“I believe that there is no beauty without ugliness and this it should not be otherwise. Both are capable of stinging us to live. Contrast is more true to me than undeviating smugness. The chief vice of a garden is to be merely pretty.”- Fletcher Steele
Plants and materials are being used more and more to enrich spaces both inside and out. Architectural landscaping, or using indoor plants and design to enhance a space, has been used for centuries. However, in recent years this practice has become an art form thanks to contributions made by a number of key figures.
Fletcher Steele was born on June 7, 1885 in Rochester, NY to a middle class family. Schooled by his mother until age 12, Steele was developed a curiosity about the natural world and artistic design. After his general schooling, he was accepted into Harvard University’s Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. Taught by greats like Fredrick Law Olmsted and Denman Ross, Steele developed his skills and passion for landscape architecture. He developed a structured style that took into consideration not only the landscape itself, but the entire surrounding area.
While he enjoyed his courses, Steele longed to leave the classroom. An opportunity presented itself when he met Warren Manning, a prominent landscape architect, who was willing to take Steele on as an apprentice. Working for Manning, Steele traveled across Europe and was inspired by the architecture and gardens. His favorite place was the Place VendÃ´me in Paris because of its beautiful simplicity.
Upon returning from Europe, Steele chose to leave Manning’s practice and start his own in Boston. Although he was just starting out, he was met with great response from wealthy clientele, including Ethan Allen, which allowed him to establish himself.
However, in 1917 Steele chose to close his business due to World War I and enlisted in the American Red Cross’s Department of Public Information to take photographs of the war. When he returned to the US and reopened his business, it was almost as if he never left because of the overwhelming desire and curiosity for his unique landscape architecture.
Although in his early years he was influenced mainly by his education, as time progressed, Steele started to stray away from the clean contour lines and developed a more creative and whimsical style that was used to create emotionally driven designs.
Steele’s largest and most recognized work is Naumkeag (meaning haven of peace). Mable Choate, the owner of this large 44 room estate, desired bountiful and bright gardens featuring a variety of different plants and designs. Originally, Steele was contracted solely for an Afternoon Garden, but due to their growing friendship and his amazing designs, he continued to beautify the lands of the property by creating a tranquil Chinese Garden, a Rose Garden, and his famous blue steps. Work continued on the house until Choate’s death in 1958, at which point the estate was given to the Trustees of Reservations, and is now open to the public.
Steele continued to work for another decade. In total, it is estimated that he created over 700 gardens during his life. He passed away in 1971 and is now highly regarded as one of the main influencers in modern architectural landscaping.
To read more History of a Green Thumb blog posts on Greener on the Inside, click here!
Have you seen any of Fletcher Steele’s landscape design work? Share your stories below in the comments.