelt, and my neighbor’s jasmine is blooming right now so it’s very peaceful. And my dog Lily is happy I’m home!” Ian Parker, too, finds some solace in his own personal landscape, saying that one of the things he likes best as he stays at home is the opportunity to “work in my beautiful backyard and spend time with my best doggie friend Daisy.”

Megan's Workspace feat. Lily the Dog

Both Jill Bleher and Christy Dufault are enjoying the company of feline friends. Christy says that she’s “actually enjoying the solitude of working at home. Of course, having animals in the house helps. My cats are keeping me company.” For Jill, her cat Destiny has been one of the best parts of working from home, along with seeing her husband Alec throughout the workday. When sharing social isolation with anyone, from friends to family, it’s a relief to have good company.

Jill's Workspace

#WFHLife: The Cons

Even with the designers who have people or pets at home, the isolation can be a new kind of challenge, missing the company of both coworkers and social ambiance. For Megan, it’s the chatter she yearns for. She misses “being able to talk to my coworkers without having to pick up a phone.” Likewise, Christy says, “It will be nice to see everyone and be able to communicate in person!” Ian misses collaborating with his “lovely teammates”. Being unable to share ideas with one another so effortlessly is truly one of those things that we don’t realize we’ll miss until it’s gone.

Christy's Workspace feat. Viktor the Cat
Thank goodness for technology! Jill admits that “our communication remotely is relatively good with Zoom and phone calls and technology in general”—work would be strenuous without it—but it still can’t compete with physical proximity. The “long-distance communication just doesn’t match in-person connection!” she remarks. Ian finds that his home technology falls a little short – he longs to use his big computer screen.
Ian's Workspace
All in all, our Madrone Design team is still working away from their respective homes; starting new projects and continuing their efforts for current clients. We look forward to resuming work in our usual manner, but the circumstances have allowed us to grow and appreciate our working environments in fresh ways—both the old and the new.

While we all work together to make sure this pandemic passes as quickly as possible, we take solace in our surroundings and look forward to the friendships, teammates, and work spaces we’ll come back to when this is over. In the meantime, stay safe and upbeat – we look forward to seeing you in the office or field soon!

Daniel's Workspace
On the Boards: Japanese Zen Garden with California Natives

On the Boards: Japanese Zen Garden with California Natives

Artistic Design

The Millward Residence homeowners have an artistic eye for details. Madrone designers worked very closely with them to ensure the design captured their intentions. The West Atascadero project blends a minimalist Japanese Zen Garden style with California native plants to provide a tranquil setting. A beautiful stone walkway with stone slab bridges provides a pathway to the front entry.

Challenging Installation

The project site is on a steep hillside, which meant limited access for trucks and heavy equipment. Because the project was installed during the winter months, rain and mud added to the challenge of the jobsite. Madrone’s installation crew worked through the site logically, starting with the hardest-to-access areas and heaviest grading, then working our way out. Timing was critical: We finished the grading before the rain came, so we were able to focus on flagstone path work during the wet weather. We used mid-sized trucks and tractors to bring in the materials in small loads, getting as close to the work as possible.

True Work of Art

We made many site adjustments to ensure the project achieved the goals of the owners. Due to the very collaborative design and installation, the finished landscape is a true work of art that the owner can really appreciate at a deeper level.

On the Boards: Goodwin Ranch House

On the Boards: Goodwin Ranch House

Historic Farmhouse Restoration

Madrone is collaborating with San Luis Sustainability Group to help restore this historic Goodwin Ranch House through the Carrizo Plain Conservancy.

Remote and Dry Location

Our pro bono design includes decks, a stage, open rustic patios and ADA-compliant ramps to facilitate entertainment and events. Because the site is in a remote and dry location, water resources are limited. Our designers looked at what was surviving on the Carrizo Plain site and utilized those same drought-tolerant native plants, which can be watered for establishment and then survive on their own. In addition, we designed a composting toilet to be used for events, which will further reduce water use.

Community Gathering Place

The restored farmhouse will host educational events. Visitors will enjoy the unique beauty of the Carrizo Plains, the re-established Goodwin Ranch House, and the native landscaping.

Design Styles for the Central Coast

Design Styles for the Central Coast

by Jules Welch

It’s easy to be overwhelmed when looking at an empty plot of land or a back yard in disrepair. Luckily for homeowners, HOA’s, and commercial property owners, landscape designers see your space as a blank canvas—a unique opportunity to meld function with artistic expression. Design style plays a huge part in every built environment, and often incorporates a colorful mix of the owner’s personality, designer’s aesthetic, and greater climatic and cultural context. Some design styles that are popular for our coastal California area include:

                -Contemporary/Minimalist

                -English Cottage/Craftsman

                -Xeriscape/Native/Low Water

                -Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial Revival

There is a lot of overlap when it comes to style, but certain core characteristics define each aesthetic. Read more about these traits to find out what speaks to you:

Contemporary/Minimalist:

Colloquially described as “modern” design, contemporary landscapes are influenced by mid-century modern art and architecture but are defined by their cutting-edge qualities for the present day (which, technically, could be any style). However, when someone refers to a contemporary landscape, they are likely describing a geometric style which features minimalism, clean lines, and grid layouts. Contemporary design is often used in commercial projects such as campuses, plazas, and office buildings; it may also be used to complement custom homes. These landscapes generally favor green foliage over colorful flowers, with intentional spacing and simple hardscapes like concrete or pea gravel.

Gain Inspiration: Andrea Cochran is a renowned Bay Area designer known for her spacious designs with an emphasis on form.

English Cottage/Craftsman:

English Cottage Gardens came into their own during the industrial revolution, when families fled city life for remote holiday cottages in the country. This mix of ideologies brought a unique design sense which mixes the formal with the chaotic. English cottage gardens can be identified by their overgrown, lush look, usually incorporating lawn and border plantings among tightly-grouped flowering perennials.

Gain Inspiration: Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was known for her craftsman inspired cottage gardens, using color “rooms” to achieve dynamic and natural mass plantings.

Xeriscape/Native/Low Water:

Xeriscape is a style of landscape design which requires minimal irrigation and maintenance, focusing on efficient use of water. Often using native and native-adjacent plants, these water-wise gardens tend to evoke an arid, desert feel. Gravel, cactus, and decomposed granite are the keystone elements of a xeriscape. Designers also incorporate sustainable water-harvesting elements such as planted swales and rain gardens into their xeriscapes. Native California gardens can still look lush, colorful, and attractive, while still retaining their drought-tolerant, low maintenance qualities.

Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial Revival:

Most coastal regions in California have a Mediterranean climate, meaning that numerous plant species from Southern France, Italy, and Spain thrive here! Mediterranean design styles bring lavender, olive trees, and Italian cypress into California’s landscape. It is also the origin of our incredible wine culture. Often using plaza-style patios, pavers, vines, and potted plants, Mediterranean design makes the most of sun/shade, views, and crops. Sometimes used to describe Spanish Colonial Revival style, these gardens often incorporate stucco walls, tile, and cooling water features. Symmetry and striking, sculptural plants with colorful foliage often come into play.

What’s your Design Style?

Design style can be subtle or overt, but it is responsible for the feeling we get in an outdoor environment, whether familiar or obscure, nostalgic or innovative, cozy or vast. Most importantly, though, it’s what makes home feel like home.