There may never be a greater success story in the field of design than that of Bernard Trainor who just might be one of best landscape designers that hasn’t come from a traditional design background. Working as a horticulture apprentice after high school, he knew what it was like to hit the ground (literally) every morning. After several injuries, he ventured into landscape design and with his good instincts to back him, has climbed the rungs to become one of the highest regarded landscape designers in California. We had the privilege of learning more from this great horticultural leader.

Thank you Bernard for taking the time to share your story with us. First off, tell us about your firm Ground Studio. How did you get started? 

I was a horticulture apprentice out of high school and realized after many blisters and back injuries later, landscape design was a better direction for me. Fortunately, I was able to transition, from working in the soil, to working in the studio. As someone said recently, “You have worked hard to be lucky”. Infused with good instincts, I gravitated throughout my career toward great mentors and teachers, happily standing on the shoulders of giants. Now I have between 16 – 20 people in the studio, at any time, and I believe my greatest design has been putting together this wonderful team. The studio is the best it has ever been, with a hard working team, bringing their best every day. 

Courtesy of Ground Studio

That’s amazing! Congratulations on such a great journey! Where do you get your inspiration and what’s your design philosophy?

Listen and Observe – Then act with a clear vision. I tend to design optimistically, in that I embrace design constraints and see them as design opportunities! I think the key is being aware of the complexity of a site and using this to inform the site diagram. Visually our goal is to “hide” the complexity, by responding with the most simple and beautiful solution. This sounds easy and simple, but is actually very hard to achieve.

Courtesy of Ground Studio

I like how you embrace the challenge as an opportunity. I think it is through embracing this complexity that you truly work with the site, not against it. Looking back, what are some of your favorite projects? 

I cannot think of projects without categorizing them by the region. For instance, we have coastal projects, wine country projects, and inland valley projects throughout California. My favorite projects are those where we most clearly represent the eco tone of the region and in turn have it look like it couldn’t be anywhere else. In other words the resulting beauty could only be derived from that region. From the colors and the textures, to the plant types, each element is at one with the environment. 

Courtesy of Ground Studio

That is a really great approach to landscape design that I think provides a much more enduring sustainable outcome. How do you use landscape design to make a house feel more like a home?

The client’s personality will make this unique. Observing carefully and listening, then following my gut feelings about contextual solutions that connect people to the spirit of the place.

Amazing! When it comes to styling, what are some of your favorite material and plant combinations?

I love using contrasting materials beside one another – smooth beside rough, translucent beside solid, bright light fading into shadow and so on. Atelier Vierkant pots, local crushed gravel, stone from the site, and plant materials that are resilient. Materials that look like they originate from the site.

Courtesy of Ground Studio

I think this is super important with any design. It allows the design to be a more orderly version of the existing landscape. When it comes to your creative process, what does that look like?

Above all else, I focus on the context and my initial read of a site. This is where the design vision originates. We are known for constantly refining the original design vision throughout the design process, without deviating from the project narrative we establish. I think this has to happen in landscape design, because there are so many moving parts, as ideas bounce around between all the designers on the team.

That said, I am adamant that the philosophy behind the master plan, be adhered to and there has to be a good reason for any change. When I look back, our overall design ideas remain, however the details are always being evaluated during the process. The ‘little’ things matter…

Courtesy of Ground Studio

That is a really great approach, because while the details may change, the overall narrative is maintained. How close do you collaborate with interior designers and architects?

This is arguably the most important ingredient in the integration of built form and the landscape that we are known for with our designs. If the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, then both hands can distribute the ‘weight’ I guess. We are very fortunate to have long lasting relationships with architects and designers, who recognize the effort we make in supporting them in their vision. Our role is always to make the architecture ‘land’ as poetically on the site no matter the theme or context. 

Courtesy of Ground Studio

Amazing! What inspired your book, “Bernard Trainor: Ground Studio Landscapes”? 

This was a collection of work that illustrated my passion for designing landscapes with a clear Ground Studio identity that would stand the test of time. 

Courtesy of Ground Studio

Awesome! What other designers, architects, creative people, and firms are you inspired by at the moment?

Fiona Brockhoff, Patricia Urquiola, and Scott Shrader. Also, there a handful of local people here in San Francisco who are consistently designing beautiful landscapes – Andrea Cochran and Ron Lutsko come to mind.

We love all of them! Thank you again Bernard for sharing your thoughts with us.

For more on Bernard and his practice visit his website and pick up a copy of his new book.

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