Debra Prinzing

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Behind the scenes with Garden Design

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

A pretty stunning aloe-as-sculpture in one of Joseph Marek's gardens.

Scott Shrader turned an ancient millstone into a succulent planter

Garden Scouting: It sounds so luxurious, doesn’t it?

Spending four days scouting some of the most beautiful and unique residential landscapes in and around Los Angeles! 

I do it all the time – visit and tour gardens that might just make it onto the pages of the magazines and newspapers to which I contribute. And yet, achieving the “get” is not always that luxurious. It’s fun and rewarding. But also hard work. 

Successful garden scouting requires lots of telephone calls to set up appointments. It means I have to lean on my personal connections to cajole invitations from reclusive garden owners or rock star designers. And it demands that I put way too many miles on my Volvo odometer. A lot! (Thank goodness for NPR.) 

Most of all, this job means being extremely open to everything I see, while also keeping out a discerning eye for that magical glimpse of a perfect story. 

It’s alot like being on a treasure hunt when you don’t know the ending, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! 

Jenny Andrews, executive editor for Garden Design, one of the magazines for which I am contributing editor, was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago for a four-day scouting marathon. As she put it, it felt like we were college roommates for four days . . . probably because Jenny ended up staying with me for most of the time. She got to experience the craziness of the Prinzing-Brooks household with kids, dog, schedules, and more. And, we put 700 miles on my car in four days. We were both exhausted by the end. 


I think I lost an entire month!

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Celebrating my birthday with Paula Panich at Girasole in Los Angeles, a sweet French bistro

Dear friends, 

Where did February go? And for that matter, where did the first half of March disappear to?  

I’m so sorry! I’ve been racing around like a crazy woman. Like my fellow *Gamma-Sisters everywhere, the world is asking more of us at every turn. Eternally curious, we’re inspired by exciting, interesting and compelling people, places, projects and opportunities. As one of my friends pointed out, I am easily drawn to “bright, shiny objects.” It’s irresistible. There are literally not enough hours in a day to “do it all.” 

One of my excuses is that I have been traveling more than usual. Another is that my little family is currently in its bicoastal phase, with Mom and sons in Southern California and Dad (for the most part) in Pittsburgh. His occasional trips home are a highlight for us and exhausting for him. In between, I’m solo-parenting, burning the candle at both ends and juggling everything (while also letting some important things slack off, such as keeping in touch with friends, answering 500 emails in my in-box, and blogging!). I had to put the pause on the blog for a while. No promises, but as of this weekend, I sincerely hope my “blogger’s block” has been broken – and that I can return to regular correspondence. 

By July, we will be reunited as a family, but I am well aware that July is still several months away. In the meantime, we have to ready this 1980 Spanish-style ranch house for sale; get packed and relocated; get our oldest son ready for his freshman year in college and move me, younger son and our family pet to Pittsburgh. Oh, and find a place to live! Crazy, life is just crazy. 

I don’t want to leave Southern California, especially with its glorious natural beauty, amazing gardening and garden design community, and (for me) wonderful opportunities to gather and tell stories. So, I guess I’m going to try and become a working writer with two home bases: Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t want to lose these ties I’ve been so fortunate to develop since moving here in 2006. Imagine: I didn’t want to come to L.A. and now I don’t want to leave! 

Just to bring you up to date, dear readers, here are a few highlights of the past month. If we’re connected on Facebook, you may already have seen some of these items. If not, then click on my Facebook icon (see right) and join in.


Here’s how her garden influences one textile designer

Thursday, November 12th, 2009
Sina Pearson relies on regular visits to her island garden in Washington state to inspire her teextile designs.

Sina Pearson relies on regular visits to her island garden in Washington state to inspire her teextile designs.

I met Sina Pearson in 2006 when her publicist Susan Harkavy arranged a visit to the textile designer’s aerie (aka studio, atelier, loft) in SoHo.

I was in New York City with Bill Wright to photograph an amazing glass-and-steel West Village “shed” for Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, but I took a side trip for an hour to meet Sina and see her work.

She grew up in Washington State and studied art and textiles at the University of Washington. Our common Pacific Northwest roots gave us an easy, mutual language, designer-to-writer, as we talked about her interests, influences and passions.

Recently, Garden Design magazine invited me to profile Sina as “One to Watch,” with a short Q-and-A that appears in the November-December 2009 issue. Due to space, a portion of my interview did not make it into the print edition. So here it is in full, along with some photos that Sina shared from her garden in Washington’s Fidalgo Island (Skagit Valley).

Garden Design NovDec001ONE TO WATCH:

Textile designer Sina Pearson may live and work in SoHo but trips outside the city inspire her saturated stripes and vibrant abstracts.

She spends one week each month at a remote island cabin in Washington State, surrounded by a semi-wild garden, just steps away from the 1950s A-frame where she played each summer as a child. Sojourns abroad include idea-gathering places like Scandinavia, France, Mexico and the Caribbean. Collectively, these design “threads” are woven into finished cloth: confident, evocative – and high performance – textiles for residences, hotels, restaurants, offices and outdoor settings.

sina-pearsonThe designer, manufacturer and entrepreneur trained in fine arts and textiles at the University of Washington before earning a MFA in textiles from Cranbrook and studying at the Royal Academy of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. She launched Sina Pearson Textiles in 1990.

Pearson reinterprets outdoor fabric that looks as if it belongs inside, including terrycloth, chenille and boucle cloth made with Sunbrella® yarns for sunfast, stain-, rain- and mildew resistance. Her newest collection, out next spring, is called Colores de Mexico. Her influence? The orange-striped, hand-woven Mexican curtains that Pearson’s mother hung in the family’s beach cabin. “It has an ethnic, modernist vibe with a serape-like texture,” she says.

 Q. Tell me about your Fidalgo Island garden and how it informs your textiles:

 A. I could not be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t have my garden. It frees my soul and lets me experiment with weaving colors and textures together. The way I work in my garden is very much how I work in textiles. I’ve always maintained that you have to listen to what the fabric wants to be – it’s a wonderfully slow process. Similarly, I have to let my garden design itself. I observe how each plant color works together, how each season is revealed in flower, foliage and blade.  

Q. What influences you as a designer?

A. I can’t separate how I’ve grown up from what I am now. My parents were so visual – my mother was a landscape designer and my father was a photographer. We had Jack Lenor Larson’s textiles in our house. I cannot remember a time when I was not playing with fabric. Family legend recalls me cutting textiles into small pieces and arranging them on the sofa when I was two. At 12, I learned weaving from a Swedish woman and batik design from Ruth Pennington, a very fine metal artist. I created a huge, abstract piece of batik silk with fuchsia pink, bright orange and red colors. We hung it up in the sun and it looked like a stained glass window. Ruth turned to my mom and said: “Sina has a career in textiles.”

Q. How is your Scandinavian heritage reflected in your work?

A. I grew up with Danish modern furniture and I double-majored in Swedish language and literature in college. I also lived and studied in Sweden. When I design, I am looking for “emotion” – the feeling conveyed by yarns, colors and textures in my fabrics. After my last trip to Scandinavia, I created a collection evocative of what my ancestors would have woven to wrap themselves in for warmth: soft, heathery “comfort” fabrics that are hand-crafted, quiet, simple and dignified.

cote d azur_03Q. How have you re-imagined outdoor fabric as something more than utilitarian?

A. When I first started in the contract fabric industry in the late 70s and 1980s, everything was rather plain. That all changed when I went to Unika Vaev as president and design director. We introduced the first tapestry for contract interiors. Herman Miller put our tapestries on its new paneling system and broke open the whole concept of patterned fabrics.

The same thing has happened now that I’m designing outdoor fabric with Sunbrella® yarns. I wanted to invigorate outdoor fabrics with modern designs. I’m a big proponent of mixing cool and warm colors together. I also like to use neutrals – sage, taupe, mid-tone brown – with brighter colors to give a reference to nature.

Q. What is the ideal exterior setting for Sina Pearson’s textiles?

IMG_3265A. A space where the interiors blend with nature as occupants move from indoors through a covered area to the outdoors. I love to see complementary fabrics and colors in all three environments. I don’t design my outdoor fabrics separate from my interiors collection. My outdoor fabrics look and feel just like indoor textiles, yet they are made with high-performance fibers for resistance to sun, mold and mildew.

Q. What is on your drafting table right now?

A. I have little piles of yarn sitting on my desk. I’m playing with brighter palettes to create fabrics with clean, crisp colors of summer. I’m also playing with simple shapes, hand-cutting paper into geometric forms – stripes and flowers. I find it very satisfying. I look like a second-grader, sitting on the floor cutting out bits and pieces.

–Debra Prinzing

Meet a beautiful – and sustainable – landscape

Friday, August 28th, 2009
Mike Mcdonald, a Green Builder and Visionary

Mike Mcdonald, a Green Builder and Visionary

gardendesign004Garden Design magazine asked me to profile one of its “Green Awards” winners for the September-October issue, which is out on newsstands this week.

The story is about a lovely, sustainable landscape designed to complement the cutting-edge, eco-architecture of Margarido House in Oakland.

Margarido House is the creation of builder-owner Mike McDonald of McDonald Construction & Development, and his architect-brother Tim McDonald of Philadelphia-based Plumbob.  The brothers and their multiple collaborators have created a stunning residence that earned the highest (Platinum) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It is the first home in Northern California to obtain the LEED-H Platinum Award (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

gardendesign005What makes this garden and its home sustainable?

1. It’s Permeable : The patio, roof and driveway surfaces are designed to capture all of the property’s storm water runoff. The driveway’s decorative design uses recycled and perforated Pavestone concrete tiles. Water percolates into a 4,000-gallon cistern hidden under the driveway and, when needed, circulates through the property for irrigation and flowing through the Zen garden’s piped fountain. “We’ve created a self-contained water loop,” Mike points out.

 2. It’s Durable: Garden designer Lauren Schneider of  Wonderland Garden and Landscape in Oakland, chose a diverse, drought-tolerant plant palette. She worked closely with local growers to specify California native varieties, as well as plants from many Mediterranean regions, including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, South America and Mexico. She closely observed the garden during its first year to evaluate whether each plant was durable enough to survive Oakland’s dry summer conditions with infrequent water.

 3. It’s Reusable: Recycled concrete is the basis for Margarido House’s über-modern S-curve chaises, tabletops and sleek urns, which contain succulents, bamboo, and New Zealand flax. Created by Bay Area Concreteworks Studio, which also fabricated interior concrete counters, the products satisfy LEED’s “local” and “reusable” criteria. Other outdoor furniture also has recycled content, including Room & Board’s  “Emmet” Adirondack-inspired chairs, by Loll Designs, made with 100 percent recycled high density polyethylene (plastic).

Margarido House, enhanced by a soft, sustainable garden

Margarido House, enhanced by a soft, sustainable garden

One of the key scoring factors in earning this ranking is Lauren’s sustainable landscape design.

Dreamy and naturalistic, the garden is an organic counterpoint to the geometric architecture.

Lauren actually created three distinct gardens – one on the ground; one in the air; and one that climbs an incredible vertical retaining wall and has multiple sections for planting (not to mention a melodic water feature to attract birds).

Photographs of the Margarido’s rooftop garden weren’t included in the Garden Design layout, due to space constraints. I wanted to make sure and show some here. The rooftop is pretty stunning, and not just because it has killer views of San Francisco Bay. It is installed on top of a capillary mat and layer of geo-textile material; over this base are “three inches of horticultural pumice as a drainage medium and five inches of lightweight planting mix,” Lauren explains.

Garden designer Lauren Schneider gave me a personal tour of Margarido House's exterior spaces

Garden designer Lauren Schneider gave me a personal tour of Margarido House's exterior spaces

The dramatic design includes sedums and sempervivums, golden barrel cactus, lewisia, Cleveland sage, lavender, deer grass, and Libertia peregrinans, a New Zealand iris relative valued for its bronzy-orange blades.

This garden provides top-down insular qualities that cool or warm the home, depending on the season. Flowers and stems of Cleveland sage, silhouetted against the sky, can even be seen through the skylight that illuminates the master bath. The roof garden invites its viewers to look close and study the interplay of plant colors and forms. In an abstract way, they echo the distant scenery where treetops and buildings form an irregular city skyline.

You can read the full story here. And enjoy this gallery of photos that I shot when visiting this past May. You’ll see details that caught my eye and get a fuller sense of this amazing landscape and home.

A Malibu garden party worth writing about

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

gardendesign0309001Designers Scott Shrader and Julie Millgan are friends who teamed up to produce a fantastic garden party for GARDEN DESIGN Magazine’s March 2009 issue (on newsstands now). I am the fortunate scribe who was asked to tell the story of their “Sunset Soiree” (which is what I titled the 10-page article). A great shot of Scott Shrader’s custom fire table appears on the cover of the magazine.

Here’s the background: Scott designed the outdoor living spaces of a modified A-frame midcentury beach house owned by Rea Laccone and Paul Perla, a style-savvy couple who run the casual fashion line called Vince USA.

When the project was completed, Rea and Paul suggested that Scott invite a few friends and clients to “show off” the project and celebrate. He took them up on it and recruited Julie Milligan, herself a fave Garden Design landscape designer, to produce and co-host the party.

Garden Design sent along Jack Coyier, a great photographer (this is my third article illustrated by Jack’s photographs – his images also accompany a piece Metropolitan Home’s March issue and last September’s Garden Design cover story about Ron Radziner’s garden in Venice). Through his lens, Coyier captures the playful, carefree nature of the space, the event, the people and the food — with gorgeous shots.

Scott Shrader and Julie Milligan - on location in Malibu

Scott Shrader and Julie Milligan - on location in Malibu

Even though this is an outdoor entertaining piece, the story naturally centers around its designed environment and the oceanside setting. Buy the magazine in order to really feast your eyes on the photos. Or read it here, on my web site: Sunset Soiree.

For the student of landscape design, this project offers several important take-aways. This is not a plant-centric space, so some hort-heads may scoff that Garden Design actually describes it as a “garden.”

But by designing with stone, textiles, elements like fire and water – and plants – Scott has created a magnetic reason for his clients to spend time outdoors.

And isn’t that the point, the mission of everyone in the garden-making world? To advocate for the role of exterior design and put it on par (or even elevate it!) with architecture and interior design? Scott has hit a home run with this project.

A stucco half-wall encloses the U-shaped banquette that Scott Shrader designed for his Malibu clients

A stucco half-wall encloses the U-shaped banquette that Scott Shrader designed for his Malibu clients

Even though you’d think it would be awesome to live by the beach (who wouldn’t?), there are some pretty harsh conditions here to challenge a homeowner and designer alike. The extremes range from intense sunlight and heat to intense wind and chilly temperatures. So the design thoughtfully accommodates the elements and helps protects those who spend time in the outdoor spaces.

To begin with, the home’s entry area (the non-ocean side) was really just a jumble of grass and an aging deck. Scott reconfigured these “negative” volumes to form a spacious outdoor living room. It doubles as the entry courtyard, enclosed on four sides. Two sides are created by the “L” of the home; new walls form the other two sides (one wall has a rustic wood entry gate; the other is the backdrop to a linear pool of water level with the “floor” of the space). The courtyard is by no means dark because sunlight flows through the beach house. Glass walls on the home’s west and east sides give the home a see-through quality.

On the western side of Rea and Paul’s house is a serene sunset-viewing terrace. When the winds die down, the couple adjourns to this partially-covered outdoor room. Sinking into comfy armchairs, they can prop their feet up on the versatile basalt table-bench-firepit and watch the orange-red orb disappear beyond the Pacific’s horizon. A lone palm tree – part of the borrowed scenery – adds a bit of perspective to the scene.

The new basalt patio faces the ocean; new furnishings from Janus et Cie are placed around a cool basalt fire feature.

The new basalt patio faces the ocean; new furnishings from Janus et Cie are placed around a cool basalt fire feature.

Here are some of Scott’s the smart design ideas:

  • Palette: Inspired by the fashion colors in the Vince clothing line, Scott worked with a range of gray hues (this means a monochromatic use of pewter-colored basalt, aluminum planter boxes and smoke-gray cushion/pillow fabric choices). Shrader translated Vince’s spectrum of warm-toned neutrals – ranging from dove-gray to dark gunmetal – into a tranquil and unified garden environment.  “If you look at the Vince clothing line, you see warm grays. I wanted to use that palette and keep things minimal and clean to reflect Rea and Paul’s  life,” he says.
  • Function: This is not just a pretty space to observe from an indoor vantage point. The courtyard has multiple functions, with a U-shaped chaise providing incredibly generous seating (what do I mean by the term “generous”? I can easily imagine several intimate clusters of two or three friends in intense conversation OR 20 hipsters for pre-dinner drinks). But what I like most, as I said in the article, is that Scott created a cozy, curl-up-your-feet kind of space. When there are gusts of wind at the shore, this space is protected; blocked mostly by the home’s architecture.
  • More Function comes by way of the 6-by-6 foot coffee-table cum buffet-counter. It is the most utilitarian element of this setting. Hidden castor wheels enable its movement, rolling in-and-out of the “U” seating area. Custom designed by Scott Shrader and fabricated of weathered teak (very beachy), the chunk of wood is earthy and durable. Piled with beverages and hors d’oeuvres during the photo shoot, it earned its weight in gold.
  • Even More Function is revealed in the basalt-wrapped fire feature, pictured on Garden Design’s cover. The heat source doubles as a cocktail table and bench. Its flames are mesmerizing; you can get even closer to the warmth by perching on the ledge. “This part of the garden is fairly limited in size, so I wanted to give it a warm element and make it a generous gathering space,” Scott says.

Cliipped Carolina laurel cherry hedges form a transitional corridor between the two gardens

Clipped Carolina laurel cherry hedges form a transitional corridor between the two gardens

Where plants are used in this landscape, they serve as architectural and sculptural purposes. The opening shot of the magazine spread depicts one of Scott’s guests as she walks through a hallway of green (which creates a maze-like journey from entry courtyard to oceanside terrace). The hedge-walls are formed by clipped Carolina laurel cherry (Prunus caroliniana). Simple and dramatic. So much more exciting than a few stepping stones that could serve a similar, but ordinary purpose.

Just inside the front gate is another beautiful and functional feature – a basalt counter that acts as a foyer table. On it, Scott placed a potted bonsai of boxwood. It has just as much presence as if he put a small ornament or sculpted object instead. Phormiums and agaves also lend sculptural form; they are mulched with Japanese black river rock, which looks sleek, modern, and works with the overall slate-gray palette.

Finally, there are two private miniature gardens outside the guest bedrooms. Scott treated these spaces as still-lifes; he called them “planted beach” scenes. Grasses and phormiums emerge from a salt-and-pepper mixed gravel carpet. A stone bench, planted with a moss “seat” is quiet and meditative in feeling. I can understand the sense of calm that settles over Rea and Paul when they escape here after an intense week in the city. This is another world altogether.

I ended the article with this paragraph:

To Rea and Paul, the Malibu getaway is one of the only places they can relax and unwind. Rea loves the “boundary-less environment” that encourages her to easily move from indoor spaces to the open-air ones. “Sometimes we quietly sneak out here by ourselves,” Rea says. Yet she’s happy to welcome friends, even during sweater weather. “How lucky am I? “Paul and I are both from New England, so we couldn’t be more excited to live near the ocean and where we need our sweaters.”

So, you can tell that I loved this garden and I certainly loved writing about it!

Eco-friendly lawn and garden equipment – and more

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

I hopped a plane last week to fly from Los Angeles to Orlando and back in less than 48 hours.

No, I’m not one of those desperate collectors of airline miles who is trying to get bumped up to the platinum level for better perks (although that would be nice).

But somehow, the invitation from a publicist for Sears-Craftsman Lawn and Garden Equipment convinced me that this trip would be worth my while. And in many ways, it was more than a good trip. Crazed, but definitely a surprisingly good one.

Sometimes it’s smart just to say “yes” to something unexpected that falls in your lap, even though you don’t really have the time. Here are 10 Reasons Why:

I’m joined by Garden Design magazine’s Jenny Andrews (Features Editor, left) and Megan Padilla (Senior Editor, center)

1. Enjoying dinner with two gifted and creative editors of Garden Design magazine. Jenny Andrews and Megan Padilla are two of the staff editors for this hip publication and I’ve worked with both of them on recent articles. They treated me to dinner at what might best be described as a quintessential Florida restaurant. The seafood was de-lish and the entertainment? We’re talking performers on stilts and a guy who swallowed flaming swords. The conversation was pretty entertaining, too!


Amy Sitze, editor of Gardening How-To magazine, takes a spin in the Craftsman “Revolution” Zero-Turn Yard Tractor. Yes, she’s a good driver!

2. Walking into the press room for Continental breakfast the next morning not expecting to know anyone and then hearing “Hi Debra!” from across the room. I looked over to see the smiling face of Amy Sitze, editor-in-chief of Minneapolis-based Gardening How-To magazine and a fellow member of Garden Writers Association (and another wonderful editor for whom I’ve written).

The black-and-white Craftsman golf pullover helped take the chill off as I put the pedal to the metal on the Craftsman “Excellerator” Garden Tractor.

3. Getting to brave the brisk weather by wearing one of those cool golf pullovers with the Craftsman logo on it. And since it was a windy and wintry Orlando day (something like high 50s), I was very happy to have that extra layer to protect me.

4. Arriving at Osceola County Stadium, “Home of the Houston Astros – Spring Training,” and seeing my name on the electronic read-out that tops the scoreboard.