Thursday, March 8, 2012

Retro Garden Design

When I moved into the little Cape Cod that is now the topic of this blog, I not only had to have the dreamer's eye for the neglected house but also for the neglected property. I hesitate to call it a yard, let alone a garden.

Since I have pretty much a blank slate, I've been collecting ideas for a front yard garden and back yard patio area, but wanted it to match the the house, or at least pay homage to the era in which it was built, the late 1930s.

There's not a ton of easy-access information about retro garden design. And by easy, I mean stuff I can Google in my jammie-pants while drinking a glass of cheap red.

One book I found mentioned was The House Beautiful Book of Gardens and Outdoor Living, by Joseph E. Howland. Of course I found it over on the source of all things retro, Retro Renovation, and you can catch the original source of the mention here. A commenter mentioned the book, published in 1958, and I found used copies still available on Amazon. I found mine for just a few dollars because the binding was falling apart. It made me wince slightly less when I was guiltily forcing it into the scanner to get images (eek). Unlike today's lush looking garden publications, a significant amount of the book's photography is in black and white.

I found the book surprising. Not surprising in how dated or "vintage" the ideas looked or seemed, but by how recognizable, reasonable, and fresh they looked.

Residential garden design featured in the book by Midcentury landscape architect Thomas D. Church.
See the very Atomic age amoeba shape in the center of the path/patio? The combination of naturalistic elements (the stones) with more manicured spaces (the lawn)? The flow of outdoor space into indoor space? We do this all the time now; it's "natural" to us. In 1958, these elements were revolutionary. It's a testament to the Modern design movement that this book, published 54 years ago, now seems full of garden designs that are not only plausible to us, but still look attractive and noteworthy. The book also encompasses ideas that we think of as "contemporary" like water features, Japanese garden design aesthetics, and the use of annuals.

It seems all our current garden and outdoor design concepts were born then, like outdoor relaxation:

Any person circa 2012 would be perfectly happy to walk into this patio area circa 1958, sit down with a lemonade, and spend an hour or two reading. It's the perfect shady garden refuge. I love the brick layout, and may file it for a future idea.

Or keeping up with the Jones' with a garage as well appointed as our living room (please pardon my scanner malfunction; the lid would not fit down over the large book):

Outdoor dining:

I want the table and the salad plates, please!

The book was addressed to the urban dweller, and held forth the philosophy that for the city resident, gardening had become more accessible, more personal, and more for everyone instead of just the wealthy. As a person coming from more of a farming background, I found this somewhat of a hoot; the farmer has always considered his garden as accessible and personal as the hollyhocks by the pasture gate.

Much of the book was dedicated to truly Midcentury Modern design concepts. Since my house is a little older, it is a traditional style (a Cape Cod) and would look better with the traditional garden styles that made only a few appearances in the book's pages:

I'll be mining this book mostly for its hardscaping ideas: brickwork, stone design, and patio pavers. But for the garden itself, I'm trying to find a way to incorporate the oldies but traditional goodies--irises, roses, and lilies--into a scheme that works for a busy family. Those who have truly Modern design houses will find this a book a treasure trove reference.

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