Landscape Architects: California Dreamin’

Web exclusive: Part I of Gary James’ look at landscape architects


In our April issue, writer Gary James turned his lens onto landscape architecture trends across the nation as part of our Elements series focus on the earth. He found so much great information that we simply ran out of space for it in the print edition. So, in this two-part web exclusive series, James shares landscape style from coast to coast.

For Stephen Billings, the principal of Stephen Billings Landscape Architecture in Santa Monica, California, where client budgets for plantings alone might start at $200,000, the “sky is the limit” when it comes to what clients are willing to invest to create a unique outdoor space.

“People will see something that a neighbor has and ask us to come up with a design that’s equally amazing,” he says. Some of these houses are as big as 30,000 square feet with a 10-car garage, so they have spacious yards to work with and a desire and budget to create something special. “We’re incorporating everything from large outdoor pavilions and swimming pools to skateboard parks and climbing walls.”

More and more, Billings says, homeowners want landscape designs that reserve a lawn or paved space for outdoor games. Popular activities for both kids and adults include shuffleboard, outdoor billiards and table tennis, and Kubb, a lawn game that entails throwing wooden batons to knock over blocks, called “Kubbs.”

Hammocks also are a popular element in California backyards. “There’s nothing better than relaxing on a hammock in the shade,” Billings says. Since he was born in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, home of the original rope hammock, he often adds this personal touch to designs when he can, incorporating hanging loungers from Dedon, for example.

LandscapeIn this lush setting for a Southern California residence, Stephen Billings Landscape Architecture combines oversized teak lounge seating from the Summit X collection with a custom-made fire pit from Concrete Creations. Photo by Eric Staudenmeier.

In the past few years, another big trend Billings has seen is the rise of gourmet outdoor kitchens. “The idea of having a complete outdoor kitchen has become much more viable as manufacturers have developed a range of new materials that can withstand the elements,” Billings says. “We now have full-featured icemakers, cooktops, refrigerators and dishwashers from companies such as Viking and Kalamazoo, and complete kitchens that are built for the outdoors from Brown Jordan, along with fashionable new countertops from Dekton, and creative wall structures and barriers that add a fresh sense of style.”

Similarly, bar setups also have grown more lavish, with many spaces also incorporating big-screen TVs and sophisticated sound systems that add to the fun.

Due to southern California’s ongoing drought, water elements have grown less important, with many homeowners going with smaller, shallower structures or skipping this feature altogether. Big, high-impact water fountains and other water elements have generally faded to the background.

At the same time, lighting has become a more integral feature in many designs. New LED technology means that bulbs no longer need to be changed repeatedly, and dimming features give homeowners the ability to create different moods in their backyards at the flip of a switch.

To add color and visual interest, Billings uses a combination of local botanicals along with exotic plants sourced from other regions of the world where his firm has projects, such as Brazil, Australia and Mexico. “We mix these more unusual plants in with things that people are more familiar with to create an element of surprise,” he says, adding that he looks for climate-appropriate plants that don’t require a lot of water.

As for furniture, Billings says that he’s seeing a lot more teak furniture and less use of mid-century modern, which once was a mainstay in California homes. Two of his firm’s go-to sources for furniture are Sutherland and Summit, which are “very high-end but worth the money, because their products last and last.”

Billings also incorporates high-end patterned outdoor tiles from Kelly Wearstler, tying into similar treatments in interior designs.

“Californians tend to be very proud of their homes,” he says. “They spend a lot of time entertaining, both inside and outside, and they’re constantly taking note of what’s new and different.”

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