Designer Crush: Katharine Webster

1. When did you become interested in exterior design and what intrigued you about it versus other kinds of design?
Every summer I retreated with my family to their 1894 year old home on Mosholu Point in Ontario, Canada, a stark contrast to a childhood spent in the factory scape of northern New Jersey. The old Adirondack-style camp in its rustic, pastoral setting, with classic lines, and simple grace inspired me just as much as the artful web of metal of industrial New Jersey.
My worldview expanded in Switzerland with European influences, decorative arts, and one of the world’s most pristine and majestic landscapes. A degree in American studies and minor in environmental sculpture at Colby College followed, and then a job at famed sculptor, Jackie Winsor in her New York studio. I thrived in the intensity of sculpture, but found it not to be the right medium, and a job in architecture was too confining given my affinity with nature, so I pursued a masters degree in landscape architecture at Harvard.
I interned with Bruce Kelly and David Varnell, disciples of the Olmstead tradition in New York City, and worked for the Central Park Conservancy installing the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park before attending graduate school. In between my summers at Harvard, I interned in San Francisco and thereafter moved to the West Coast and starting my own firm in 2000.
2. You love finding “elegant solutions to tricky situations;” what’s the trickiest situation you’ve encountered in your work thus far, and how did you solve it?
We recently had a tricky situation with a roof terrace for a San Francisco project. When working​ in the city on urban spaces, it is important that you have a very clear sense of purpose and programming. Space is at a premium in SF, and as we build upward, and real estate values for exterior spaces are increasing, we need to work more closely on the integration of spaces.
Weight and integration are always the first things that come to mind when planning for tight exterior spaces, decks, and balconies. Weight is usually considered out of necessity, but not always when it comes to the conceptual stages when integration of design elements and drainage/utilities. It is not widely known that if the weight is spread out over the deck space, it will prove to be a more successful design, instead of a series of objects in space. I know this sounds boring, but who wants to see pipes, irrigation and transformers on a deck! If you hide these systems, the space will appear clean and crisp thus making for a more successful design.
We also had to make sure that the plants can withstand wind, shade and minimal water — key challenges in the city. We also need root space and good drainage to properly grow plants. This​ can be hard to come by when large retaining walls have structural concrete footings that compete for root space.
3. What differentiates your vision for outdoor living and what do you aim to achieve for every client?
I don’t use the same formula for every client. I aim to create an indoor/outdoor atmosphere that transforms everyday habits for the client that enhances their lifestyle, is aesthetically pleasing, layered and enduring. By creating an expression of the architecture in its surroundings through a thoughtful process and discovery, I have personally developed a process to connect with our clients in a new way — we ask what are they trying to address or what do they want to add more of in their lives? Is it downtime, connection with family and friends? Is it playtime with pets or screening a view? Sometimes it can be creating new daily habits. Or it might be unplugging from digital life and keeping the teenagers interested, and at home.
By transforming your built environment, you can enhance your lifestyle and daily living patterns. By blurring the lines and bringing the outdoors in (or the inside out) we can make new life goals. Having more fresh air, greenery and connection to nature has many wonderful health attributes. The fact that the horizon line and the sky are endless provides an ever expansiveness and opening up of one’s self.
4. What are some of your biggest sources of inspiration and why?
I have always been inspired by the breathtakingly beautiful design of the Victorian boathouses that were built as part of “The Gilded Age” in Canada. The sculptural forms of the boathouses, stone pump houses and seawalls were noteworthy not only for their beauty, but for their function.
My grandmother, Jean Webster surrounded herself with antiques, collected on various trips to England, that populated her large, dark house in New Jersey. The collection of porcelain, brass candlesticks and oriental rugs were an inspiration to me, and my father was also collector of antiques and rugs. He worked in finance, having majored in art history, and was a big inspiration with his knowledge of architecture and design. My mother loved the softer things, flowers, and textiles in contrast.
5. What are some of the best ways to personalize an outdoor living space to make it feel truly unique?
Having lived on both coasts as well as in Europe, I see how outdoor living has become the new center of landscape design, where gardens, pools and terraces are likened to rooms in a home. We discover how our clients live and what they will be using their outdoor spaces for. For example, will the pool be used purely for swimming, or for lounging around, in the pool, or will it be purely a decorative beautiful pool.
We balance all this information with a careful study of the site context, and the architecture, we determine how the pool will fit in the space. We also have to be very savvy about the plants we chose and how everything works together. The drought is here to stay and we have to be even more creative and sensitive about how everything is planned and assembled as well as an eye for beauty — without projects becoming rock gardens or empty spaces. It’s a real challenge, but once we master it, it will be incredibly rewarding.
6. Are there any exterior design trends you’re ready to see go away?
As I am not a trend follower as such. I design outdoor spaces with longevity, and a timelessness using up to the minute materials and design strategies. I am definitely excited to see more clients viewing their outdoor spaces in a new way. With our encouragement, they can get to spend even more time outside and create an outdoor space that is not just an extension of their house, but integrated. I do like the current “trend” of using prompts from nature to inform the interior.
7. What are your favorite plants and flowers to incorporate into a space and why?
I love the enduring palette of greens. There many hues of green, and chartreuse is one of my favorites. I especially love variegated plants as they are brighteners, something I am particularly interested in, given the San Francisco light. Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ contrasted with deeper green foliage, yellow greens or grey greens can be striking. Silver foliage can also be very striking and brightening; Artemesia and Dusty Miller, Olives and Astelia are great examples.
8. How did your apprenticeship with sculptor Jackie Winsor influence your work?
Jackie Winsor’s use of three-dimensional form, architectural shapes and the carving out of spaces is inspired, and informs many aspects of my work today. Like Jackie, I do not make the usual assumptions about spaces and materials, and look at the spaces around structures to create a space of consequence.
9. What was your brief stint on Wall Street and what motivated you to leave?
After my freshman year in college, I had a summer job working for a well known Wall Street executive where I was “Jane” of all trades. Thrown into a culture that was not perhaps for me, I was given a great glimpse of a fast paced, fast talking environment, not to mention a quick lesson in Wall Street slang. However, I knew that my brain worked differently, and I would not be following in my father’s and brother’s footsteps.

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