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The Image of Whimsy
Eclectic landscape design brings a landscape architect's personal tastes into his family's outdoor living spaces.
By Heather Hammatt, ASLA

Seen through the eyes of Jackson, Mississippi-based landscape architect and interior designer Rick Griffin, the landscape of a residential garden is private space to be personalized, used, and enjoyed. To some degree this runs counter to local gardening traditions. "Our culture in the South is—what would my neighbor like? I want my neighbor to like me. I'd better plant what they would like," Griffin says. "I used to worry about image and what people think, but not so much anymore. I am trying to train myself not to. If what you like isn't what the rest of the world likes, the hell with them. If it gives you goose bumps, do it!"

Griffin has a self-professed obsession with privacy, stemming in part from his early years of practice in a home-based office, where defending the line between work and home to well-meaning clients who would drop by at all hours was a constant chore. His current residence and landscape, while no longer his place of business, are designed defensibly against unwanted visitors and prying neighborhood eyes. Part of a residential community, the property is surrounded by well-meaning neighbors (some of them clients) who have strong opinions about Griffin's landscape style, vacillating from interest to pure disgust. But Griffin isn't fazed. He hates feeling claustrophobic and has taken his landscape to new levels, literally, creating a comfortable, functional, and yet private open space through creative use of strategic screening and change in elevation.

As in the old adage "a man's home is his castle," in Griffin's case it is his own Versailles, a pleasure ground for the modern age. Scale and level of formality aside, the idea of private garden rooms designed for entertaining and the display of "art" applies. At Chez Griffin, an arched wooden door swings wide on a cool, blue, slag stone path that wends its way through a jumble of leafy green textures. Once through the gate, the outside world of humdrum New South garden design—manicured lawns and carefully pruned azaleas—melts away as all five senses are bombarded with aesthetic whimsy.

"My whole house is oriented to the outside," says Griffin, whose shotgun-style home is almost entirely glass on the side facing the garden. Two stories of large-paned windows look out on the garden. Sandwiched between the house and the garage, the side entry garden—a labyrinth of slag stone paths, lined by shrubs and low planting beds—is embraced at the front end by a high concrete-rubble wall and wood fence, and at the back end by a covered porch.

Throughout the entry-garden mélange, an eclectic mix of sculptures and artifacts is displayed, including pensive wood carvings, playful ceramic figures, metallic gazing balls, and a homemade bottle tree inspired by local horticulturist Felder Rushing (featured in Shared Wisdom, Landscape Architecture, August 2002). Displayed prominently and tucked away into unexpected nooks and crannies, these artworks bring Griffin's personality out into the landscape, blurring the line between landscape and house. Griffin applies this technique of dressing the landscape to bring out his clients' personal tastes in outdoor living spaces, much as an interior designer adds color, texture, and style to the interior of a home. "Line, color, form, and texture make you creative," says Griffin. "I've never met a noncreative person. It's just, what kind of creative are you?"

Incorporating recycled materials and experimenting with new and different methods of construction and planting design, Griffin stretches the boundaries of southern landscape design. "Felder Rushing breaks rules every day to teach people things. He does things to make a statement and sometimes goes too far to prove a point," says Griffin, who embraces Rushing's fearless use of found objects and rare and uncommon plant choices. Griffin's design style manipulates the rebellious details within an overarching theme, creating a finished product that is eclectic chic rather than anti-establishment. "You have to understand that there are rules [in design]. But, once you learn the rules, you don't have to follow them anymore."

Griffin cites the late Walter Anderson, an eccentric artist from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and the husband of Griffin's first-grade teacher, as one of his strongest influences. Griffin remembers Anderson visiting his first-grade class and talking about creating art from found objects, an aesthetic Griffin weaves into his landscape designs. Old blue bottles "planted" bottom up at the edge of the path create a rhythmic, jewel-like border. Old rusty rebar, welded together in organic forms, creates an artistic barrier to enclose Griffin's backyard. Chunks of old, broken concrete are stacked to shield the private garden from the ever-watchful eyes of a small, southern neighborhood. "Walter Anderson used to say that you can always tell the artist in a group because he's the one who doesn't paint within the lines," Griffin remembers.

"Everything God created is not square. There's free form, round, and circle. When you go outside, break it up," says Griffin. The public area of Griffin's landscape, a small space accenting the formal front door of the house—rarely used by family and friends—combines clean curvilinear lines with an unusual combination of textures. Islands of mondo grass surround the exfoliating trunks of crape myrtle trees, while small patches of carefully mown grass provide a soothing green wash on the ground plane, offsetting vibrant patches of seasonal color. Soft-textured, blue-green spruce and rich green cryptomeria are mixed with sharp fronds of yucca and the smooth, waxy texture of ivy.

"Nobody thinks plants have texture. They do, just like the clothes you wear," says Griffin. A mass of nandina growing up from a bed of liriope, under a canopy of orange trumpet vine, illustrates the case. In another area of the garden, the fine petals of pink, orange, red, and purple zinnias invade a planting bed, against a backdrop of rich green lawn. Griffin adds a bright yellow lawn chair and a series of colorful birdhouses. Oddly enough, instead of overwhelming the senses, it works. The sunny patch of lawn radiates color and life, inviting the visitor to sit down and stay for a while.

A circle of brick set into the recessed back lawn radiates out from a central metal dish, a fire pit, a gathering point for outdoor living. Surrounded by a grove of leafy shrubs, the space is intimate and at the same time attractive for social gatherings, probably the most roomlike of Griffin's outdoor rooms. The fire provides an interactive element, its warmth and animation adding life to the surrounding vegetation, with a play of light, the smell of wood smoke, and the sound of crackling kindling.

"As a teacher, I preach all these things that I live," says Griffin, who teaches a continuing education landscape design class at Jackson's Millsaps College. "Ninety percent of the time people create spaces for public consumption," says Griffin. "Landscape architecture is interior decoration for the outside."

Heather Hammatt, ASLA, former Landscape Architecture staff writer, is marketing coordinator for SmithGroup in Washington, D.C.

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