Debra Prinzing

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All about designing with gravel

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

A few weeks ago I had a phone date with Stephen Orr, the guy who has held all the jobs I’d love to have: Garden Editor for House & Garden magazine; Garden Editor for Domino magazine . . . and now, garden editorial director for Martha Stewart Living magazine.

He is one of the friendliest and most genuine individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet in the magazine world. It was a treat for me to interview Stephen about the publication of Tomorrow’s Garden, his first book. I’ve met Stephen in person a few times, both in Los Angeles at a Garden Conservancy symposium, and in San Francisco when I spoke at Flora Grubb Nursery after Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, my own book, was published. We garden writers really do live in a small world!

Thanks to Craig Nakano, my editor at the Los Angeles Times HOME section, for agreeing to feature my Q&A with Stephen.

You can click here for the full story. And click here for a web gallery of Stephen’s photography that accompanies his book. Here is an excerpt of my interview with Stephen:

“People don’t think much about where gravel comes from as a resource,” Orr said, yet gravel gardens are becoming increasingly popular. His book features gravel landscapes from Venice and Ojai to Austin, Texas, to Nantucket, Mass. We asked him to discuss gravel as a sustainable design material:

What appeals to you about the use of gravel?

It is such a great base for many styles, from traditional to modern. There are plenty of people in Los Angeles and San Francisco who have jumped on the bandwagon wanting to make low-water gardens, but I’m happy to see it catching on in other parts of the country. The California lifestyle is so amazing, with outdoor rooms, and they can be “floored” differently. One room could be floored with grass, another with stone pavers or gravel.

Designers praise gravel gardens as permeable and an alternative to lawns. How has your view of the material changed?

I was visiting nursery owner Flora Grubb in San Francisco, and she told me she often recommends gravel to customers. And then the question “Where does it come from?” came up. Our conversation opened my eyes to begin viewing gravel as a finite resource.

Where does it come from?

As with so many environmental choices, the decisions we make trying to do the right thing are complex and often somewhat overwhelming. In many cases, gravel does indeed come from local quarries. The Austin gardens in my book used local gravel. Those gardeners like how it matches the colors of the natural geology around them. But in other areas, its origin is a big question mark. Even after a lot of research, I found I still have a lot of questions about how responsibly gravel is mined. The EPA monitors gravel production, which is a huge industry mainly for construction and highway building. In comparison, gravel for gardening use is minor, but it’s still something to be conscious of.

What questions should homeowners be asking about the gravel they buy?

I suggest you approach it like having a local consciousness of food. Don’t buy bags of gravel if you don’t know where it comes from. It may be shipped longer distances than is environmentally responsible. Try instead to source the material close to home.

What type of gravel do you recommend?

There is a difference between “crushed stone,” which has sharper edges, and “pea gravel,” which is rounded. Some people prefer walking on the rounded pea gravel, but consider the environmental impact it takes to extract it from ancient stream-beds formed by alluvial processes over millennia. Pea gravel isn’t a manufactured product. It’s not even a renewable resource. Many forward-thinking designers are switching to more jagged, crushed limestone or granite instead.

Any tips on how gravel should be installed?

One major thing I learned is that the depth of gravel is important. If it’s laid too deep, it’s like trudging through deep snow. Most of the designers I interviewed recommend you first put down a layer of “road base,” bigger pieces of crushed stone — an inch or two in length. Lay it very flat with a compactor and then place just a few inches of crushed gravel or pea gravel on top. This approach makes a very stable surface.

What are some of the interesting ways people use gravel?

I love the modern look of some of the gardens in my book. But I also really love gravel gardens with a more traditional influence where plants are encouraged to self-sow. I’m a plant nut. I come at gardening because I love plants. So to me, the space that contains the plant — the garden — is a frame to show them off. I love seeing volunteers like verbena or a spire of silver verbascum in the gravel. Or, I like to see gravel as the flooring for a spare space containing just a water feature.

Do you see gravel as the anti-lawn?

I like to see gravel and lawn used in combination. Just as a lot of us live without wall-to-wall carpet and instead have rugs with wood floors, I encourage people to think of their lawn as an area rug. Think about using it with an element of crushed rock, such as a flat area under a tree or where you need better drainage.

Home of the Times invokes Midcentury vibe

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

“A Retro Future,” my feature article in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times HOME section features a breathtakingly perfect re-do of a one-story California ranch house in La Canada-Flintridge.

It is owned by Oscar-nominated Disney producer Don Hahn, an infectiously-friendly Renaissance man, and his equally talented wife Denise Hahn.

That the two are artists explains in large part why their renovation was so successful (Don and Denise are plein air  Western landscape painters and collectors).

To transform the vintage ranch house, they collaborated with architect Georgie Kajer and interior designer Jamie Bush, creating a dream-team of like-minded talents.

The secret to this project’s success is the clever editing of the original spaces. There was no reason to tear this house down and erect a McMansion; no reason to add a second story. The Hahns wanted to honor the architecture, as Denise explains: “I guess we’re on track with baby boomers who want to live in the houses they grew up in.”

The re-design removed some interior walls to create an open floor plan. As a result, the central space feels open, welcoming and loft-like. Look up and the once scary “cottage cheese” dropped ceiling has been reincarnated with awesome vaulted lines, clad in Douglas fir. Look down and the new amber-toned terrazzo floor unifies the entire house (Don loves that its composition includes broken beer glass and bits of mother-of-pearl). The palette of golds, greens and reds further unifies the spaces; the colors are enhanced or subdued depending on the room, but each room speaks to the adjacent one – creating an overall mellowness that I found appealing.

I learned so much reporting and writing this piece, thanks to the generosity of the homeowners and the designers. The home’s architecture has its roots in classic California ranch house design (no surprise to learn that Don, Denise, Jamie and Georgie all mentioned Cliff May’s iconic modern ranch houses of the 1950s). It is a truly modern residence that functions as a perfect environment for the Hahn family, including a teenage daughter and two active dogs.

A final note: Of course, I was drawn to the outdoor spaces, including the vintage cabana, pool-side (seen above). It is a stylish shelter in the garden. Rather than demo it and start over, Jamie recommended updating it with   persimmon accents, wide-striped draperies that enclose the space as an outdoor dressing room, and sculptural, modern furniture. It’s hip, and it’s inviting.

And thanks, of course, goes to my editor Craig Nakano, for the assignment. The final product was a joy to see in print (and online).

Recycled column debuts in LA Times

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

You spy a weathered castoff, a tarnished this or a timeworn that. What is the first thing that comes to mind? “Don’t throw that away! I can find a good use for it.”

The designer’s mind will recycle, reinvent or re-imagine the piece of “junk,” giving it a new purpose as an object of style. Read on for the first installment of a new column that features local designers and resources for transforming otherwise unusable objects into home décor.

Today’s HOME section of the Los Angeles Times introduces a new feature about recycling old objects for home and garden decor. It’s the brainchild of editor Craig Nakano and we hope this is just the beginning of the “hunt” for cool ideas that give new life to elderly castoffs.

To get things going, I created the first product – a cocktail tray made from a vintage feature-film canister. I found the 14-inch diameter tins at Pasadena Architectural Salvage, a store filled with carefully salvaged columns, doors, windows, corbels, gates, hardware and more. Most everything there is pricey (we’re not talking junk-shop rates) but worth it if you want to factor in the “value added” of someone else seeking, securing, and transporting rare or hard-to-find objects.

When I visited Pasadena Architectural Salvage, I got lucky. The tins (bottom and lid as a set) were $5 each. I found similar ones for $15 to $25 each on eBay, so I know I got a steal.  My Recycled story, “A second serving,” gives readers the background of these vintage 35 mm film tins and step-by-step instructions for making their own. My finished photo appears above, with two heirloom ridged and gold-rimmed juice glasses that were my grandmother Helen Winslow Ford’s (thanks, mom!).

P.S., I used “a lust for rust” in my lede sentence. Credit must be given here to my friends Beth, Lisa and Amy of the Salvage Studio. It’s one of their favorites and I’m sure they coined the phrase!

Home of the (Los Angeles) Times

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

Here’s how “Seeing the Light,” my story in today’s Los Angeles Times’  HOME section begins:

When Alan Smart was a kid, he discovered an old trunk in an antique store and begged his mother to buy it. She refused (after all, he was 10). So young Alan spent $45 from his allowance to purchase the trunk himself.

“I like old-timey things,” Smart says in his retro Hawaiian-print shirt and board shorts, gesturing to his living room filled with restored antique armchairs and vintage California tile tables.

This is a story that underscores my belief that we can both possess a home and be possessed by it. It’s about how Alan and his partner Michael Uhlenkott transformed a nondescript 1930s Spanish Revival bungalow in an aging Los Angeles neighborhood into a showpiece for decorative arts and their amazing collection of early California pottery, tile, furniture, paintings, figures, and lighting. It’s about how their personalities and preferences are revealed through their choices of color, textiles and artwork.

Alan and Michael are artists of the highest order. If there is a surface to embellish, they will find a way, even if it means spending endless hours standing on ladders to hand-stencil the stucco ceiling with a Moorish pattern or antiquing the walls with layers of glazing, rag-application and dry brush painting techniques.

They design with a respect for the past, an appreciation for craftsmanship and materials, and a lighthearted sense of irony. There is no halfway effort here. Everything relating to a genre, period or style is explored, honed, refined and reinterpreted. There’s such an honesty and authenticity to each decision to adorn and decorate. I love every detail!