If you follow us on Instagram or visit our Friends of the Kuotes section of the blog, you’ll come to realize that we live (and write) to celebrate the talented people who bring joy to our lives through design. That’s why we were very excited when our own Kathy Kuo sat down with her good friend Aaron McIntire to discuss this spring’s latest outdoor trends along with Aaron’s success at Gunn Landscape Architecture.
Gunn Landscape Architecture is a leading landscape architecture practice based in New York City and the Hamptons, and the photos you’re about to see in this blog post demonstrate their extensive portfolio of high-end projects. Kathy first met Aaron McIntire at RISD, where they both attended design school and actually lived in the same college house. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Aaron entered the office carrying his adorable French Bulldog Harry, a beautiful potted orchid, and a handsome smile. Here’s how the conversation went, just two good friends (and experts in the field) discussing their favorite outdoor plants, this season’s rooftop garden trends, and Aaron’s (mild?) obsession with Martha Stewart.
Learn About Gunn Landscape Architecture
Kathy (K): So, tell us a little bit more about Gunn.
Aaron (A): Alec Gunn is the founder, and he created it in 2000. It started as a very small team. There were three of us, and then we hired a fourth person, and then many more people years later, and it just built and built. And now my boss Alec has three companies: Gunn Landscape Architecture; Vert Gardens based in Brooklyn, but they build projects here in the city; and Loam Landscapes, which is pretty new and is a landscape contracting company in the Hamptons. And now he just bought a nursery that’s Hamptons adjacent called Troy, named after his hometown in Maine.
K: So he’s full vertical then. He designs it, he contracts it, he owns the nursery…
A: Yes, and my role in all of this is as a designer, but I also do project management and oversee the constructions—right down to the placement of a tree and how it’s positioned in a space. I’m really excited about the nursery initiative because I get to plant my favorite trees and curate them over time.
Aaron McIntire & His Favorite Trees
K: What are some of your favorite trees?
A: Well, I love cercis canadensis alba [So you don’t have to stop to Google that, he’s talking about the Eastern Redbud]. The nice thing about the cercis canadensis alba is that around Mother’s Day it blooms: it produces these beautiful spring flowers, and then all of the sudden the flowers drop off and the leaves come out. The leaves are heart-shaped, about the size of the palm of your hand, and it’s a great tree for anyone’s garden. I like to use them on rooftops because they do well in the full sun. The multi-stem varieties, or the low branching varieties, are the most interesting because you have sculptural branches instead of just a skinny stick, so in the winter when there are no leaves on the tree, when it’s under-lit they still look kind of cool and sculptural.
K: So what are some others? Could you give us your top five blooming trees?
A: There’s this thing I do on roofs. I call it, “the mixed hedge.”
K: What is that?
A: Well, it’s a mix of my favorites. Like the Pinus thunbergii, which is the Japanese Black Pine Thunderhead…
K: OMG, how do you know all of this?
A: Well you know, when you were taking various ID [industrial design] shop classes with metal working… I was in “plant class.”
A: So it’s the Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine mixed with something called Ilex, which is an evergreen, oblong rounded plant. It’s a member of the holly family, but not like the Christmas leaf holly that may come to mind. And then I like to insert hydrangea. White, flowering Hydrangea paniculata.
K: So no color?
A: No, but I do like firecracker. It’s a hydrangea variation that has a pinkish tinge to it, so it looks pretty interesting. And then this year, I’ve added something called Smokebush, which is a beautiful flowering plant. With the mixed hedge, the idea is to create depth and texture. We typically create these to screen neighbors or unwanted views. That type of thing.
City Projects, The Hamptons & Martha Stewart
K: Could you talk a little bit more about designing for city rooftops and terraces versus designing for, say, Connecticut or the Hamptons?
A: Well the Eastern Redbuds I mentioned are great on a roof terrace, because typically what I put on all of my roof terraces are trees and these cube planter boxes that hold soil that are roughly 30x30x30 inch cubes. In New York City, I have all of these projects on Park Avenue, and these roof terraces are so narrow, almost like corridors, so sometimes I also like to play with the proportions and uses boxes that are 24X24x36 inches to make everything seem taller. Because then I can use them to define space and create rooms against a parapet wall.
K: What’s a parapet wall?
A: It’s the extension of the wall at the edge of the roof. It’s the railing really. So what I do is I take these trees and place the planters to create a defined space, like a little room where a dining table can go. Another tree I like to use on rooftops is the crape myrtle. It grows into a big umbrella with little flowers. From far away, it almost looks like a hydrangea, but it’s a bit finer and has more detail. They do especially well because they can withstand heat during the summer.
K: You mentioned before that you light all of your terraces. What do you use to underlight your plants?
A: Stake mounted uplights from the company Vista Pro Landscape Lighting, or there’s another source we like called B-K Lighting.
K: And this might be a silly question, but… how do you power it all?
A: Plug it in? [laughs] No, you do need accessible power for these projects, and we do these drawings that are very schematic and diagrammatic, and we have an electrician come in and look at it all.
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K: Any other plants you like to work with?
A: Oh, definitely. I mean, I really like boxwoods. I’m really into the planting scheme where you plant them and create these cloud-like formations. There’s a pretty well-known landscape gardener, Jacques Wirtz, who is Belgian. He became famous for creating these cloud-like plantings. He does this thing with boxwoods, and now we do it too, where you have these egg-shaped boxwoods at different heights. Some are sort of oblong and some are more round, and you group them in the landscape and they create these little cloud-like masses.
K: Sounds very whimsical.
A: It is, and actually Martha Stewart just did it in her place in Bedford and created this massive alley of them that leads to her barn, and they’re incredibly beautiful.
K: [laughs] Why am I not surprised that you know that? [Fun fact: Aaron McIntire has an affinity for everything Martha Stewart].
A: Martha, by the way, painted the trim of her house in the Hamptons, and to me that was exciting. It used to be this pale blue-green color, and she painted it this taupe color now. She dug up her whole entire garden and sent all of her rose bushes, which were twenty years old, to Bedford. And then she redid the gardens in the Hamptons to be open lawns and perennials. But anyway… what were we talking about?
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K: Plants you like using lately.
A: Well one more I should mention is the willow. I like to plant willow as what we call a willow structure, and I’ve been doing a lot of these lately. I actually just made a pipe cleaner model today. Basically what happens is the willow branches get planted and they’re bare, and we plant them in these planter boxes from Pennoyer Newman. They’re cast in resin and marble dust and modeled after these King Henry VIII originals, so they have this old iron, old lead look. They use this material to make for me these modern looking cubes. And then I have someone build an armature, and then over time the willow starts sprouting and growing, and you train it and you trim it, and it eventually becomes this beautiful pergola and you get this gorgeous canopy.
K: It sounds like it takes a while to grow. Are you part of the aftercare for your projects?
A: I am. I like to see that everything’s being done the way I want it to so it looks right. Sometimes I have to use a piece of bamboo just to guide some of the willow. And over time you take the bamboo away. You know, you can also make willow hedges, or these willow fences. And we’ve done these on roofs too actually.
K: Is it harder to do city terraces than it is to do large landscapes in the Hamptons, for example?
A: The difference is that in New York City, when you do a roof garden and once the client approves the design, you then have to submit it to the building management… and then the Department of Buildings if you’re building any type of rooftop structures… and then sometimes it goes to Landmarks. Basically there can be a lot of roadblocks. You have to worry about things like wind and height. You don’t want to be able to see the rooftop garden from the street. You want furniture that’s heavy enough so it won’t fly away, and you want planters that are heavy enough so they don’t fly away… but not too heavy that they impose a point load on the roof structure that is not good for the building. So doing rooftop gardens in New York City is really a bit like a jigsaw puzzle because you have all of these elements. You have flooring, you have furniture, you have planters—and everything has to fit together seamlessly. All the while, it has to frame your client’s view nicely and fit in a specific space.
“Doing rooftop gardens in New York City is really a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.”
K: So what about outside of New York City, like if you’re in the Hamptons?
A: Out there it’s a little bit easier. So if you’re on like Meadow Lane and Southampton—you know Calvin Klein, that house from that show Billions, etc.—it’s just these massive houses built into the sand dunes and there’s water on both sides. So if we do any kind of work out there, you have to deal with all of the coastal erosion and setbacks due to all of the damage from the hurricanes and stuff. And you have to build these substructures that can receive water, and it’s very weird and complicated. But if you live a little more inland, it’s easier. Again, you have to get town permission. Like in Bedford, you can’t cut down a tree without town permission. But overall it’s much easier because you don’t have to deal with weight or wind.
Outdoor Furniture and Spring Trends
K: So everyone is talking about spring and summer. Any ideas or trends?
A: For spring, I go with Fritillaria maleagris.
K: Um, what?
A: Fritillaria maleagris.
K: Do you know the common name for it?
A: Um…no. [We actually did some research, and it has multiple common names, including Snake’s Head, Lazarus bell, and drooping tulip.]
K: How do you only know the latin name for plants?
A: Well, you’ve always called me a plant snob.
K: [laughs] I did! In school, you used to assign all of your friends plant names. Like you’d call me a ranunculus…
A: Well anyway… they’re one of my favorites. They have a very unconventional bulb to plant in the fall, however it blooms in the spring.
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K: What about for our West Coast customer? Do the same kind of plants work there?
A: For the most part, but the one thing you have to understand when doing landscape design in the LA/Malibu area is that there are a lot of rules because of fire. So we’re only allowed to plant certain plants because of fire and drought conditions. [For more information, you can read this article from the L.A. Times]
Upper West Side terrace by Gunn Landscape Architecture
K: So what materials do you like to use for outdoors?
A: So for the longest time we liked to use Ipe, or Brazilian walnut. And everybody loves it because it’s sustainable. But here’s the tricky thing about sustainability. Ipe lasts forever. It will literally last forever, and if you allow it to weather gray, it’s just this beautiful, beautiful color. It’s great because you can make planters out of it, you can build pergolas out of it, and it doesn’t ever bend or warp or rot because it’s so resistant. But, in order to get to it, sometimes they’re acres into the rainforest, and you have to chop down everything to get to them and harvest these trees. So we’ve cut back a little on using it when we can because it’s not great for the rainforest.
K: What can you use instead?
A: Now, what’s an exciting alternative is a brand of wood call Thermory. And Thermory is an ash, and ash grows in lots of places—like Idaho, for example—where it grows almost like a weed. You take the ash and put it in a kiln, and it takes all of the moisture out, and you get this beautiful product that is actually half the weight of Ipe. And it’s this chocolatey brown color, and you can oil it to preserve the color or you can weather it, like I like to do, and it’s beautiful with a patina. It’s this silvery-gray wood grain. But it’s not as sturdy as the Ipe. It can crack if you’re not careful.
A: There’s another type of wood called Kebony. And Kebony is actually the opposite process of Thermory. Thermory you put everything into a kiln to dry it out. With Kebony, you’re basically getting the wood drunk.
Aaron and Kathy pause for a moment to take a sip of wine from the bottle of red they’re sharing.
A: Yeah, so they inject it, they call this impregnation, with a furfuryl alcohol produced from a bio-based liquid. And basically, that makes the wood rot-resistant. We haven’t used it yet, but we look forward to it in future projects. The problem is that Ipe is great, and a lot of clients want Ipe, but because it does take from the rainforest we’re always looking for and encouraging technology that provides sustainable alternatives.
K: So what about for furniture?
A: Well, for furniture I like to use the Thermory or the Ipe as well. I also like teak. I’ve used teak club chairs in the past to face a custom banquette I did. It can be a bit expensive to do for large decks, but it’s really nice for furniture. I actually have a lot of furniture custom made too, partly because the space demands it, but also because custom makes are a lot of fun. And reclaimed wood is a more affordable option if you have a strict budget.
K: What fabrics do you use?
A: I like Perennials. I use Perennials a lot. And Sunbrella, of course. Sunbrella is pretty much everywhere now. [Did you know, you can upholster custom KKH items in Perennials or Sunbrella fabrics?] I like doing fun things too, like I worked with a friend of mine Wesley Moon, and he did this crazy thing with toile. And these are zinc planters I did custom for him. [See below]. I actually had to spray patina on them and sand them down myself.
K: What do you do for outdoor projects when it rains?
A: [laughs] You just…go inside. Actually, funny enough a lot of our clients who have roof gardens want their pergolas to be watertight. There’s a company called Remsen, and they make these pergolas with louvers that make them pretty weatherproof, and a lot of clients request that. There’s a trend where clients want TVs outside… which I find kind of… I’m not a personal fan of it, but it’s something we’ve been seeing that people really want.
K: I do agree with the whole TV thing, but out in say… California or Texas, it does make sense because the weather is different, and it’s very indoor/outdoor living where people spend a lot of times outdoors in covered areas.
A: Right, and there it makes sense because you could have almost a loggia or a roofed garden… You know the movie A Room With a View? Helena Bonham Carter, 1980s… Daniel Day Lewis is reading under a loggia and he pronounces it LAW-JEE-UH… but everyone else pronounces it LOH-JAH. [Final verdict: loh-jah or loh-jee-uh are both acceptable, but Daniel Day Lewis may have been over-pronouncing].
A (cont.): Anyway, out in Texas a lot of people have them by pool houses, and so you can have the outdoor TV and fireplace and hang out. And the weather is a bit different, the heat is drier so it’s not as bad, but in New York, I don’t quite get the trend. I don’t know who’s sitting outside in the sun on their rooftop in the New York City heat watching the game, but… I guess someone is. I mean another thing to note is that New York clients tend to use their rooftops in the shoulder seasons [meaning fall and spring], so I guess that’s when they’d be watching television outside.
K: What about for winter?
A: A trend now is that for the winter people want outdoor heaters… but the problem is they’re really not such a great idea. They can be dangerous and are typically against code. Sometimes it can work. Like a lot of people want fire pits now in New York, and there are a lot of weird rules and loopholes, so it can be difficult. But it’s definitely a growing trend for clients to want to push beyond the normal seasonality for rooftops and make their space more four-season.
Aaron’s Dream Projects
K: [laughs] Of course. Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on?
A: I mean, the funny thing is I’ve done a lot of dream projects already. I have a client who wants a water wall, and I came up with this idea he loves, and it’s now at the point where we have to see whether or not his building will let us build it, which is a common issue for doing rooftops in the city. But for me, doing a water wall is a dream project.
K: What’s a water wall?
A: It’s a wall with water falling down. [laughs] The famous one is in Paley Park on 53rd between Fifth and Madison. It’s the classic canon water wall by which all other water walls are judged. So the one I’m doing is this textured stone from Stone Source, and this client is on Park Avenue and he has very high parapet walls with a great section that’s kind of a focal point. So I’m making him a water wall that’s stepped and done in a chiseled finished, so it almost looks like corduroy pants. And I made a soffit made of stone, which I’m going to plant succulents, trailing succulents, and then the water will come down from behind that soffit, and it’ll hopefully look very beautiful.
A: The tricky thing is you really can’t have a ton of water because it just gets too heavy for a rooftop. So you have to trick the eye. You have to think: how do I agitate the water enough so that it looks like falling water from far away, and that’s typically why there’ll be steps in a water wall, so the water breaks and is more visible to the eye. Anyway, that is a dream project for me because, I don’t know if you remember, but back at school I was obsessed with Paley Park.
K: So do you have any tips on how to talk to client? Like things to say or things to not say that you’ve learned in your experience?
A: Yeah, someone should write a book on that. But really what I think it comes down to is listening. Active listening . And making them feel like they’re heard. And then taking what they say and giving it back to them… but just make it look amazing. Just make sure you’re giving them what they want, how they envision the space. Your job isn’t really to envision the space for them as much as it is to bring their vision to life in a beautiful way. I think that’s a skill I really developed. I’m able to listen to people, and then when I show them something and they love it, I assume that’s because I heard them in the right way. A lot of it is just instinct.
K: What would be your dream project for the future? Something you haven’t done yet.
A: My house upstate. I would love to wrap the whole thing in hornbeam hedges. And there’s this thing they’re doing in England where you plant hedges around a property and do this thing called “laying hedges.” It’s very European. I don’t know one place in America where they do this. Prince Charles does this, you can watch a video of him doing it on YouTube, and basically you take a knife and hack into the plant, and then you lay the hedges sideways and they end up becoming more dense, and then animals can’t get through, like sheep and stuff. They hack through them, they heal over, and then they grow thicker and thicker over time. It’s a very old and almost fairytale-like concept. But if the Prince of Wales is doing it, it has to be good enough for my home, right?