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