Garden Designers Roundtable: Focal Points

by Andrew Keys on April 27, 2010

Traditional Focal Point

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re at least a little familiar with the traditional concept of the focal point, as in the photo at left*. Yes? So I’m not going to talk about the principles behind the traditional focal point today. I’m feeling like thinking outside the box. Here are my outside-the-box thoughts. *All photos clickable.

First rule of focal points: don’t fight the site. Too often I think we think of focal points as crafted by us, but a focal point is simply meant to draw the eye — maybe yours is the view you see there in front of you, or the white space surrounding what’s in front of you. OK, so your existing focal point probably isn’t the Palisades at Wave Hill (below), but consider this: every frame of vision is, technically, a view. Whether your view is a vista is beside the point. If the view draws attention and it’s naturally a window into a place you find visually interesting or mentally restful, it’s worth your consideration as a focal point, or considering added focal points simply augment it. The rest is window dressing.

Secondly, as designers of gardens, we design with living things. Our focal points are so easily made temporal. Plants are seasonal creatures, and sure, they may be focal points year-round, but I think layers of focal points that change through the seasons — even through the course of the day, as light changes –- is a much more sophisticated prospect than one static always-the-focal-point focal point. I live to to rearrange the furniture in my rooms every now and then. Plants constantly rearrange theirs! Consider your focal point might be different from month to month, and from minute to minute.

Third, because I crave this evolution in focal point in the garden, I’m wary of static attention-getters. It sucks to realize I’ve fallen out of love with a precious static object because I’m tired of its asking to be noticed all the livelong day. Man-made objects often contrast with plants in such a way I find them prone to flailing for attention in the garden, but we’re not just talking man-made objects — architectural plants can be attention hogs. Movement and reflectivity can be attention hogs. Strongly contrasting, visually active plant combos can be attention hogs. If placed without care, all may kindly, persistently, CONSTANTLY request consideration by you as focal points. When I go for a stroll in my garden, I’d rather not be constantly tapped on the shoulder (like my mom’s kindergarten students, “Miss Keys? Miss Keys? Miss Keys.”) by elements jockeying to be the focal point.

HAVING SAID ALL THAT, finally, here’s where I shall contradict myself. My all-time favorite static focal points in the garden (and in nature) are often unexpected, always contrastingly man-made, designed wholly to be attention hogs. I’m obsessed with signage. Not billboards, mind you, but kitschy technicolor signs, even road signs, in the garden and in otherwise scenic landscapes. (Which, BTW, COMPLETELY flies in the face of my desire to preserve natural landscapes. I know, I’m a conundrum.)

Have I figured out how to USE signage in my garden or clients’ gardens? Big, fat NO. I haven’t yet figured out how to do that without having them wear me out, as above. But maybe it’s time to jump in and see what happens? That usually how I learn best. So what do you think?

Check out my Garden Designers Roundtable compatriots posting on focal points this month!

Carolyn Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL »
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT »
Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA »
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK »
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ »
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA »
Susan Schlenger : Landscape Design Advice : Hampton, NJ »
Tara Dillard : TaraDillard.com : Atlanta, GA »

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