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In working to infuse his projects with sensitivity and passion, Salt Lake City-based landscape designer Rick Laughlin draws on a close observation of nature, a passion for the fine arts and the work of the masters of landscape architecture and watershaping. In addition, he says, his personal history fuels his work – an perspective he illustrates with a pair of projects that reflect his particular love of Japanese gardens.
In working to infuse his projects with sensitivity and passion, Salt Lake City-based landscape designer Rick Laughlin draws on a close observation of nature, a passion for the fine arts and the work of the masters of landscape architecture and watershaping.  In addition, he says, his personal history fuels his work – an perspective he illustrates with a pair of projects that reflect his particular love of Japanese gardens.
By Rick Laughlin

I’ve always believed that creativity is a direct result of our ability to embrace the ways we are influenced by others.

In my case, I grew up in Virginia in a family deeply involved in the art of landscaping.  My grandmother was a master gardener who had an amazing ability to craft beautiful outdoor spaces – a skill and affinity she passed down to my father, who shared it in turn with my mother.  In addition, I had an uncle who ran a spectacular nursery we’d visit several times each year.

It’s no exaggeration to say I grew up in the culture of the garden.  Even as a child, I remember taking great pride in the fact that our home had the most beautiful landscape in the neighborhood.  Throughout those years, I was constantly exposed to gardening on an extremely high, artistic level – and ever since, my love and appreciation of this part of my life has only grown stronger.

These days, I run my own landscape-design firm in Salt Lake City and am always trying to convey in my work the same level of passion and sensitivity as did my parents, my uncle and my grandmother.  They taught me that landscape design is an intensely personal (even intimate) act and that the only way to be truly successful in creating beautiful spaces is to put your entire heart and soul into every project.


The range of influences I bring to the process now reaches far beyond the fact that I was immersed in gardens and gardening as a child.  As is true of many others in this field, for example, I’ve been deeply influenced by countless hours and days spent out in the wild, observing how nature works.

This, too, began when, as a young boy, I visited the rural areas of North Carolina and Pennsylvania where my grandparents lived.  It continued when I moved west after graduating from Virginia Tech University with a degree in wildlife management, and I’ve since fallen completely in love with the natural beauty of the western United States and have hung around ever since.

It’s no overstatement to say that my experiences in nature have deeply influenced all aspects of my life, both professional and spiritual.  I’m constantly mindful of and humbled by the time I’ve spent in the presence of spectacular geological formations, deep forests, soaring mountain peaks and the panoply nature’s watershapes.   

I’ve also had numerous experiences with wild animals and at times have been faced with life-threatening situations in the company of bears and mountain lions.  Although such occasions are truly frightening, the level of respect I’ve developed for the majesty, diversity and sheer power of nature defies full description here.

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Among all the spaces that have inspired my design work, the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon (seen in these four images) is among the most significant:  It transported me to another time and place – and traces of it can clearly be seen in many of my projects, including the two highlighted on the following pages.

Along with the sheer joy that came (and still comes) from spending time in places such as the mountains of central Idaho or the vastly diverse ecosystems found in Utah, my experiences have also served me as a sort of perpetual classroom in which I’ve studied the intricacies of nature up close.  

The repetition of forms, the random deviations, the diversities of texture and color, the play of light, the effects of seismic activity and erosion – all of these are always in my mind both as I stride through forests and as I strive to replicate features of those natural settings in built environments.

During my years of studying nature, I’ve also developed a passion for photographing the landscape.  My goal is to capture not only the physical aspects of natural spaces as reminders of what I’ve seen, but also to take photos that capture the mood of a place.  That’s difficult to do.  At times, in fact, it’s an entirely elusive goal, but when it works, there’s nothing like the rush of taking a picture that forever illustrates the ephemeral essence of a natural landscape.

My life, in sum, has taught me that understanding nature requires sensitivity and openness.  As a result, I’ve become extremely methodical in the way I approach nature, accepting the fact that it sometimes generates emotions that can’t be captured, conveyed or reproduced – but that other times there are lessons to be learned and translated to my own projects as nature reveals itself for remarkably specific study.


Along a completely different vein, I’ve also been deeply involved in support of the performing arts in my area and have had the pleasure of seeing countless symphonies, ballets, plays and musical performances.  Along the way, I’ve met a number of famous performers, composers and writers.

These contacts and experiences have led me to see that all art is linked in one way or another and also triggered my sense that my own work falls under a much broader artistic umbrella.  Landscape design isn’t a performing art, obviously, but there are similarities in that I present distinct, creative ideas to an audience consisting of my clients.  Instead of leaving home and traveling to a venue, these clients experience my landscape – my art – as part of the fabric of their daily lives.  

This is why, at root, I view the work I do as such an intimate, personal undertaking.

Atop that, I recognize the influence of the designers whose work I’ve studied.  Thomas Church, James van Sweden, Anthony Archer Wills and various masters of Japanese gardening have all served as sources of infinite inspiration and specific design insight.  

I first met Archer Wills in 2001 at a conference staged by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers in Tucson, Ariz.  To that point, I lacked a certain sense of direction, but in listening to his awe-inspiring presentation, I decided then and there to move headlong and passionately into my career in landscape design.  He and several others I met at that meeting infused me with a burning desire to bring all of my life experiences to the process of working with landscapes and different forms of watershapes.


The project seen here was one of the first I tackled following my fateful 2001 trip to Tucson.  

b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL2_2A.jpgb_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL2_2B.jpgIn approaching the home’s front entrance, you move under a large, mahogany pergola that sets the stage for a garden experience that begins just around the corner in a space that links the front yard with the back.  From the entry landing, however, visitors only hear moving water and know there’s some sort of garden area nearby, but they can’t see it just yet:  To start their journey, they must follow a path that disappears around a mass of vegetation.

The gardens sweep around the house from there, carrying visitors along various pathways and through a series of distinct garden rooms that unfold like vignettes featuring stone, plant combinations and various sculptures.  The areas are linked aesthetically by variations in texture conveyed particularly by the plant material:  We used everything from groundcovers with extremely diminutive leaves to bolder plants such as iconic Japanese maples, and there are dozens of plant species on display, each one adding something to its particular setting.

b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL2_2C.jpgb_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL2_2D.jpgWater is the primary unifying element for the different garden rooms.  There are two streams, one about 100 feet and the other about 20 feet long, and both feed a small Koi pond.  The longer stream passes through a slight grade change and has a soothing, gentle flow.  The shorter one experiences a greater elevation change and features a number of small, gurgling cascades.  A small patio overlooks the pond and serves as point of origin for pathways that wind through the space.  If you take the path that follows the shorter stream, you eventually reach the pond – a wonderful, colorful discovery at journey’s end.  

The idea here was to create the impression that the streams had cut their way through the landscape.  By using a variety of plants and stones that interact with the stream, there’s a visual tension that enlivens the garden and creates a sense of endless variety, all of which essentially invites you to keep moving to discover even more.

Another key area is a small, intimate courtyard that’s surrounded on three sides by the house and large windows and doors that overlook the garden from the master bedroom.  The owner wanted an intimate retreat, and together we came up with a plan that uses a number of plants and various types of stone to create a dry streambed of the sort found in Japanese gardens.  The measure of her affection for this particular space is seen in the fact that she’s added several plants on her own along with some sculptures she’s found. 

Literally, it was as if everything I’d experienced to that point in my life fell into line:  I decided to raise my own bar and become as much an artist as I possibly could.

That experience in Tucson was also significant in prompting me to set aside the books I’d collected and get out on the road to experience the works of master practitioners in person.  One particular highlight was a trip to the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon.  As you’ve seen in the images that have accompanied the main text of this article, it’s a near-magical space:  Even though it covers only five-and-a-half acres or so, it’s a place that transports you to another world.

I carefully photographed much of the garden and have returned to those images countless times.

I love all forms of garden design, but Japanese gardens in particular keep inspiring me.  The lessons they offer with respect to the organization of space, the use of textures and forms, the borrowing of distant views and, of course, the artistic use of water simply cannot be matched.  If there’s one principle of Japanese gardening that I try to use in every project – in a Japanese style or not – it’s the one that sees me organizing spaces so that you don’t see them all at once and instead have your curiosity piqued and can develop a sense of an unfolding mystery.   


All of these experiences and influences have led me to a precise approach to design in which I break my considerations into three interrelated, yet distinct parts:  a sense of place, an appreciation of architecture and awareness of the unique characteristics of my clients.

On that scale, every single project is different:  All of those elements interact differently depending on the situation, and it always seems to work out because I never lose sight of the clients and their needs and desires as I move forward in formulating a given design.

Indeed, the clients are so important that I’ve developed a five-page list of questions I use in interviewing them.  These sheets provide me with a variety of cues I can use, from details of their travels and tastes in art to their childhood experiences and ideas about how they plan to use their gardens among much more.  These sheets tell me what makes my clients tick; they also give me a clear sense of whether or not we’re going to work well together.

Visual Access

This project is quite different from the first with respect to both its layout and overall function.

b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL3_3A.jpgb_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL3_3B.jpgInterestingly, the focus in this case shifted once the design process began:  The space seen here – a side yard – wasn’t under consideration because my clients were concerned mainly with the front yard.  Once they saw what I suggested for this small space, however, they completely transferred their attention to that area, and it’s now their favorite among all of the home’s exterior areas.

The garden begins just past a custom fence and moon-gate treatment at the sidewalk on one side of the lot.  The idea was to create the illusion of enclosure and privacy while in fact allowing passersby to see clearly into the garden beyond the fence.  Also, I’m always looking for ways to link architecture with gardens, and in this case, a main window looking out from the clients’ office is on axis with the gate.

b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL3_3C.jpgb_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200903Laughlin_200903RL3_3D.jpgI spent a great deal of time developing the fence and gate, which is something of a synthesis of structures I’ve seen in person and others I found in Japanese Garden Design, a book by Marc Peter Keane (Charles E. Tuffe Co., 1996).  I’m a voracious reader, and Keane’s discussion of Japanese gardens is truly outstanding.  Images in the book not only infused my thinking about the fence and gate, but also inspired the stone path that leads to a blue stone patio adjacent to the house.

The trick with this design was to find a way to make it look bigger than it actually is.  To that end, I used forced perspective:  As you pass through the gate, you encounter several large plant and stone elements; in the garden beyond, however, the plantings and stones gradually become smaller to create an illusion of space.  That effect is advanced further by the path, which starts out wide and then narrows as you round a small bend on the way to the patio.

I include some form of water in as many of my projects as possible.  The small size of this garden called for a diminutive waterfeature in the form of a basalt water column.  It’s just about four feet high, but it makes a lovely sculptural statement and you can hear it (but not yet see it) when you enter through the gate and start moving along the path.

One of the challenges of working on small urban properties such as this one is that you’re almost always faced with rectangular spaces.  As I did here, I try to disrupt that feeling of being boxed in with angled or sweeping planting patterns and pathways that break the obvious geometry.  It’s not always easy to do, but when it works, you create wonderful spaces.

Once I have this information in hand, I spend a great deal of time in the space, evaluating it relative to what my clients have told me.  I deliberately soak in all the sights, sounds and smells, and every time I go back, it seems that I observe things I hadn’t sensed before.  That’s when my design concepts really start to take form.

The best projects, the ones that generate the most creative ideas, are those, I believe, in which the clients take an active role in design development.  This is why, through the years, I’ve become very selective in deciding which projects I’ll tackle:  Input from clients always leads me to very specific visualizations and sets of design elements, and if my counterparts are anything less than fully engaged, the process simply doesn’t work as well as it should.  On the flip side, when the clients get involved, they’re far more likely to develop emotional attachments to their gardens and ultimately will do better jobs of maintaining these spaces as time goes by.

Also, establishing a positive rapport is crucial in that clients must become accustomed to my presence in their lives for extended periods of time.  Great gardens, even small ones, don’t appear in a matter of a few days:  The process takes time to unfold, and for me to do my best work, I have to feel comfortable absorbing everything on the property.

This is such a focus for me that, as is true of other landscape designers and watershapers I know, I become close friends with many of my clients.  Not only does this make the process more pleasant, but it also helps in that I feel free to revisit gardens months or even years later to see how the choices we’ve made are withstanding the tests of time.


One of the most gratifying elements of that journey I’ve undertaken is that I’ve discovered that I’m not alone on this path.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many others who are, in their own ways, on similar voyages of exploration.  And I’m always gladdened by interacting with friends and acquaintances, new and old, who are happy to share what they know.  This camaraderie is yet another cherished item on the list of life experiences I bring to the design process.

Although everything in what I do is about influences – parents, relations, colleagues, nature, design masters, clients, architecture and travels to great gardens – what I enjoy most about recognizing this background is the fact that it imposes no limitations on what I do or can imagine:  My projects always seem to lead me in new and different directions, and, 15 years into my personal journey, I am still and will always be learning – and translating what I discover to my clients and their projects.

I couldn’t ask for more.


Rick Laughlin is the owner and principal at Laughlin Design Associates, a landscape design firm catering to residential clients in Salt Lake City.  A lifelong student of  nature and the arts, Laughlin received a degree in wildlife management from Virginia Tech University and has spent the years since graduation developing a highly personal approach to design that informs all of his client relationships and projects.  As a child, he was inspired by his family’s love of landscaping, gardening and nature and has always sought fresh ideas through continuing education, voracious reading and extensive travel.  He is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the Society of Garden Designers and is also a certified member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.  Laughlin also promotes the art of landscape design by teaching classes at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy Garden.

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