James van Sweden, landscape architect and esteemed plantsman has died aged 78. His distinctive, naturalistic style redefined the American garden.
Through his long “partnership of genius” from 1975 with fellow landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme (who died in 2011) in Oehme van Sweden, their ‘New American Garden’ style, filled with naturalistic swathes of grasses and tapestries of colourful perennials, brought a new relaxed aesthetic to garden design, which had been dominated by rigid hedging, annuals and pristine green lawns.
Van Sweden was also a talented and prolific communicator, using books and public lectures to deliver his vision of sustainable landscapes built on seasonal change and bold sweeps of meadow-style planting featuring contrasts of colour, texture and form, which were adapted to American native soils and low, or no irrigation maintenance.
Apart from many residential commissions, Oehme and van Sweden’s style also transformed large parts of the Chicago Botanic Gardens, where many have enjoyed the glowing perennials, late-season grasses and soft, flowing plantings, as well as public parks from Boston’s North Point Park to Forest Park, St Louis.
To learn more about Jim van Sweden’s life and career, early influences like Karl Foerster and Burle Marx, and his passion for the ‘New American Garden’, here’s a fabulous oral history recorded in 2009 by the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
James van Sweden died from complications associated with Parkinson’s disease. The firm Oehme van Sweden continues his and Oehme’s work. His books, Bold Romantic Gardens (1990, co-authored with Oehme), Gardening with Water (1995), Gardening with Nature (1997), Architecture in the Garden (2003) and The Artful Garden (2011) continue to inspire all who love plants, from home gardeners to landscape architects.
[Many thanks to Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architecture for permission to reproduce photos from ovsla.com]