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

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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

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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.”

—Published on architecturaldigest.com, April 2, 2021

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What’s the Right Digital Rendering Solution for You?

Just how important are digital renderings and virtual walk-throughs for clients? Even in today’s distanced world, the answer isn’t always straightforward.

Digital rendering software and virtual walk-throughs abound these socially distanced days, but sometimes old-school still gets the top grade. For Brooklyn-based designer Danielle Fennoy, providing super-lifelike imagery “hasn’t been a huge requirement. I do it on occasion, usually for something that’s pretty complicated.” But in many cases her clients are fine with hand sketches and mood boards. “Or, they just trust me,” she observes with a laugh.

 

Rina Okawa, who runs the interior design department at ZEN Associates near Boston, comes down in a different place. “Being adaptable and having clear communications by email, phone, or virtual conference has become even more important during this pandemic, and 3D modeling is definitely a helpful tool. Our responsibility is to produce models efficiently, economically, and realistically—all at the same time, which can be challenging,” she says. Peter White, the ZEN Associates principal who heads the company’s landscape practice, agrees: “I like to show that we provide it as a service, and most clients say ‘Yes, let’s go there.’”

 

One thing that is clear, however, is that the array of software options for creating renderings continues to grow, and the economics of providing such graphic aids are changing. Especially for smaller firms that aren’t always perched comfortably on well-upholstered budgets, success can be a matter of putting together the right jigsaw puzzle of what visuals to offer and how best to obtain them. And those puzzle pieces unquestionably come in multiple shapes and sizes.

 

The typical starting point for digital visualizations is a project’s basic layout, executed via 3D modeling software. Programs with this functionality can vary greatly in capabilities, complexity, and price: from the popular Trimble SketchUp (available in versions that range from free to $1,199 a year) up to big-ticket, all-inclusive building information modeling (BIM) packages such as Vectorworks Designer or Revit from Autodesk, with an annual levy in the thousands of dollars.

 

Your wireframe models can then have beautifully detailed surface textures, lighting, atmospheric effects, and animations applied through a rendering engine such as Lumion or Chaos Group’s V-Ray. Generally also incorporated are asset libraries of vegetation, people, furniture, accessories, vehicles, street props, and other items that can be popped into your project views. Again, there is a spectrum of pricing, with feature-rich combos like Autodesk 3ds Max occupying the high end. (Note that the more comprehensive BIM suites will have rendering tools built in, so you might not need to spring for a separate rendering program.)

 

Another important question: DIY digital rendering or call in an expert? As with so many aspects of life, higher quality means a bigger investment in terms of time as well as money. Is it more cost-effective to have an outside agency do the heavy lifting? Are 3D and virtual presentations so much a part of your workflow that it’s worth assigning a team member to specialize in fashioning them?

 

For Fennoy, outsourcing is the way to go. “Having someone else do it could be $500 to $1,000, while paying our hourly rate to do it could cost $2,000,” she says. “So I farm that out. It’s faster, less expensive, and it’s not taking away from other things I could be doing in the office.”

 

Boston’s Flavin Architects, on the other hand, has worked out an in-house system that fits the firm perfectly. According to project architect Bryan Apito, “Our visualization has moved toward showing 3D. We still orchestrate a few specific views of the project to have our talking points, but then our sequence is to show clients the 3D model and fly around a little bit. It really helps get them excited for the project, it keeps them engaged.” Firm principal Colin Flavin prefers not to go the full photorealism route too soon—“We want to focus starting with the big picture, and then move into materiality later”—so earlier iterations mostly employ SketchUp wireframes that have had semitransparent elements such as trees, rocks, and people layered in using Photoshop.

 

For a final, immaculate depiction, though, or the all-important image that will be seen on construction site signage, Flavin sends out to the professional visualization staff at Notion Workshop in Idaho.

 

The programs mentioned so far are time-intensive and most frequently used to prepare presentations in advance. One offering, Enscape, however, bills itself differently. The business’s website states that “with Enscape’s real-time technology, your project is visualized as a fully rendered 3D walk-through, which can be navigated and explored from every angle, in any time of day.” Changes made in linked CAD drawings are instantly visible in Enscape. The application’s price point, too, could prove a potent lure for the budget-conscious; licenses run less than $60 per month.

 

Amra Tareen and her team at the San Francisco start-up ALL3D have taken another path, devising a browser-based “self-serve” platform that allows users to generate 3D models, static images, and virtual tours. One example: Chicago’s Skyline Furniture has just partnered with ALL3D to make a set of “visitable” online apartments that serve as showrooms for the company’s new collections. They’re meant to replace in-person displays at the trade shows many buyers aren’t particularly eager to attend right now. “We were trying to reinvent how we would get to customers,” observes Skyline president Meganne Wecker. She took the opportunity to “open it up, remove the four walls we’re normally constrained by, and really start to live with how people are shopping right now.”

 

Tareen sees her highly affordable service as “the Shopify for a 3D solution,” with a simple web interface that gets users up and running quickly. For interior designers, might this mean an end to assembling room mockups in Photoshop?

 

You may feel you’re faced with a menacing thicket of choices, but researching and assembling the menu of 3D and virtual presentation options that best fits your situation is almost certainly worth it. Electronic meetings are on the increase, even without a global pandemic. In those settings, the key, as Danielle Fennoy puts it, is “how quickly you can show a client an idea without spending hours and hours of your time. Rendering works when you use it, for sure!”

—Published on architecturaldigest.com, September 24, 2020

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