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200406DT0By David Tisherman

Some people seem to believe that designing is all about reinventing the wheel every time they go to work on a new project or need to create a new detail of some kind.

Truth is, however, that most great design ideas and details are derivative of things that have been done before.  This is why I’m such a strong advocate for education – especially the sort that involves venturing out into the world and seeing things with your own eyes.

You can see pictures of things in books and watch slide shows in classrooms, and that’s extremely valuable for the way it opens your eyes to the world of ideas, but as I see it, there’s no substitute for walking up to something, looking at it from every available angle, getting some sense of what’s involved in making it come together and converting what you see into something you can do back home.

And I’m not talking about a trip to Las Vegas.  I don’t see anything wrong with gambling, drinking and staying up late, but I get a much greater thrill out of going places I haven’t seen before, waking up with a clear head (most of the time, anyway) and striking out to peruse a world that’s waiting to be seen.

GREAT GRATES

I’ve discussed all this travel stuff before in these columns, and I’m bringing it up again not because I want to demonstrate my credentials as a world traveler, but because just about every trip I’ve ever taken as an adult – to Turkey, China, New Zealand, Canada and Japan, to name a few – has fueled my creative fires with inspiration and very specific ideas I’ve used in my own work.

There’s something satisfying about seeing the work of craftspeople of ages gone by and looking at their work with an active appreciation for how their ideas can be used, refined, combined and re-appropriated in the here and now to create new works of art and beauty.

1A

Drain grates needn’t be elaborate or visually intrusive to get the job done, as is demonstrated by the slots and holes in the thoughtfully designed swales of the Boboli Gardens in Florence.

This is why Frank Lloyd Wright spent time in Japan.  This is why the artists of the Renaissance spent time studying Greek and Roman and Moorish sites scattered all around the Mediterranean Sea.  Travel is indeed broadening.  Fun, too.

In my own case, I give travel credit for inspiring a detail I’ve written about a lot in the past few years – that is, my treatment of drain grates – and most recently in the May 2004 issue of WaterShapes.

1BOne of the reasons I keep coming back to this particular detail is that I’ve long been appalled by the effect a white PVC grates or drain covers or skimmer lids can have on the way a watershape looks.  When they appear right, smack in the middle of a beautiful deck, they stick out like proverbial sore thumbs and in many cases turn a distressing shade of yellow over time.  

What’s worse is that a great many of these grates become brittle with age and have a nasty tendency to split when stepped on in the wrong way.  That’s a safety hazard, of course, but it’s also a startling way to ruin a well-dressed woman’s good time:  Just watch what happens when she snaps the heel off an expensive pair of shoes at a poolside party by stepping on an old plastic grate.

I know that these ideas about quality grate and cover treatments has resonated with some of you because of the many comments I’ve received about columns I’ve written about the lengths I go to in hiding grates in stone decks or on tile lines.  Despite my ego (another thing people occasionally write me about), I cannot take credit for developing the creative grate treatments I put on display:  The true innovators are spread across the ages and across the globe.

I came to these simple yet important ideas by seeing, up close with my own eyes, how great designers and artisans of the past treated their grates and drain covers.  I’ve retooled those ideas in accordance with available materials and modern technologies, but the basic concepts I apply are certainly not original.  

VIEWING THE CLASSICS

Here’s a case in point.  I recently traveled to Italy with a small group of friends from the watershaping trades:  Paul and Donna Benedetti, Kevin and Candy Ruddy and my fiancée, Lisa.  One of our destinations was Florence, where we had an exquisite time wandering the streets, gardens, cafes and galleries of this amazing bastion of architectural beauty and grandeur.  Along the way, we also saw a variety of beautiful stone and concrete grates that have withstood the tests of time.

2A

Drain details can be wonderfully decorative as well as purely functional, as is seen with the raised cowlings of these grates found in the Boboli Gardens.

Some of the finer examples I came across were in the famous Boboli Gardens.  Situated, appropriately, on Boboli Hill, the sprawling space was purchased in 1550 by the Medici family, which immediately retained architect Niccolo Pericoli to create a masterwork of Renaissance landscaping and architecture.

2BIt’s a dazzling place, loaded with beautiful sculptures, wonderful ponds and fountains and organized on a tight axial plan.  It’s one of those many places around the world where you could literally spend days taking in all there is to see.

Entering the site, you’re greeted by a series of swales that are part of the complex drainage system for the hillside property.  If you look closely, you’ll spot small slits and holes in the granite material from which the swales were fabricated – subtle and virtually invisible.  They still work after centuries of use and, best of all, don’t do anything to disrupt the shapeliness of the swales.   

I saw another drain treatment in the Boboli Gardens that was similarly beautiful.  In this case, conical openings had been recessed into the curbs, protruding slightly in a way that reminded me a bit of the band shell at the Hollywood Bowl.  My guess is that these details serve primarily to shield the drains from debris from the garden’s lush greenery.  Again, it is functionality coupled with a wonderfully subtle yet elegant decorative treatment:  Rather than disrupt the visuals of the hardscape, these drains actually accentuate the beauty.

I’d imagine that most people who visit these gardens never pay much attention to the drainage grates – and to a large extent, that’s the point:  You don’t notice them because they blend so seamlessly and consistently with all of the other ornamentation you see everywhere you look.

COMMON BEAUTY

The Florentines were not the only ones who seemed capable of observing this basic aesthetic principle about serving functionality in decorative ways.  

Halfway around the world, Asian cultures were working in their own way to achieve what I consider to be brilliant and highly decorative grate treatments.  In the gardens of Osaka, for example, I was blown away by a very simple (but beautiful) grating that was little more than several small, narrow lengths of bamboo woven together with rope.  

Almost unnoticeable amid the manicured landscaping, such details carry all the warmth of the natural materials and signal the creativity and craftsmanship that went into their fabrication.  And again, such details add to the beauty of a scene without taking center stage and screaming for attention.

3

This simple bamboo grating lends a brilliant touch to its Osaka garden – the perfect blend of warm natural materials and exquisite craftsmanship.

I don’t want you to get the idea that I roam the world looking at wastewater management:  Far from it.  In fact, the artistry you can absorb while traveling runs all the way from the simplest details on up to truly Big Ideas.

Not long ago, for example, I took a canal trip through southern France, again with industry friends – this time Randy and Martha Beard along with Lisa.  There was so much to see in the beautiful towns and villages and radiant countryside that it almost defies description.  But one feature I noticed over and over again was the bold, even stunning use of colored plaster.  In many cases, the plaster was aged and cracked, randomly exposing the stonework underneath it amid cascading vines and explosions of flowers.  

Some of these scenes were so beautiful they made my eyes water.

What really hit me, however, was the use of strong, vibrant color:  beautiful greens, purples and reds on their own or in combinations that most of us here in the United States would never think to use.  Seeing this made me feel even prouder of the notorious “red pool.”  It also encouraged me, in remodeling my own house, to use a warm red plaster for the exterior and to think in bold terms about the way I’ll be using colors in the future.

I was also more than impressed by the wooden structures that surrounded the cottages.  These overhangs of every description dotted the countryside and were usually covered by free-growing vines and surrounded by wild grasses in ways that added touches of romance to their settings in most unexpected ways.   
It may be easily affordable to go to Las Vegas, take in a show, quaff cheap cocktails and leave hard-earned cash at the tables.  But for me, the richness of experience and inspiration that is gained from leaving the familiar behind is what living – and design inspiration – is really all about.

 

David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.

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