A Lush Career - Wolfgang Oehme Shifts His Big Ideas to a Smaller Landscape

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 9, 2009

On a quiet street in the Murray Hill section of suburban Baltimore, Pauline Vollmer looks out from her sunroom onto a garden of cascading terraces, large and unusual shrubs and massed perennials.

The former lawn and rose garden are just a distant memory for Vollmer, 92, who 4 1/2 decades ago asked Wolfgang Oehme to rework both the front and rear gardens of her white brick house. Oehme was then a recent emigre from Germany, working as a designer for Baltimore County, but this commission allowed him to install a residential garden based on ideas he had cultivated as a student in Berlin.

His notions were radical in an American suburban landscape that knew only grass and foundation shrubbery. Oehme (pronounced UR-ma) instead layered the outdoor spaces with specimen shrubs, massed perennials and ornamental grasses, turning the idea of a garden on its head. As a predominantly herbaceous garden, it grew lusher by the month, bloomed defiantly in the heat of summer and became a tapestry of colors and textures in the fall and beyond.

"There's something to look at every day, even in the winter," said Vollmer, whose genteel property thus became the launching pad for a revolution in garden design in the United States.

Oehme, who will be 80 next month, was exploring the garden last week with as much enthusiasm and sense of ownership as when he designed it, though life has changed recently for him. He has sold his interest in Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, the firm he created with James van Sweden in 1975, and has started a smaller company working in Baltimore and its suburbs, where he lives.

The partnership became one of the most successful in the annals of garden design. Van Sweden once wrote that when he walked through the Vollmers' gate for the first time, "I knew right then that Wolfgang Oehme was somebody to grapple with, to be involved with."

In the early 1970s, they worked on van Sweden's townhouse garden in Georgetown, which became a showroom for a style they called the New American Garden. They turned a mom-and-pop design and garden-installation practice into one of the most prominent landscape architecture firms in the nation. By the 1980s, Oehme and van Sweden (OVS in design circles) became synonymous with a naturalistic planting style. As the firm on Capitol Hill grew, OVS designed gardens for major botanical institutions and parks, as well as for residences of the rich and famous, including Oprah Winfrey.

The photogenic quality of their landscapes coupled with van Sweden's business savvy got their work noticed in shelter magazines around the globe. The exposure, in turn, introduced to gardeners such signal plants as ornamental grasses and perennials like Russian sage, black-eyed Susans and liatris.

Oehme and van Sweden planted them not in threes or fives, but by the hundreds, sometimes thousands. "You're taking plants that have been used in a very feminine way, and you give them this hulking masculinity because of the scale and size of these large plantings," said Charles Birnbaum, president of the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Birnbaum said the firm's influence has also been spread by van Sweden's writings. He is now at work on a fifth book on landscape architecture. "I don't know of another firm that's practiced during this time that's done more to articulate its design intent and ideas," Birnbaum said.

"It's been an interesting ride," said van Sweden, 74, "and we have had a lot of fun."

Van Sweden, who in recent years has been using a wheelchair, works part time at the company and said he plans to retire in three or four years. The baton is passing to three principals. One of them, Eric Groft, said Oehme is still working with him regularly as a consultant on planting plans. "He and Jim set the philosophy, and it's my mission to carry that philosophy forward," Groft said. "I don't see any major shifts in the way our gardens look."

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