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Fletcher Steele Role in Modern Day Garden Design Essay

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Updated: Apr 1st, 2020


The influence of Fletcher Steele on modern day garden design lies in his experimentalism and willingness to think outside of the thought processes that originally dictated what a garden should look like. In essence, he can be described as a transitional influence between traditional garden design and its modern day equivalent. What marks Steele as unique is that he was not afraid when it came to incorporating what is known as “modern art” into the overall shape of the garden design he was creating.

This resulted in a considerable level of creativity which manifested into one of the main influences that Steele has had on modern day garden design, namely the incorporation of concrete into developing the lines, shapes and contours of the garden. The end result is that the works of Steele seemingly ebb and flow with a distinct contrast between the natural (i.e. plants) and the unnatural (i.e. concrete structures) which, while being distinct in their own right, still seemed to “fit” or “looked right” for lack of a better term (Robinson and Falb 21).

It is based on this that it can be stated that Steele helped to shape the “Modernist” design that helped to define future artists that utilized the same medium by showing how modern art styles can be incorporated into garden design. From the perspective of Steele, artists should not be afraid to incorporate more creativity when it came to the design process for gardens and, as such, should seek to utilize new mediums, different approaches and create their own distinct styles that help to reflect what they perceive a garden should look like (Robinson and Falb 21).

Basically, Steele was a proponent against the generic “cookie cutter” garden designs that were prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s and instead focused his efforts into developing a new interpretation that combined both the aesthetic appeal of European garden design with the new way of thinking that modern art encompassed. The end result was a legacy that helped to define garden design for decades resulting in constant emulation of the design processes that Steele had originally pioneered.


Born on June 7, 1885, Fletcher Steele is a well known landscape artist with well over 700 gardens credited to his name. His designs elements and willingness to experiment were considered as turning points in modern day landscape design.

Early Influences

Early on in his career, Steele made a trip to Europe for several months in order to examine the landscape designs of the various estates that were located there. The end result was that he became heavily influenced by Italian and not English landscapers resulting in the eschewing of broad expanses that were common in English gardens and instead focused on developing more “encapsulated” experiences so to speak (Jones 40).

This involved the creation of complex hedges, specific areas where interesting design features can be seen and the use of more flowing lines rather than rectangular or square shaped design features. It was his visit to the works of Tony Garnier and Gabriel Guevrekian that truly impacted his style from that point forward since he began to increasingly incorporate modern art principles into his design elements for landscaping resulting in the creation of the distinct and modern style that he is known for today.

Distinct Style

One of the more interesting aspects of Steele’s distinct style was his focus on creating a certain level of “proportion” when it came to the garden he was designing. What this means was that he ardently incorporated geometry into his design process resulting in a distinct “flow” wherein hard geometric lines encompassed smooth curved lines and vice versa. He had a great deal of interest in modern cubism, especially when it came to the work of Tony Garnier and Gabriel Guevrekian.

While Steele was not the first to utilize concrete as an aspect of garden design, he was one of the main proponents to utilize it as an essential tool in creating layouts resulting in what can be defined as a form of “Art Deco”.

It is based on this interpretation that it can be stated that Steele was one of main influences behind the “modernist” movement in modern garden design wherein through his influences on students such as Rose, Kiley and Eckbo, a greater level of influence was placed on the potential of incorporating modern art with the design process of a garden.

Simply put, Steele was an “experimenter” that enjoyed testing the limits of what could be done in the design process. This can be stated as the secret behind his success since during the decades in which he was active, there were few, if any, garden designers that pushed the “envelope of creativity” so to speak as Steele had done.

It is important to note that while Steele has been heavily influenced by the various types of Renaissance designs that he had seen during his trips to Europe, the fact remains that one of the distinctive hallmarks of his work was the use of modern concerns regarding the value of space in garden design. What must be understood is that one of the main hindrances in modern day garden design as compared to its European counterpart is the issue of space.

European gardens are distinct in their incorporation of wide open spaces, intricate planting designs and the distinct feel of “openness” that helped to accentuate the various estates that these gardens were present in. Unfortunately, American estates did not have the same size as their European counterparts and, as such, attempting to incorporate the same design features resulted in a “squashed” look that lacked the essence of openness and grandeur that European gardens had.

It was based on this that a different sense of aesthetics was necessary wherein designers needed to take into consideration the differences in size and the need to maximize the amount of space that they were given (Coffin-Brown 9). This is where Steele’s focus on creativity and modernism came into play wherein through the use of intricate designs over the use of wide open spaces, Steele was able to create a design style that sufficiently respected the value of space while at the same time utilizing some of the aesthetic sensibilities inherent in European garden design.

The end result was aesthetically pleasing since the intricate designs were eye catching without too much wasted space. Examples of this came in the form of square lawns with curving paths, the use of balustrades, water steps and hedges as well as various intricate shapes cut into the land via concrete walkways, small trees and concrete structures such as small steps, geometric shapes and circular archways (Coffin-Brown 9).


It is should be noted though that when it came to his original design philosophies, Steele did not immediately focus on the abstract and the modern. Instead, his earlier works were actually largely referential and derivative and focused on emulating established practices in the field of landscape architecture.

This is particularly important for students of landscape design to focus on since it shows that the capacity to become a good landscaper is not an immediate one. Just as Fletcher Steele had initially focused on derivative and referential work, so to do modern day landscapers follow the same principles as they learn and develop.

It is once they develop the necessary aesthetic sensibilities and properly internalize the “rules” of proper landscape design that they begin to branch out and become more creative in the types of designs they use and the general theme of their work. Fletcher Steele can be considered as an inspiration and great influence to modern day landscape designers not only because of the revolutionary designs that he developed, rather, it is because he focused on the concept of thinking outside the box when it came to developing his own distinctive style.

He examined different landscape designs ranging from European aesthetics to Asian appeals, and attempted to mix and match these aspects until he got the “look” he was going for. It is this aspect that is necessary for modern day landscapers since to focus on doing the same generic work over and over again is simply a waste of the vast canvas that a landscape gives to them that enables their imaginations to come alive and be presented for the entire world to see.

Works Cited

Coffin-Brown, Margie. “Preserving Fletcher Steele’s Legacy At Rolling Ridge.” Perspectives In Landscape Design 23.1 (2009): 9. Print

Jones, Gladys Montgomery. “Mission House: A Doorway To History.” Early American Life 32.4 (2001): 40. Print

Robinson, Joan, and Karen Forslund Falb. “A Contemplative Garden By Fletcher Steele.” Perspectives In Landscape Design 22.2 (2007): 21-24. Print

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