An interview led and reported by Susan Cohan
Michelle Derviss has been practicing landscape design in northern California of more than 25 years. She has been the recipient of major awards and her work has been widely published. Selected projects can be viewed on her website or via her blog Garden Porn.
Michelle’s residential design work demonstrates a masterful ability to echo and enhance its unique surroundings. Each of Michelle’s projects display her commitment as a designer to thoughtful and responsive design, excellence in craftsmanship and sophisticated planting design.
I’ve known Michelle for about ten years now, so I asked her to answer nine questions about her work, influences and what makes a landscape/garden great.
A garden becomes successful when it has established an emotional relationship with the owners and a responsive connection to the architecture and surrounding environment.
From a design perspective, what is the most successful landscape or garden you have created…why?
From a purely design perspective the most successful landscape installation was one where the house and garden blended together as one seamless cohesive flowing narrative.
The exterior garden space spoke the same aesthetic language to the architecture and the architecture responded in kind to the expression of the garden.
If you could distill excellence in landscape/garden design to five elements, what would they be?
- To imbue the senses
- To inspire the eye of the beholder
- To expand the visions of the people you work in collaboration with
- To create distinctive enduring fine craftsmanship that will stand the test of time
- To engage people into a journey of natural discovery
- Roberto Burle Marx
- Shodo Suzuki
- Isamu Noguchi
- Charles and Ray Eames
- Bill Bensley
- Charles Le Corbusier
What influences your design process?
The people whom I am in collaboration with, the surrounding context of their environmental site and their interior and exterior architecture.
Where do you as a designer look for inspiration?
Inspiration comes in all forms and shapes. Often it will reveal itself from a walk around my neighborhood or a quite lumbering boat ride into the city of San Francisco I often attend the local community college for art classes and my classmates as well as the materials in the art studio inspires me.
A well steeped cup of tea, a butter cookie and my sketch book is always good for inspiration too.
Is the creation of a successful landscape/garden design dependent on the process of gardening? Does the practice of gardening factor in to your design process? If so how?
Interesting question Susan. I think the creation of a successful garden is not necessarily dependent on the process of gardening.
If you contemplate the meaning of a garden in the abstract you could possibly have a successful garden without the practice of gardening. Take for instance a simple raked gravel meditation garden. There is not much gardening involved but there is engaged responsiveness, introspection and simple scenic beauty to gaze and meditate upon.
But in my every day practice of designing gardens I usually do factor in the process of gardening because I am a pragmatist.
This means I am planning ahead for the ongoing maintenance to ensure the garden continues to thrive and evolve.
Do you believe that landscape/garden design is respected as a design discipline? Why, why not?
I think the answer to that question depends on who you speak to.
If you ask that question to someone who puts value on well crafted design then they will no doubt respect the discipline because they understand the process. If you ask the same question to someone who does not understand the process of design then the question is lost on them thus through their ignorance a lack of respect is borne.
What ideas do you want to explore next?
That’s a big question because I am always contemplating new ideas.
Doing more with less is sparking some new ideas due to our current economic downturn. I’m spending more time in salvaged yards then ever before seeking out non traditional building materials that can be fashioned into solving design dilemmas in a resourceful, unique and inexpensive way.
Susan Cohan, APLD
With thanks to Michelle Derviss