Over the past 25 years, Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden have stealthily revolutionized the American landscape. “It’s a new way of looking at the garden,” says van Sweden of their naturalistic approach of using mass plantings. “We plant 300 or 3,000 herbaceous perennials and create the effect of meadows with big sweeping vistas.” And even though Washington, D.C.–based Oehme, van Sweden & Associates does not limit itself to indigenous plants, the company has been at the forefront of the trend toward ornamental grasses.
Since 1977, the partners have put their backgrounds in horticulture and landscape architecture (Oehme) and architecture and city planning (van Sweden) to use on a mix of small- and large-scale projects. Their public commissions include the gardens at the Federal Reserve building and Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Red Butte Arboretum in Salt Lake City. “If the clients are smart, they will bring us in before the architect,” says van Sweden. “We like to design from the windowsill out—the main driveway, the service entrance, the pathways, the walls, the pool, even the lighting. We want to do it all.”
The scale of the projects may vary, but each has some common denominators: Every project is low maintenance, uses no chemicals, requires only minimal watering, and ac-knowledges the passage of seasons. The firm has done more than 100 gardens in Georgetown alone, and in the process it is changing the way people think of winter gardens. “We are getting them away from the evergreen plastic cemetery look and toward a dry bouquet,” van Sweden says. “A winter garden is not a dead garden. It’s a dried garden full of beautiful colors and sculptural forms. It will come back.”
Oehme is a native of Germany. Van Sweden grew up in the Midwest, then studied in Holland, and has traveled extensively in Japan. Their work is a synthesis of Dutch and Japanese design, with a nod to the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright and the lushness of Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.
In between overseeing the Washington office and watching over some 65 projects simultaneously—current jobs range from handbag designer Judith Leiber’s penthouse in New York to an 85-acre estate in Maryland to a Low Country retreat in South Carolina—van Sweden finds time to write books. His fourth tome, Architecture in the Garden (Random House), has just been published. In van Sweden’s opinion, the books are as important as his firm’s landscapes. “Gardens are ephemeral,” he says. “The books are our legacy. They will live on long after our gardens are gone.”
Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, 202.546.7575, www.ovsla.com