Design, Culture, and Style
Thomas Little, New York City’s Plant Whisperer, on the Art of the Container Garden
The man behind the magical plantings at some of Manhattan’s hottest hotels and restaurants shares tips for putting together a compelling outdoor space
Starting well before 2020’s COVID-fueled explosion of outdoor dining—but even more so since—gardener Thomas Little of Urbangreen has been quietly celebrated in New York City for the arresting displays of curbside foliage he orchestrates for an impressive list of the city’s most design-forward restaurants and hotels. Patrons at the likes of Daniel Rose’s Le Coucou and Andrew Carmellini’s Lafayette have found themselves immersed in visions of horticultural fantasy on the way to and from their dining tables.
Packed, shaggy, and at times more than a touch anarchic, Little’s container gardens burst out of their allotted limits, invading the sidewalk with arabesques and flourishes of concentrated life force. Look closely and you may see a spiral of sweet potato vine climbing up from an empty tomato can or a spray of castor bean emerging from a scavenged basket or rusty pail, as if the vegetable world is finding unlikely sustenance in the detritus of everyday life.
As a child, Little recalls, “I was instantly fascinated by the fact that something so tiny” as a seed or sprout “could get so huge in a couple of months. So a perennial preoccupation in my work is the idea of scale and verticality and things too large for the space.” He delights in the overlooked, the humble, and the unshaped combined en masse to engender a sense of delicious abundance (his company’s website terms it “managed chaos”). No surprise, then, that he has been brought in repeatedly to collaborate with design professionals such as John Derian or Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of the AD100 firm Roman and Williams, who put a premium on work with distinctive, individual character.
For anyone who might wish to try out his brand of romantic placemaking in residential spaces where a bit of living greenery would be welcome—a front stoop, a roof deck, a suburban courtyard, porch, or patio—Little is more than happy to share the recipe. He distills his practice into six fundamental points:
1. Make it personal.
“I think it’s very important when you’re creating a space to consider the style of the home and the people who inhabit that home,” he says. “Choose things to go into the garden that speak about you and your story.”
2. Do your research and find plants that are happy in pots.
“You have to think realistically about what’s going to do well in the space, light, and access to water that you have. Don’t try to grow a eucalyptus tree in a whiskey barrel.” Maintenance considerations are especially important: “Containerized gardens require religious watering. Depending on the plant choices you make, this could be up to twice daily in the hottest part of summer. Plants that grow older and bigger in their pots require even more support—regular fertilizing and more water as their root systems develop.”
3. Don’t be afraid to overplant.
Following the famed English gardener Penelope Hobhouse, Little advises that plants in containers can be crowded much closer together than they would be if rooted in the ground. “That’s what actually pushes them up and out and gives you a sense of bounty,” he asserts. “And I think bounty is a really big reward we all seek in gardening.”
4. Make the most of plants that want to grow vertically.
“Those could be very fast-growing annuals, like morning glory and passion flower, or slower plants that return year after year, like grapevine and kiwi,” he notes. Going high is “a way of getting things up and off the sidewalk or your front lawn—maintaining as much space as possible for yourself, but still making this very dramatic and beautiful thing.”
5. Mix different types of plantings.
“Have a certain percentage be evergreen, so that they endure through winter and have a presence. A certain percentage should be annuals, because they grow fast and give a kind of volatility and movement and brightness. And then, if you can, incorporate native species in some way, because natives belong here and have a lower environmental impact. It’s a way of doing what you’re doing and enjoying it, but being less of a burden to the earth.”
6. Don’t be shy with container choices.
Little feels that “we’re programmed to buy everything,” which leads to “a kind of sameness.” Therefore, “use as many found objects for containers as you can, because, again, you’re doing something that’s respectful to Mother Earth. You’re upcycling things that we’ve lost interest in, highlighting them and making them shine.” (Including items you already have also helps up your installation’s individuality quotient.)
Meditative and soft-spoken, the Brooklyn-based gardener nevertheless projects a firm sense of mission. In the wake of the coronavirus and in an era of global warming, Little believes, the simple act of growing something can reinforce our empathetic connection with the wider world. “Create something that isn’t a drain on the environment,” he urges. “Something that’s beautiful, right at your front door. Something that impacts you immediately.”
—Published on architecturaldigest.com, November 29, 2021
Why Are We Still So Obsessed With Wood Shingles?
Explore the enduring legacy of this 17th-century cladding material and its benefits, and see how architects are using wood shingles in fresh ways
Wood shingles and shakes (their brawnier, split cousins) have been a notable component in the homebuilder’s tool kit since the earliest days of European settlement in North America.
It may be that newly arrived colonists were influenced by the practices of local Indigenous peoples such as the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, whose winter dwellings were constructed using overlapping sheets of bark. But the proliferation of wood shingles may also have been an adaptation of old-world models to a new context: “Shingles have been a common roof solution for a long, long time,” says John Ike, a partner at the architectural firm Ike Baker Velten in Oakland, California. “And in America wood was the most plentiful, readily accessible material.”
Either way, cedar and cypress shingles quickly came into their own as a favored cladding for buildings of many sorts, applied to roofs and walls alike. “Cedar shingles are naturally resistant to rot, beautiful to look at, and their flexible and overlapping nature makes it possible to weatherproof many different kinds of architecture,” says architect Michael McClung of Connecticut-based Shope Reno Wharton. They were especially attractive to early housewrights, he adds, “due to the prevalence of cedar and the relatively efficient way that shingles are cut from the trunks.”
As is true with almost any building style or technique, the use of shingles has waxed and waned over time. Yet they’ve never disappeared entirely from view.
One major revival came in the later 19th century, as what Michael Tomei of Michael Vincent Design calls “almost an act of rebellion against Victorian fussiness.” Architects of the emerging Shingle style began marrying surprisingly modern open house plans with the charm of the old-fashioned Colonial cottage to forge a look that “now is considered quintessential beach-town chic,” he observes. Massachusetts architect Royal Barry Wills presided over a later vogue for Cape Cod dwellings starting in the 1930s, spreading the gospel nationwide via Houses for Good Living and Better Houses for Budgeteers, in addition to several other books aimed at a burgeoning class of suburban homeowners.
Current interest in shingled homes arguably traces back to the 1955 publication of historian and critic Vincent Scully’s book The Shingle Style, which caught the attention of then-young architects like AD100 laureate Robert A.M. Stern, who went on to train and mentor many of the professionals who head up successful practices today.
An Affair of the Mind and the Heart
Utility alone, however, can hardly account for the ease with which shingles have won over designers and homeowners again and again. So just what are the qualities that make them so prized?
1. Shingles are meaningful
For Alabama architect Jeffrey Dungan, shingles’ emotional associations carry the day. “Wood shingles,” he says, “illustrate and convey those most important aspects of our life, comfort and warmth, and can be one of the tools for creating a very inviting home.” Perhaps because of their early association with barns, fishing shacks, and similar workaday structures, they feel less buttoned-up than clapboards or masonry while still not coming off as too rustic. Dungan calls the effect “jeans and a jacket—I’ve got on blue jeans, and maybe a T-shirt, but if I put on a jacket, now I can go to dinner.”
“They have personality,” says Philip Regan, a partner at Hutker Architects on Martha’s Vineyard. “They change over time and individually. They are easy to manipulate, and you can hold one in one hand, unlike most building materials that seem only to serve a characterless purpose—a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood, for example.”
2. Shingles are versatile
They come in multiple shapes—think diamond and fish scale forms, sawtooth edges—and can be laid out in a plethora of patterns to great decorative effect. Though traditionally installed in even rows of roughly five inches each, shingles may also appear in undulating waves, as vertically staggered, or even in a random-seeming “drunken weave” configuration. Says McClung: “We have bent them in steam boxes to shingle over curved volumes. We have cut patterns into them. In some cases, the amount of exposure can be varied to create layered coursing.”
They may be painted or left bare. “Natural shingles show their organic colors and wood grain so beautifully, and we cherish that,” McClung continues. “Alaskan yellow cedar or white cedar shingles will turn silver-gray from exposure to sunlight. Red cedar shingles create those beautiful deep brown colors.” If a more uniform appearance is preferred, or hues that don’t occur naturally, paints and stains easily fill the gap. (And some surface options may remain to be tried: “There is a really beautiful Japanese practice called shou sugi ban, which is a method of preserving wood by charring it with fire,” Tomei says. “The results are gorgeous. I would love to apply this technique with shingles. The effect is strikingly contemporary.”)
3. Shingles are suitable for many styles
Stripped-down modernity is probably not what first springs to mind when you imagine a shingled structure, yet plenty of architects have employed the covering in distinctly nontraditional settings.
“Modern architects took that material and adapted it to their forms. It gives a scale and texture to the buildings,” says Ike, pointing to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, designed in 1959 by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Thomas Kligerman, Ike’s former partner in the AD100 firm Ike Kligerman Barkley and now principal of Kligerman Architecture & Design, mentions the recent work of Bates Masi + Architects in the Hamptons, as well as that of Norman Jaffe, whose creations of the 1970s and ’80s were what he calls “very inventive architecture.”
(For that matter, Kligerman’s own houses, grounded as they are in historical precedent, can have a distinctly forward-looking aura. “Tom uses shingles in kind of an origami fashion,” Ike comments, “where they create these planes that are folded and intersected.”)
4. Shingles can be used indoors and out
Just because shingles began their career as an exterior protection from the elements doesn’t mean they haven’t made their way inside. “I just finished a house in the mountains of South Carolina, and the columns in the house are done in diamond-shaped shingles of white oak,” Kligerman notes. “My own living room has a frieze of shingles. It’s really wonderful to bring them inside; it gives this warmth and sense of scale.”
Regan adds: “A more modern approach we have utilized is to have a shingled [outside] wall enter the interior space of the home—particularly if we have floor-to-ceiling glass walls that show off the connection between interior and exterior.”
5. Shingles can be economical, long-lasting, and sustainable
Kligerman calls shingles “a wonderful alternative that is much less expensive than, say, doing a masonry house.” Better still, the cladding can be quite durable when the shingles are of good quality and correctly installed. “Shingles want to breathe,” Ike says, “so in the old-fashioned applications they were put on strips of wood called furring strips, and it allowed air to circulate both underneath and on top of them.” Both Dungan and McClung recommend the Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau’s installation guidelines as an excellent resource to consult.
In addition, “appropriately power-washing them can lengthen their lives and help to maintain a newish look,” says Regan. “We have also utilized copper strips or inlays within the coursing of the shingles. The acidic rain runoff over the copper helps to reduce tannin staining and mildew or moss buildup that can prematurely degrade the shingles.” Finally, “natural shingles can, at the end of their lifespan, be turned into compost…so they are a multicycle material.”
Are You Hooked Yet?
With so much going for them, how can anyone not be a shingle fan? This humble slice of wood is “ingrained in the American mind as something that says ‘home,’” Kligerman concludes, while at the same time “it has enormous flexibility. And because shingles are so lightweight, you can do all kinds of design gymnastics if you want.”
Clearly, in the hands of the design trade’s top practitioners, there’s nothing at all antiquated about this historical building material
—Published on architecturaldigest.com, March 16, 2023
What Does It Mean to Plagiarize in the Design World?
Three designers consider where the ethical borders lie for them
Your clients have fallen in love with a dining room from a Paris apartment and want one “just like it” for their own use. How close a duplicate can you give them without violating your principles—or the law? Where does taking legitimate inspiration from another designer’s work turn into a dishonest appropriation of their ideas?
“No one can say that they designed something totally out of their own imagination,” asserts Timothy Corrigan, speaking from his office on the West Coast. “Everything comes from an earlier source. So it’s a little tricky how you attribute ownership of design.” Working within any definable style, he points out, necessarily involves a degree of imitation. “If you think about it, how many klismos chairs have there been? So yes, you could say that T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings did a beautiful klismos chair. But it came from this person, and from that person . . . back to ancient Greek times.”
In the same way, a “modern farmhouse” interior is only recognizable as such because it shares so many characteristics with similar rooms. The internet today is awash in shiplap-paneled walls, herringbone tile floors, and reclaimed wood either layered onto a ceiling or fashioned into barn-style doors. Are all of those rooms copies? Obviously, yes, to an extent. What keeps designers out of trouble is how inventively they deploy the common ingredients.
“Part of the reason we learn history is so we can draw from it,” New York’s Barry Goralnick observes. “If you love Dorothy Draper, you love her sense of color, her overscale moldings, her insouciance with antiques—and that’s really inspiring.” For a room scheme of your own, “you might do a valance that she did, or something else that works in your project.” When one of his clients, following a visit to London’s Eltham Palace, asked him to infuse her Manhattan residence on Central Park West with a matching “echo of Deco,” Goralnick wasn’t at all uncomfortable with the brief. “There are so many elements to play with. You can work in that idiom and still make it your own. We gave her the essence of what she wanted without copying at all.”
Cliff Fong, of Matt Blacke and Galerie Half in Los Angeles, also advises hinting at a look rather than directly replicating it. “There’s a zeitgeist around certain kinds of aesthetics,” he believes, and hooking into it can be “a beautiful thing. To me, it’s a natural creative progression, especially if it helps make things more relevant.” Literal borrowings are out, though; producing a new project based too much on preexisting models, he says, “feels like either set dressing or drag.”
When design professionals ask clients to collect reference images as a way of clarifying their likes and dislikes, the practice tacitly acknowledges a human tendency to covet items that have already been seen. The same holds true for magazines that include a “shop this look” spread in a home-design feature. Goralnick stresses the importance of treating supplied photos as a starting point for brainstorming rather than as a shopping list: “You have to home in on what it is they like about an image, what elements they are attracted to. Then go from there.”
Straying into plagiarism territory becomes “a bigger problem”—one that could land you in court—“when you’re actually taking money out of someone’s pocket,” Corrigan states emphatically, and Goralnick and Fong are equally firm on the subject. But all three highlight a broader argument against wholesale poaching, as well. Ultimately, relying on what another person has already done simply won’t lead to the best results. As Corrigan puts it, true designers aren’t just talented magpies. “You don’t physically take something from someone else and exactly copy it; you reinterpret it for a new situation,” he explains. Fong likens the role of proper influence in design to “an organic process, bringing things together where they make sense and creating something fresh”—that is, a genuinely custom solution rooted in the unique challenges and opportunities each job presents.
Not everyone agrees on precisely what is or isn’t kosher. Corrigan, for example, will sometimes fabricate a modified version of an existing product if the manufacturer can’t or won’t customize, while Goralnick takes a harder line. However, since designers will always be looking at the work of their peers for ideas that can be fitted to a new purpose, this might serve as a practical rule of thumb: “If you even think you may be infringing on someone’s design, you should probably do something else,” says Goralnick. “After all, how would you feel if they did it to you?”
—Published on architecturaldigest.com, April 30, 2021
What Lies Behind Justina Blakeney’s Success?
A faith in the power of storytelling is at the heart of the multihyphenate’s career, and her new book
Design entrepreneur Justina Blakeney is in the news again with the forthcoming launch of Jungalow: Decorate Wild, due out on April 6 from Abrams. The new book follows the success of Blakeney’s best-selling The New Bohemians with an extended celebration of her own joyful, color-drenched, pattern-saturated, plant-dotted interiors.
In the years since her first short blog post appeared in September 2009 promising to “share things that inspire me, projects and pensieri,” the Justina Blakeney and Jungalow brands have unfurled like quick-spreading tropical vines, much to the delight of legions of enthusiasts—1.5 million of them on Instagram alone, as of this writing. What accounts for the rapid flowering of her presence on the design scene? AD PRO caught up with Blakeney at the end of a typically hectic day, to ask about her journey and the attitudes that underpin her burgeoning enterprise.
At the start, “I was using my home as a creative laboratory,” she says, “always moving furniture around, finding projects to do, making art and displaying it, learning about plants and inviting them in. I loved how you could change your whole life by changing the way your space made you feel.”
The blog naturally took on an increasing design focus. Blakeney’s openness to experimentation, along with plenty of daily work, began building a community of like-minded followers. The hands-on approach suited her: “I don’t learn as quickly through observation. I learn by jumping in and trying something, and sticking to it. The more I paint, the more I design a room, the more I make books, the better I get at them.”
Two words in particular come to mind when listening to Blakeney’s tale: energy and intentionality. Faced with a task or an opportunity, she finds that her impulse is to get busy. And she does so with an eye toward where she wants things to go and what it will take to do them right. Jungalow’s move into online commerce is a case in point. “We were looking for a strong retail partner to launch one of my licensed collections with,” she recalls, “and I couldn’t think of a retailer that I felt was the perfect fit. For one thing, I had a larger audience than a lot of the retailers did. So it was staring me in the face: ‘Oh, I need to do this myself.’ I never set out to start a shop and to do it this way, but. . . .”
Three and a half years later, the company is supporting 11 full-time employees and about a half dozen freelancers as well.
Current product collections include rugs and pillows with Loloi, bedding produced with Peking Handicraft and sold on the Jungalow site, a line of deodorants and body washes with Native, and a collection of fabrics with Valdese Weavers that is available to the trade through Fabricut. More “exciting stuff” is on the way—“but I’m still on verbal lockdown; I’m not allowed to talk about it yet,” Blakeney says regretfully.
For buyers, the brand’s appeal is clear. Blakeney’s designs, whether for a room, a rug, a sneaker, or a Band-Aid, manage to be simultaneously sweet and startling, like biting into a juicy piece of citrus. Their graphic energy directly conveys the physicality of her hand as it guides a brush or pencil.
As a result, recent years have seen a shift in her attention from specific interior design projects to the broader concerns of serving as creative director for a multichannel home and lifestyle group. Not to mention more than 24 months’ worth of effort on the forthcoming book. (“So many edits and so much fine-tuning: so much, so much work!”)
Asked about final advice for her professional colleagues, Blakeney didn’t hesitate. “One of the reasons I’ve met with some degree of success over the years is that I think about every project I take on as kind of a story. Not just ‘Is this pretty?’ but ‘What could I teach, what could be learned?’ We’re always telling the story of how something came to be, in order to make it more personal, more memorable, and more accessible. So many creative folks are very focused on the outcome, and sometimes forget about the journey and the process—and how much emotion you can glean from sharing those kinds of stories.”