Mid-century modern landscaping: The first in a special series

I met Ted Cleary of Ted Clearly Landscape Architecture when we both spoke at the Charlotte home show — that’s him, playing up his mad men persona, in front of the mini-Eichler he designed, installed and landscaped for the event.  He and I got along famously, in fact, we were kind of a Friday night double feature: Mid-century homes inside… and out.  I’ll tell you: I learned a lot about landscaping mid-century modern homes, in just one hour of listening to Ted.

When I first showed Ted’s sketch for the landscape design of this Eichler house, I promised more coverage of mid-century modern landscaping ideas. So here comes: Ted himself on some of the basics of mid-century modern design,  the first in a new series of guest posts from him. I’ll feature one or two a month — pretty much as many and as fast as he can crank them out. I know this is a big “want” and “need” of many readers. In fact, after you read this first story, I’d love to hear more from you about landscaping topics you’d like to Ted him cover.

Ted writes:

Can you start by telling us about yourself and your background in landscape design?

I’m a sole practitioner, designing and managing the construction of landscape projects for a mostly-residential clientele.  After Clemson University’s five-year LA program, I followed the path of most young graduates and went to work at conventional landscape architectural firms, whose focus is typically on larger commercial projects.  While these provide great experience in such technical issues as drainage and construction detailing, the reality is that the bread & butter work of most firms are conventional shopping centers and office parks and the like, where the developer is motivated to follow only the most basic landscaping requirements, rather than the sorts of cutting-edge high design praised in architectural journals.  I’ve always maintained that you could train a monkey to sit in front of a computer and stamp tree symbols on a Wal-Mart parking lot plan.  I gravitated to garden design, where the “end user” is excited about really making their home their own modest version of paradise, and the opportunities to do it creatively are so much greater.  

Why did you get so interested in mid-century landscape design?

All across America, we have subdivisions built in the past two to three decades filled with contemporary interpretations of French Chateaux, Arts & Crafts Bungalows, and other period, historic styles.  A trait they usually share is that they’re designed with square footage as the driving factor, and often their scale, in relation to each other and to their own outdoor spaces, makes for awkward relationships.

In recent years, I believe the movement toward houses that are bigger on design quality but smaller in size has really developed a following.  You can build a new home with this philosophy, but why not look for it in an existing older home with a sense of age and continuity, when there’s so much great post-war housing stock?  Our parents’ generation happily raised families in these homes, under more modest conditions of space that fit better with today’s smaller families.  While there are indisputable issues to deal with in an older home of energy efficiency and the like, and some interior layout changes are usually in order to make them more livable, I’ll take a cozy older home with real lap siding, true-divided-lite windows, and a lovingly maintained garden hands-down over many of today’s characterless big boxes.  But, to complete this picture of domestic bliss, the outside spaces should reflect the style and period.  In most cases this landscaping has ‘lost its way’ through the vagaries of time, weather, and changing tastes; I want to see it more reflective of its history.

For this first story, can you tell us, in general, what are the key, foundational elements or drivers of mid-century landscape design. Like… the theory behind it… that residential homeowners should be thinking of?

Well, I think we can look at it in a couple of ways; traditional homes had one ‘look’, but mid-century modern ones quite another.  With the latter, a seamless quality between inside and outside was an integral aspect of mid-century modern architecture, and there’s a very recognizable vocabulary of rectilinear patios, clean lines, and bold curving shapes with no focal point or symmetry.  Influential landscape architects such as Garrett Eckbo were strongly influenced by the abstract painters of the mid-century.

But as Pam has pointed out, most of these modest post-war homes instead reflected a traditional style, whether we’re talking about a Cape Cod, a neo-Colonial, or a rambler.  If you carefully study garden books of the ‘40s and ‘50s, when you scrutinize the black and white or fading color photos, you’ll see that the better landscaping really was not a lot different than what we garden designers today think of as basic, sound design principles:  overlapping plant masses, interesting specimens, a sense of ‘movement and rest’, and entertaining areas using hardscaping materials and geometries in sympathy with their house’s style.  We could speculate that our parents and grandparents, having weathered a deep, sobering Depression and the full-on sacrifices of a second World War, were looking for the comfort of traditional styles in both their homes and the landscaping that surrounded it, but in a simpler and more affordable version geared toward the middle class.  There seemed to be a bit more emphasis on bright circus-like colors with big Dahlias, Hollyhocks and high-maintenance Hybrid Tea Roses, yet designs tended to be a bit more ‘tight’. Today’s trend, by comparison, introduces somewhat relaxed, native perennials and shrubs, which have become more mainstream not just for the aesthetics but the environmental aspects of water conservation and so on, which of course was virtually a non-existent concern back then.  One easily-overlooked aspect of mid-century garden design is what’s not included:  the sorts of materials like stackable concrete block walls or vinyl fencing that weren’t around back then, and an absence of the over-the-top luxury added to so many expensive backyards in recent pre-Recession times.  It’s interesting to me how the influences of Modern design crept into the look of many otherwise-traditional gardens, no doubt because of popular magazines like Sunset, in a similar way to the merchant builders who cobbled together different features they admired into their hybrid home styles.

How about showing us one nice design – and why it’s great.

Mid-century modern garden design is very diverse, even though it has an unmistakable ‘vocabulary’ as I described.  But if I had to choose one specific project that’s really iconic for the period, that would have to be the Donnell Garden in northern California. Thomas Church is generally recognized as the first landscape architect to reject his Beaux-Arts training of classical formality, in favor of a Modernist approach that both responded to and defined the “California Style” of relaxed outdoor living.  In 1946, Church created a pool area whose genius is in the clean, sweeping curves that echo distant views of rolling hills and San Francisco Bay beyond the rural landscape of their ranch.  The Donnell descendants have done a wonderful job maintaining it in its original state, and I think its elegant simplicity is the reason it still draws admirers today to see it, sixty-four years later.

Thank you, Ted! Readers: What other landscaping topics would you like to see Ted write about?

  1. nancy says:

    I have been gone a few days & missed this! Really sorry. I have a new garden that I would like to put some lights in? Any suggestions on lights that would set off the garden & the 50’s house?

    1. Ted Cleary says:

      Landscape lighting is one of my pet issues…….it’s often overlooked, but a really well-designed lighting project can absolutely take a garden from “nice” to “breathtaking”. And I say this with the caveat that (as in many things) Less Is More; the examples you can see on websites of lighting manufacturers are, IMHO, often over-the-top.

    2. Ted Cleary says:

      [sorry — hit “submit” prematurely!]
      …..again, one can’t really design the lighting system without seeing the site and its garden, but a few GENERAL principles I advocate:

      (1) am not a big fan of visible light fixtures, e.g. path lights; a few are OK as accents, but most lighting should come from somewhat-hidden sources — you want to create the EFFECT, not draw attention to the SOURCE.

      (2) if you have mature trees, use them! One of the prettiest effects is downlighting through the foliage (“moonlighting”) either onto pathways or onto a pool of lawn or plantings. In fact I sometimes advise clients if lighting is only one of a long wish list but the budget’s really low: don’t do anything but add lighting! That way, at night you can instantly transform a ho-hum landscape into something really magical b/c of how you selectively draw attention to existing features.

      (3) Since low-voltage lighting was in its infancy back then, it’s really not too authentic to have an elaborate LV lighting system…..therefore this is one of those cases where you’re going for an “improved version” of the real thing, vs. true authenticity. Again, another reason to create subtle effects rather than see a lot of sources.

      (4) This is gonna be hard to swallow for many readers, but one should count on spending about $200-225 PER FIXTURE for really good quality; maybe around $75-100 if you do all the electrical and grunt-work yourself. It’s easy to underestimate the cumulative effects of weather over time, and unless you choose from among 3 or 4 of the high-end, well-engineered product lines, usually of bronze w/ lifetime warranties, you’ll simply have repair issues to deal with sooner than you want. The inexpensive sets from the Big Box stores sure have attractive prices but believe me that you get what you pay for. There are a number of mid-to-high-range lines too, but since the biggest percentage by far of what you’re paying for is the labor to install a system, hopefully once & for all, l just favor the best. Along with good fixtures are all the assoc. components that matter — high-quality transformer, wire, etc.; I always have my systems soldered at their connections……not very commonly done (it’s a lot easier to just twist & jab bare wires into a wirenut), but one of the most susceptible points for corrosion.

      (5) As far as retro-looking fixtures, I think the bullet spotlights mounted on houses fit both the modern and many “modest” styles….not to be confused with the “prison lights” mounted up high to scare off intruders! I’m a big fan of dimmer switches on such line-voltage (i.e. 110v) lighting, to make a nice balanced transition from inside to outside.

      (6) It’s really important to minimize ‘hot spots’ of glare; nearly all the fixtures I install get a wide-angle lamp and then, depending on the effect I see after installing them, a diffusion filter of some sort.

      This is a longer reply than it probably should be, but yes, look for an article on this at some future time on either Pam’s or my own future blog.

  2. nancy says:

    Ted- I appreciate your input & will keep these suggestions in mind. I agree with what you are saying. Where would I begin to look for fixtures…?

    Thanks for your help!

  3. James says:

    Tell me, what do you think of Japanese-style gardens for MCM’s? It seems to me that MCM architecture and Japanese architecture have much in common. Thoughts?

    1. Ted Cleary says:

      Absolutely right-on. I think a lot of it can be attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, who (although his outsized ego probably would’ve rejected any labels put on him), was definitely a Modernist, or at least greatly influenced that movement that followed. Wright developed a fascination with Japan after spending a couple of months in 1905 touring the country. He subsequently spent a decade creating one of his most elaborate works, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, as well as many other designs, and mentoring a group of Japanese assistants who went on to create their own landmarks. And maybe too, was a certain popular fascination with exotic Asian and Japanese culture (never mind that we had been arch-enemies in the war) that the troops brought home with them.

      So many of the two aesthetics you mention share common beliefs — a sense of restraint and simplicity; clean lines and the ‘void’ being as important as the ‘mass’ (in other words, what’s not there is as important as what is); strong geometric shapes and yet a real sense of feeling organic, which seem like contradictions but aren’t. So, that Zen-like quality you’re talking about definitely has a place in MCM garden design — tailored to the climate and surroundings. A topic I’ll definitely cover at some point, probably over more than one blog post.

  4. bobbie says:

    This site is exactly what I am looking for! We just purchased a MCM home outside of Philadelphia, and the yard has been very neglected! Not only do I need lots of ideas, but I also need to find a landscape designer who is sensitive to MCM…anyone know of such a designer in the Philly area?

  5. John says:

    Ted Cleary said to buy high quality outdoor bullet lighting fixtures. Can he or anyone who knows, list some of the names of companies that make these?


  6. Ted Cleary says:

    I was just skimming through old RR blog posts and saw your new comment (i.e. added about three weeks ago). Way back in May when I was asked that, I declined to respond b/c I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to promote a certain brand…….but what the heck, I’ll do so now. So if you’re still listening:

    I use, almost exclusively, CAST Lighting. (All these names can of course be found with a simple Google search.) CAST fixtures and their associated components (e.g. transformer; lamps (bulbs); etc.) are, in my opinion, the absolute best value if you want quality that’ll last decades, not just years, trouble-free. They’re made of cast-bronze, which will weather to a sort-of dull chalky patina. You can learn alot more about the line from their website. (Most all the lighting manufacturers have great sites full of helpful advice both design- and technically-related.) I always take the extra step of doing a CAST-recommended technique of dipping the stripped wire ends, after they’re twisted together, into liquid solder to absolutely make them as one before they get covered by twist-on wirenuts filled with Teflon goop. This is probably the most vulnerable place in the system for the effects of weathering to creep in, so I think it’s well-worth doing. You need a special solder pot sold for the electronics industry to do this (and BTW, please use lead-free solder); there’s no guarantee that even a contractor who installs CAST will do it, so you should discuss this. CAST’s product line is simple, based on the concept (which I strongly agree with) that you want to see the SOURCE of the light, not the fixture in most cases…….occasionally I’ve wished for some more fixture choices but that’s not a big issue at all. What I really like are the available lens filters (other manufacturers have these too) that I use often, to diffuse light and avoid “hot-spots” of glare.

    Unique Lighting is another good line worth looking into. Although every manufacturer has their own particulars about assembling a system (and of course is convinced it’s best!), like CAST they use a “hub” technique where the fixtures are linked in a kind-of spider arrangement to distribute voltage in precisely equal amounts; with LV lighting, voltage drop is an important concept to understand for long lamp life. With most systems today (unless we’re talking about the simplest arrangement of a half-dozen lights on a condo’s patio), the transformer will be a “multi-tap” type, which allows the installer to connect to either a 12v, 13v, 14v…..on up to maybe 18 or 22v tap, which is a tremendously helpful innovation that let’s you run lights FAR away from the transformer’s location, if you have a large lot, without voltage drop.

    Working down in price, I kind-of like Vista and Kichler, if I really am forced into it, and both have plenty of fixture choices. The easy ones to toss out as serious choices are pretty-much the lower-end lines the big-box stores carry, often sold in kits. My philosophy is, though, the biggest part of what you pay for per fixture is in the labor & assoc. stuff like wiring, so it just makes sense to go with a high-end product line who’s fixture might be another $10-15 more than the lesser option. BTW, for a professionally installed LV lighting system, done with quality in mind rather than the cheapest guy in the phonebook, you should figure on around $200-250 per fixture (gulp). But it’s easy to underestimate the cumulative effects of weather over years’ time, and going the cheap way is going to mean frustration with a malfunctioning system a lot sooner than you probably want to deal with.

  7. Jacqui says:

    Brilliant topic and so timely it’s scary! Having finally recovered from the emotional trauma of a gut/rehab on our mid-century modern ranch, we’re now faced with landscaping. And by “landscaping” I mean actually having grass.

    Seriously, we have nothing. Then again, you could say we have one of the most extensive assortment of weeds in Florida.

    I look forward to more posts!

    Thanks, Pam & Ted!!!

  8. Tom says:

    First of all love this topic……!!! And look forward to seeing more posts! I have been deciding on what to do with a troublesome landscape issue. My MCM has a large bank in the front yard that slants down to the street. At its highest point from the street is some 25 ft and the lowest about 5 ft. and at about a 40 degree slope. I have pulled out all the former bushes to rid myself of poison ivy issues ……every summer I have a bout with the stuff and have since planted grass. Although the grass is a good replacement of course its difficult and dangerous to cut…..plus weeds do grow up and I spend time weed whacking them. What would Ted suggest for such a problem issue that would keep in line with MCM landscaping? Thanks so much !!

    1. pam kueber says:

      Tom, I don’t think that Ted is checking this anymore…. I would suggest you talk to a well-recommended, local source, since there are likely different solutions for different geographies…. Sorry I cannot be more helpful, this is not my area of expertise. Good luck!

  9. Lorie says:

    I wish this had continued too! Any way we can talk Ted into doing the next article? I have so many questions about landscaping for a modest MCM two story in Texas. I am in need of native drought loving plants that thrive in clay soil.

  10. Carol says:

    Well, we were unable to secure one of those precious mid-century mod homes from yesteryear due to the few left in our part of NC being demolished rather than available for purchase. Instead, we got an original old-school architectural drawn plan for one that was built in 1958 and had it built new with very few changes other than updates per building code. We are on a wooded site, which helps our flow into the outdoors. Any suggestions for landscaping and gardening as we prepare for Spring?

    1. Ted Cleary says:

      Hello Carol. This is Ted, the author of this article from LONG ago, and I just happened to be re-reading it & the comments section. I also happen to be in North Carolina…..which, as you’d be interested to know, if you don’t already), lays claim to the 3rd largest concentration of MCM homes in America (specifically, in the Triangle area of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill). Unfortunately, for various reasons, the guest-blog series did not continue, but if you wish to reach me through Pam & she agrees, she can put you in touch. Enjoy your new/”old” home; sounds wonderful!

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