Who’s who

Land­scape de­signer and CEO of Oehme, van Swe­den, Lisa Delplace shares her views on land­scape de­sign in the USA

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS TIM RICHARD­SON POR­TRAIT CHAR­LIE HOP­KIN­SON

It’s a pretty stan­dard in­ter­view ques­tion: so what was the gar­den you grew up with like? Lisa Delplace’s re­sponse ini­tially sounds fairly stan­dard, too: it was her mother who was the gar­dener at the fam­ily home on the out­skirts of Detroit, where she cre­ated “the blowsi­est ever bor­der” with mop-headed hy­drangeas, pe­onies and roses. But then, as an af­ter­thought, Lisa men­tions that in win­ter her fa­ther “turned the en­tire back yard into an ice hockey pitch”, pool­ing wa­ter evenly across the lawn, flat­ten­ing out bumps and clear­ing snow. “My dad and broth­ers played hockey – our house be­came a nexus for all the boys in the neigh­bour­hood,” she re­calls.

Per­haps this sea­sonal trans­for­ma­tion at least in­stilled in the young Lisa a sense that a gar­den might be a func­tional space that caters to the needs of its own­ers. When she grad­u­ated in 1988 from the Mas­ters pro­gramme in land­scape de­sign at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity, she came top of her class. It was at this point she started look­ing for a job, and it so hap­pened that the very first in­ter­view she had was in Washington DC with James van Swe­den. Ex­tro­vert and ex­act­ing, he was one half of the de­sign duo Oehme, van Swe­den (OvS), the land­scape com­pany founded in 1977 with Wolf­gang Oehme that rapidly es­tab­lished it­self as the US spe­cial­ist in nat­u­ral­is­tic plant­ing.

“Jim hired me within 15 min­utes,” Lisa re­calls, “so I didn’t go any­where else. Some of my pro­fes­sors were like, ‘Those grass guys, they’ll never amount to any­thing. It won’t last.’ They had all gone through Har­vard in the 1960s – all clean lines and Modernism – so they re­ally bris­tled at it.”

But last it did. And so did Lisa. Bar­ring a four-year hia­tus with a firm in Ver­mont, she has spent her en­tire 30-year ca­reer with OvS and is now CEO and joint de­sign prin­ci­pal with two col­leagues who have been with the com­pany just as long. In a US con­text it’s a smallish firm (around 25 peo­ple), which Lisa says is a de­lib­er­ate pol­icy that al­lows the prin­ci­pals to re­main ‘hands-on’.

“The OvS style was con­sid­ered a metaphor for the Amer­i­can prairie or meadow,” she ob­serves. A key early work was the land­scape at the Fed­eral Re­serve Build­ing in Washington DC, where Oehme’s sig­na­ture plant­ings of peren­ni­als and grasses – es­sen­tially a dis­til­la­tion of the style de­vel­oped by Karl Fo­er­ster in post-war pub­lic parks in East Ger­many – ini­tially caused dis­may among those ex­pect­ing smart box hedges. “We for­get that what OvS was do­ing in the 1970s was truly shock­ing to peo­ple,” Lisa says. “It was a very bold ges­ture – and peo­ple were at­tracted to that.”

Oehme died in 2011 and van Swe­den two years later, so the ques­tion arises about legacy – how can you per­pet­u­ate a house style that is so in­ti­mately bound up with two pow­er­ful per­son­al­i­ties who are no longer with us? Lisa de­fends the case ro­bustly, stat­ing that she and her col­leagues are re­main­ing true to the OvS spirit. But doesn’t this style look dated now? I ask, re­call­ing the day I spent with van Swe­den when he proudly told me that he and Oehme only ever had a pal­ette of 25 to 30 plants ‘on the truck’ at any one time, and that they never ex­ceeded this num­ber of species. By the 1990s the OvS look had be­come an im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able ‘brand’, with cer­tain plants (no­tably Echi­nacea and Rud­beckia) fa­mil­iar to the point of cliché.

Lisa re­sponds with, “I want to chal­lenge you on that.” Which is, I think, her way of say­ing, “You are talk­ing com­plete baloney.”

Lisa’s chal­lenge is that the OvS method­ol­ogy de­vel­oped fun­da­men­tally af­ter the turn of the 21st cen­tury. “The plant lists are much broader and our work is so much more di­verse now,” she as­serts. “For ex­am­ple we have just done a big ranch pro­ject in Mon­tana and there’s not a rud­beckia in sight.”

But doesn’t that, in turn, mean that the OvS brand is sim­ply be­ing di­luted? “No, I don’t see that as a prob­lem at all,” Lisa an­swers. “We con­tinue to push for­ward with a plant pal­ette that is just as en­gag­ing. I have just fin­ished a pro­ject in Port­land that is very OvS in style be­cause of what I call the ‘mass­ing struc­ture’ of the plant­ings. In wild mead­ows you be­gin to see or read pat­terns over acres and acres. In our work the drifts are stronger, the mass­ing is a lit­tle denser. We are de­sign­ing – that’s where the ges­ture comes in. I don’t see it as a right or a wrong, but I do see it as a de­sign de­ci­sion.”

She adds that there is now a greater em­pha­sis in their prac­tice on the chal­lenges of sus­tain­abil­ity, specif­i­cally rain­wa­ter run-off or storm drainage, which is today the sin­gle big­gest prob­lem in Amer­i­can land­scape de­sign: “You have to ac­count for ev­ery sin­gle rain­drop,” Lisa notes, rue­fully. Gone are the days when the likes of Jim and Wolf­gang could sim­ply roll up in their old VW Bee­tle and start plant­ing, yet the loy­alty across three decades of key col­leagues means that OvS as a com­pany clearly re­tains much of its orig­i­nal spirit and ide­al­ism. Led by Lisa, the nat­u­ral­is­tic plant­ing style pi­o­neered at OvS re­mains as rel­e­vant to 21st-cen­tury USA as it ever did. USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Oehme, van Swe­den, 800 G Street SE, Washington, DC 20003, USA. Tel +1 202 546 7575, ovsla.com IN THE JAN­UARY IS­SUE De­signer and TV pre­sen­ter Adam Frost. “We for­get that what OvS was do­ing in the 1970s was truly shock­ing to peo­ple. It was a very bold ges­ture – and peo­ple were at­tracted to that”

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