Scott Shrader is one of the most sought after California landscape architect for residential homes and estates. Having worked with incredible clients, designers, architects, and artisans all over the world, he is truly a legend in landscape design. An incredible designer and thought leader in sustainable landscape practices, he has brought 28 years of work together in his new book “The Art of Outdoor Living”. A true artist at heart, he is constantly thinking about his gardens and will hand draw every element to scale in his designs. With his newest book just released, we sat down with Scott in an exclusive in depth interview about how he got started, his unique talent and approach for garden design, his ideas for landscapes that are timeless, and his next 28 years of work.
Tell us about Shrader Design. How did you get started?
I always had my fingers in the landscape since I was very very young. My father owned a property in Fallbrook with some orange and avocado orchards, so very early on I learned by working in the orchards. My dad had organic gardens on the property that my grandfather took care of and we also had several bee hives on the property, so very very early on I understood the systems of landscape very well because my grandfather was an organic gardener. My father organically grew all of his citrus trees and avocados and was pretty ahead of the time including having bees near the grove to help pollinate. So I was early on sort of brought into the landscape and I always loved to grow things. So it was something that was super natural for me. It’s not necessarily my job, it’s sort of my passion.
I’m very lucky to have found a profession that allows me to do really what I love. I’ve got an undergraduate degree in urban planning and a masters degree in landscape architecture from Cal Poly Pomona with a sustainable approach. John Lyle was the original gentleman who started the program many many years ago and it was all about sustainability, thinking about being conscious about water use and pesticides so the environment was highly considered. So those were some of the next years that brought me much more educated about the systems of landscape and the sustainable approach that I had previously been exposed to.
The day out of graduate school I met my mentor Lani Barrington and she was working for all of the Hollywood celebrities and had been since the 1970’s and Lani had been through my program, the first woman to have gone through the landscape program at Cal Poly. So it was very interesting, I worked with her for 5 years and I got thrown into the high end residential design, mostly celebrity driven and that was the market that I was most interested in. After about 5 years working for Lani, I’ve now been on my own for about 25 years.
Where do you get your inspiration? What’s your design philosophy?
What I’ve really tried to do in my practice, when you really look back at the early, early influences of sustainable landscape design, it’s very 1960s, it’s a little crunchy, so I’ve tried to plant a California look with a European feel. I’ve traveled a lot through Spain, Italy and Greece which are very applicable to our climate here in California. Because I grew up on the beach and I’m a pretty casual person, I like to do lifestyle and bring in a pretty casual feel, but I also like organized and I like to have a little bit of a European feel too, so I import a lot of material from Europe.
I’m always reclaiming stone troughs that I find in France. I’m pretty well known for taking apart an old wall that I find in China and bringing it back here and using it as hardscape. I’ve sort of taken that sustainable approach and that interest in travel and I’ve brought those into my sustainable design practice, thinking about how you limit the use of lawn, using gravel, setting hardscape on a sand base for percolation. When I’m doing drainage, I try to keep every bit of water on site and that’s become a common theme and requirement for Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles. You can’t drain water onto the street anymore. Brand new homes in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica can’t drain roof water to the street unless it’s completely filtered now. These techniques are becoming more common as we move ahead because although we might be out of the drought, there might be another one ahead. Landscape is very different than doing architecture and interiors because it changes and its influenced by so many different factors. When you build a house or an interior, its set and then it pretty much stays, but it’s not like a garden that’s going to change dramatically in 20 years and that’s what you have to plan and think about.
My approach is always thinking about really great space planning and creating a really great lifestyle. That’s what I’m known for, creating a lifestyle outdoors. I work pretty much from San Diego up to San Francisco, but I’ve worked all over the world, including Croatia, Wyoming, and Oklahoma. My primary focus though and what I think I do best is a West Coast approach to living outdoors which is also the title of my book too so it all kind of wraps together. It’s what I’m known for doing and what I love doing.
What are some of your favorite projects?
One of my very first gardens I did on my own, called French Modern, was for a couple in Hancock Park. They had a very traditional English Tudor home with a very modern art collection inside. I tried to create a front yard approach that was fairly modern but also old school at the same time. Because the owners were very organized I generated a garden built on increments of 5 feet. Walkways were 5 feet, hedges were 10 foot squares, my trees were planted 15 feet apart. A very mathematical approach to the garden, but with historic symmetry and axial moments and a very different approach to a front yard without a blade of grass. It was irrigated with soaker hoses, which I did 28 years ago, instead of spray, and it is just a nice way for a client who has an artistic sense, so the garden introduces them before you come to the front door and walk into the house. So there’s no difference between the outside and inside style.
Another memorable project was called The Tin House in Malibu and was designed by Frank Gehry for Rod Davis. The Tin House is where light and space started in California. It was sold to Patrick Dempsey and I took it further with him, and then it was sold to Samantha Bass and unfortunately it just burned down in the last fire. Its one of my most favorite projects. I don’t know what the next chapter will be for that one.
What are your tips for making a house feel more like a home?
I think about creating a hello-goodbye garden. The first time someone gets to say hello to you and the last time they get to say goodbye. What does that feel like, what should it feel like? You kind of think about more than what it’s going to look like, you have to think how it’s going to function at the same time. I always plant my trees so that I can downlight from them or create trellises that I can light from or what I call outdoor ceilings. If you’re doing a good interior, you have a ceiling to work with, you can light from the ceiling, you can create a mood and atmosphere. When you’re outdoors, you often don’t have that, you have the sky, so you have to create what I call outdoor ceilings, which are useful to keep people shaded and a great source of lighting. Because you can imagine when you are sitting outdoors and you are completely open to the sky that’s a certain kind of feeling, but when you’re cozy in with friends and you want everyone to feel comfortable, putting something overhead is a really nice feeling.
To make people feel comfortable and to make people feel at home you have to have comfortable seating, a place to put a drink down, a way to stay warm or cool enough, if you don’t have all those, people are going right back indoors. Its not just about looking at something beautiful, but you need a system and a program to keep people outdoors and you don’t want to have to keep running into your house to get a bottle of wine or a tray of food. Maybe you create an outdoor kitchen or a small cooking area, making sure you’re not disappearing from your guests. Keeping things more natural outdoors, like warm colors, makes things feel more homey. For a California landscape, it’s more of a muted palette, so I keep my colors a little more natural. I always take influence of the color scheme of the region I’m working in. Because I’m so California based, I keep with the sage natural scrub that’s on the hillsides. I just plastered a pool last week in Malibu that overlooks this beautiful canyon and the soil is a very warm taupe color, so I plastered the pool this taupe color and we got the most incredible warm blue green color that feels so natural, like someone dug a hole in the landscape and filled it with water. I always try to keep it in a natural organic feel.
For a client with a small budget, what are your tips for making the best outdoor living space?
The first thing to think about, every project, is different. Whether you start with a lot of mature trees or you start with dirt, every job is different. When you are faced with a limited budget, landscapes can be phased much easier than the interior of the house. With a landscape, you need to start with a really good plan. You need a really good roadmap for where you’re going, because what you can do is, say you can’t afford to put the pool in right now and you’re going to do a gravel sort of courtyard and throw a couple umbrellas and a table out there, in three years when you can afford to build the pool, the pool goes right into the gravel area. What you have to plan for is you don’t want to put all your utility lines where the pool is going to go so you have to dig them up later. So you first have to start with a really good plan so you know where you’re going to grow into later. There are homes I’ve worked on for over 25 years where there are master plans and you take on 200 acres and we do 10 acres one year and we’ll wait and then go another 10 acres, but you have to get the system down first, before you start phasing your landscape.
You always need to think if you’re going to be in your house 3 years, 5 years, 10 years or forever, because when you leave the house and put it on the market the landscape should look mature. The thing about budget is that it’s all about size of material and type of material. If you’re trying to get the look for less you can downsize material and substitute reclaimed stone for gravel. Lighting is always a big thing for me in a garden. Start with a big transformer, because you can add lighting later, if you have enough power. The tough part about building a landscape is there is a lot of money that goes into infrastructure that you often don’t see, such as irrigation, mainlines, drainage, grading, and soil prep. I always say, start with good parts because trees will grow but infrastructure will fall apart, so it’s always been a practice of mine over the years, to talk my clients into making sure the infrastructure is done well.
With outdoor fabric, you can go to Perennials Fabrics and get something very beautiful for less or Sunbrella, or you get creative and look for places like Diamond Foam and Fabric in Los Angeles that sells off fabrics, such as a run that has a slight color shift or imperfection that you can’t really notice and they’ll sell it for half price. Outdoor furniture is tough, because a lot of the inexpensive options fall apart. I’m also particular about how it sits, because I don’t use any furniture unless I’ve sat in it and approved it. Just yesterday, I was doing research on some furniture and I was in 8 showrooms and I think I picked out one chair and one lounge, because everything for me is cut very uncomfortably, too low and too deep. I want to make sure its really comfortable. One quick tip that I do a lot, if I don’t have a lot of money, I’ll get a directors chair and I’ll slipcover it with outdoor fabric. It’s a really chic, comfortable look. The nice thing is that they fold up easily so you can keep them in the garage. You can also go online and look at 1st Dibs, Chairish, or antique stores to find great options.
What’s your approach to building the garden?
I am a landscape contractor too and I am out there looking at specimen nurseries all the time. I’ve got access to people who grow different material and because I’ve been doing this for so long, I have people that call me and say I’ve got an unbelievable span of 14 foot tall ficus hedges that you might like and they send me pictures all the time. I often meet with clients that are 70 years old and this is their last house and their forever house and they want it too look like its been there forever, so what I have to do is bring in the cranes and the really big material and set it up so it looks like its been there forever. Sometimes I get a big project with a good budget but they are 40 to 50 years old and they’re going to be there a while, so I can downsize the plant material, but I always say let’s start off with magnificent trees, let’s start off with a little bit smaller hedging and let it grow in, so you can experience the evolution of the garden. I always say as I’m working on this, do you want me to keep quiet or do you want me to bring things up during the process, because as you’re doing it, there’s things that will come up and there’s things that you don’t see in the beginning.
When you’re doing your landscape you’ve got to be a little flexible. You have to have a really good site plan and really good design but as your putting it in, things are going to shift a little bit and you’ve got to be onsite as part of the installation which is why I’m a contractor, because the best jobs I’ve seen are done by landscape professionals who are onsite supervising the installation, making sure that the grades are set correctly, the trees are set at the right moments and not going to drown or not set too high. I often start inside the home and move out, looking at what the feel of the house is, how it opens to the garden, if it doesn’t, I try to make it open to the garden, what the floor is like, what the color is like. My job is to take that and take it outdoors. Even if someone has a large budget, I’m not going to blow it on every single piece, because I think you need to worry about overdoing it also. There’s a fine line between making it look really terrific and making it look almost garish, because you’ve got too much and then it looks contrived.
There’s a sweet spot in there, where it still feels comfortable and has a relaxed feel to it and I’m often telling the client we’ve got enough. Once you’ve done it for a long time, you start getting a better sense, but you know it takes time like anything to become good at. It takes a lot of time working with contractors, working with professionals, and getting these gardens installed right and it’s a different skill set that’s not that common.
When it comes to styling, what are some of your favorite approaches?
I do a limited color approach. I always love working silver off of green. I’m known for using a lot of reclaimed olive trees that I buy in Sacramento, CA, which are from old growth groves of olives that are not in production anymore and they’re like living pieces of art themselves, because they’re so majestic. So you do an alee of hundred year old olive trees and you have a great story there. You’ve got to be able to pick your plant material based on the microclimate zone you’re living in, because say you’re living in Santa Monica, but you love white Crepe Myrtles. The problem is, white Crepe Myrtles don’t grow in Santa Monica, because they get mildew, since they love the heat. I’ve always tried to demystify plant material by calling them friends that you’re inviting to a party. For someone who’s overwhelmed putting a plant palette together, think of it like you’re putting together a good cocktail party. Some guests like to drink and some don’t. Some like to be in the sun, some like to be in the shade. Some are more outgoing and some are a little more quiet. Plants are similar. Some plants grow more aggressively and some are more reserved, some need more water, some need less water, some need more sun and some need less sun, so you think about orchestrating it as a party and it demystifies it a lot.
What is your creative process like?
I usually do a first meeting and I often come back with a lot of imagery, not only just my work, but things that inspire me, a palette pulled together, the hardscape, just the look and the feel before I really dive in, unless I come to a client and they say, I really like what you did at this house and I love the combination and the feeling of that and I want something similar to that. I always try to do my best to not repeat what I’ve done. I’m always trying to mix it up and make it different, so I’ll take a clue from that and I’ll come back with a very quick drawing and the direction and then I’ll go into final drawings. I do all of my own hand drawings, because I scale out every plant and every piece of furniture in my garden. When I go into bigger projects, I have my plans converted into CAD and that’s becoming more and more common, but every time I throw out a hand drawing people kind of gasp, because its such an old art form that you don’t see anymore and there is such a communication that you can get through a hand drawing, that you don’t get with CAD, because CAD can come off incredibly cold and a little impersonal and that’s not what I’m trying to convey.
Architects who work with me the first time will always give that sort of smile when I come with my drawings, because you know they haven’t done this in twenty years, so they’re like, “wow a hand drawing”. Because I will draw every tree and the branches, its kind of meditative, and for me, once I get into it and once I figure out in my head what I want to do, it all the sudden comes out on my drafting table really fast in sketch form and then I put a layer over that and detail it. It takes me about three layers until I get to the final detail of my drawings and its all drawn to quarter scale, at maturity. I always draw it at maturity, because when I go to budget it, I know how many I need and what I want it to look like, so I know where I’m going because a lot of times, if people don’t know at what scale things become, they often over plant. Because I’m in the car 8 hours a day looking at jobs, I am always thinking about my gardens, and if something comes into my head, I always come home and go right to my drafting table and sketch it out really fast, so I don’t lose it. Sometimes I pull over to the side of the road and I draw something really quick and I keep going.
How close do you collaborate with interior designers and architects?
That’s a really good question. I often work with a lot of interior designers on projects. I’m often called by them and brought into projects early. I’ll have an approach to a house that they don’t have and I always say to clients, you are doing the best service to yourself and everybody if you have a landscape designer and interior designer come together from day one and all work together without egos, because its about that collaboration. I’m looking at things on the outside very different than an architect or an interior person, so my job is to understand the architecture and the interiors and blend them together outdoors. I’m often called in, because I’m thinking outside the box a lot and thinking of things they haven’t thought of and I’m not shy about saying, “are you sure the front door is in the right place?” Often, architects will give me a trellis that’s 10 feet wide in the backyard and I need no less than 12 feet, in order to move around and entertain and get in furniture. Because I install my gardens, I know scale really well and I know the space I need to make that happen. But, it’s critical to get a team onboard as quickly as you can and have them all working well together and I always tell clients, your job is to build the team and make sure that the team works well together. The meetings are endless and the emails are endless. You get copied on emails with 20 people and it’s hard to keep up with the meeting notes, but it’s the best way to get the best product!
What inspired you to create your book “The Art of Outdoor Living”?
I wanted the book to be a mini series on each project I’ve done. It’s 28 years of work with 13 projects detailed. Each project is described and goes through the history and details and approach and challenges. I think people love a good story. I think being a good storyteller has a lot to do with being a good landscape designer, because you actually are creating moments and stories outdoors. Its more than planting trees and putting petunias in! I’m now thinking about the next 28 years and I’m looking now, for more forever homes and for people who are looking to make their property into something that they want till the end, or will pass down to their family. I find that to be super interesting, because I love how gardens change and how landscapes mature and it’s fun for me to go back to a job I did 25 years ago and see what it’s become and that to me is everything. It means that I thought this out and I planned accordingly and it matured to what I thought it was going to and there is something super satisfying about that and I think that goes back to my childhood. Because I’m very impatient and I love to see things happen quickly my dad and grandfather had me plant things that propagate within 7 days so you immediately see things happen. Now that I’m in my mid 50’s and I’m a little more patient, its super gratifying for me to go back and see an old project maturing and looking really sensational and the client is still living there and using it.
What other designers/architects/creative people/firms are you inspired by at the moment?
I’m good friends with Bernard Trainor who has a new book coming out and his approach is super different than mine. He’s much more larger scale with a little simpler, more modern approach to the landscape, whereas I’m more of a lifestyle landscaper. I think he’s genius in how he handles the northern coast going from Carmel to Napa Valley. His work is brilliant I think.
I’ve always been terribly influenced by Russell Page, who isn’t with us anymore, who I think probably does and had done a much more European approach. I’m also a big fan of David Hicks, who’s also no longer with us and had a book out called “My Kind of Garden” and I think David Hicks had a really romantic idea of gardens that’s really interesting. Luciano Giubbilei has an incredible hand for what he does.
John Saladino, who did the Villa in Montecito has an incredible eye as an interior person. Tommy and Kathy Clements on interiors are incredible. Jane Howard has an amazing eye and is incredibly educated when it comes to furniture and she’s more creative than a person should be allowed to be. She’s amazing!
Wendy Haworth who did Gracias Madre with me, is a really mindful interior designer. Cliff Fong does beautiful work in Los Angeles from an interior point of view. I’m working with Howard Backen from Backen and Gillam right now. Mark Atherton is a legend and really talented. Axel Vervoordt, I was just at his castle at Christmas time and had a tour that was life changing. Richard Shapiro is one of the best hands with interior and exterior, kind of a renaissance man and is amazing. Atelier AM, who have a new book out called “Interiors” are super interesting.
Jean Mus who’s one of my favorite landscape designers, very European and casual sense. For California he has one of the most applicable plant palettes to be inspired by. Bobby McApline from an architectural point of view does beautiful, more romantic work, and is really talented. Susan Weinstein has a very historic point of view when she does her interiors. Diane Keaton has been lovely and has called me about my book and was greatly impressed and had many beautiful things to say. Love the guys at Blackman Cruz. Ray at Obsolete is an amazing, interesting talent. Tudor Stone does all my stone work and they have a really beautiful hand with masonry.
For more information about Scott and his work, check out his studio Shrader Design.
What was your favorite part of our interview with Scott? Leave a comment below!